The Fear of Death: Part I

Over the years I have read many comments relating the reason for religion to the fear of death. By and large, these comments have been without any strong supportive discussion, either on the nature of the fear of death or the processes of alleviation. Here are a few thoughts I have had on the subject.

Let us look firstly at the nature of the fear of death. Many people I have spoken to say they do not fear death. Yet mostly they mean, ‘I do not fear death as long as it is abstract to me, or appears in the distant future’. Yet if you say to the same people, if a very large man ran into the room brandishing a knife would you be afraid’ They would say, ‘yes’. Afraid of what? ‘Of being hurt or killed’. Now I will back up here because if we are really honest, we only attribute a reason to our fear ad hoc. The fear is directly related to the threat. By this, and sorry if I am taking a long time to attend to what is now well known to undergraduate students as the fight and flight mechanism, we can understand that our minds are strongly wired for reaction to the appearance of threat.

It seems sensible to deduce that the evolutionary process has wired the brain for this response in order that the species will survive. There are some strange aspects to this affect. One is that many young men who have not already passed on their genes seem to be in a state of loss of fear of death or seem to enjoy the feeling of the fear of death, and so entertain high risk taking behaviour. Many of these die without producing off-spring, although many do live long enough to have off-spirng. So the species survives with the ability to avoid death and entertain death at the same time. This changes by the time males are over 25 years od age, and I suspect, when they have offspring (although of the latter there may be confounding historical evidence so culture may play a very important role). Still I think we can confidently say that fear is, essentially, fear of death, a hard wired mechanism to ensure the survival of the species and the potential for a long lifespan allows the adaptive process for long nurturing of offspring, and, by extension, the whole community.

The adaptive process is very important in this discussion. For while fear gets us off the block and running, in this endeavour to be the most adaptable species on the planet, the development of our brain’s neocortex over the past 2 million years, has provided us computing power to inspire us to be the most adaptable species in the galaxy (and Why not?, the Universe). So how has this adaptability been harnessed? And here come the key role of religion.

My reading suggests that at some stage, the evolution of the neocortex created the insight that we also will become like a person who had died, lifeless. To the extent we have evidence from several tens of thousands of years ago, the first glimmerings of religion was the care of the body of the dead person and some ritualised grieving and good bying. The reason’s we needed to this is as complex as the total psychology that the neocortex has induced, and to couch it in terms of fear of death alone would be trite. For example, death was everywhere for the ‘caveman’. Fear would normally be a short term arousal around an event. But once an insight from memory and self reflection had developed, fear may well become a constant aspect of life. We see this today in the abundance of anxiety disorders, how fear can become a habit of our internal life. The potential inadequacy that such constant fear would induced in the homo sapien would create problems for personal safety and food supply. Without adaptability to this state of being, Homo sapiens may not have survived this stage of cognitive development.

Yet some early human’s, perhaps even one, had the additional insight that the best way to deal with death among the clan, was to orchestrate a goodby, admit that we will all follow that path, and maybe intmate that the consciousness, the life, that is not within the body, has now moved to another place. I can imagine that early religion attributing that other place as an easy hunting ground with no predators. Thus religion not only started but would have quickly recognised the great governing power such stories provided by which the clan could get bigger, more organised, safer, and mentally healthier for being surrounded by death in themselves and other species, everyday. We can certainly see the same trends in our religious and cultural practices around death, today.

However it would be inaccurate to say that where we are today is just the same as then. Certainly our brains don’t seem to have become any bigger, but then, we have plenty of adaptive capacity in there. As those insights we now call religion began to build and motivate the community of homo sapiens, then the religious insights also had to change. It must be fairly clear that an insight by one person is only ever going to be as good as it’s relevance to the knowledge base already existing in the other members of the community. An insight that is too good is useless as an adaptive practice if it makes no sense to anyone eg the earth is round is quite irrelevant to people whose world is as far as they can walk in a generation and that goes up and down and flat occasionally. But eventually a motivated Homo spaiens will reach a point where the old insight is not quite enough to keep them motivated. So the tribe become consumed with wrangles over its authority, its rituals, etc.

I will take up the primary message of Baha’u’llah, here, by suggesting again, that everytime the clan found itself in troublesome stagnation, at least one person was stuck with a level of insight that enabled them to wrestle the ideological control out of the minds of the clan, and replace it with a new invigorating set of constructs. Not so new that they were alien, new enough that the authorities defended against them with ferocity. What does this have to do with the religious repsonse to the Fear of Death?



One thought on “The Fear of Death: Part I

  1. Pingback: Evolution theory supports ‘Manifestations of God’ « Owen’s Meanderings

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