Faith and the Fear of Death

Jonathan Jong in The New Atlantis:

The line primus in orbe deos fecit timor — “fear first made gods in the world” — appears in at least two Latin poems in the first century. Earlier it was expressed with great aplomb in Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things. For Lucretius, as for many thinkers since, what terrifies us is nature — the fickleness of seed and season, the wrath of storm and sea. At least since Freud, however, the fear of death, or cessation of the self, has been a more common theoretical fascination — “Man’s tomb is the sole birthplace of the gods,” according to Ludwig Feuerbach. I picked up the idea from a group of psychologists working on what they called “terror management theory,” an attempt to explain human behavior in terms of responses to the fear of death. They in turn had picked the idea up from Ernest Becker, an American cultural anthropologist working in the Sixties and early Seventies.

Becker’s book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction just two months after he died of cancer, aged forty-nine. The book advanced the theory that the knowledge and fear of death is humanity’s central driving force, underlying civilization and all human achievement. According to Becker, we are unique among animals in our awareness of our mortality. This knowledge leads us to construct systems of values — theological, moral, political, cultural, scientific — through which we can deny our finitude. All endeavors within these systems are attempts to obtain immortality, whether literal or symbolic. The terror management theorists turned Becker’s sweeping analysis into a scientific theory amenable to empirical testing. One experiment in a 1989 study involved twenty-two municipal court judges who were asked to set bail in the case of a hypothetical woman charged with prostitution. The judges were given identical prosecutor’s notes describing the case, but half of the judges, randomly selected, also received instructions to imagine and write about what dying would be like and how these thoughts about death made them feel. The other half were spared any prompted thoughts about mortality. While the judges in the neutral condition set bail at an average of $50, the judges who were asked to contemplate death set bail at $455, over nine times higher. The researchers concluded that this showed that thinking about death made the judges more punitive against someone accused of violating a moral norm, confirming the idea that strengthening moral norms is part of what we do when we are anxious about our finitude.

More here.