Fear of Death: Part II

In part I, I wrote about the biological nature of the fear of death and its importance in the survival of the species. In Part II I am asking, What does religious insight have to do with the fear of death?

I would like to note that most religious and scientific commentators on this subject find themselves a little lost because they have neither been scientific or religious about the issue. By this I mean that science must not treat religion any more tritely that any other subject their scientific career might depend upon, yet many do. The religious student must have complete faith in God that He is no deceiver, nor every hides the bounty of His blessings of knowledge.  For to be so distrustful of the Creator is tantimount to rejection of God, and well deserves the criticism that they have made God in their own image, while they have no reason to believe in themselves at all. Rather it is important to recognise that the unfoldment of the evolutionary process has created a species with the ability to far over reach our fundamental mammalian responses. Yet nothing in our neocortex provides the content by which to guide its flourishing adaptability.

For purposes here I will accept that the mind is an emerging quality of the neocortex of the brain of homo sapien sapien. However I am not convinced that the emergence of mind was synchronous throughout the new species. At this stage I will draw a longish bow from Baha’u’llah’s teachings on the Manifestations of God by suggesting that there was initially one person of the new species who was born with that extra capacity to build on the inherent powers developing with the neocortex. Perhaps it was, as now, an extraordinary capacity to use voice, and motivate a new behaviour.

Later, as we wrote in part I, the insight about death of others and its reflection in our own natural life, would result in the development of funeral rite. Religion, therefore played an important role in the amelioration of the potentially destructive psychological responses to the fear of death. Religion therefore played a fundamental role in human life, in resolving the tendency for the neocortex to  devote its vast power on whatever information is in front of it, and becoming absorbed in it.

The earlier or older evolved aspects of the homo sapiens are commonly known as the reptilian and paleo-mammalian brains. These are the fundamental drivers of our biological being. The neocortex , that vast computing power, is really not a driver of the biology, but rather a receiver and an amplifier. As  the neocortex developed, as indicted earlier, unless there was some educational feature in the environment, the outgrowth of the neocortex could easily have been the failure of the species. For much of the development of homo sapiens the species has been drawing mostly upon the messages being boosted to the consciousness from the older brain areas. And it is clear from research on habits of thought that most humans spend most of their day thinking about things that older mammals don’t even need to think about: sex, food, grooming. Of course, again, it doesn’t tak a lot of computing power to realise that spending all of the neocortical computing power on sex, food, grooming, is an obsession to social stagnation.  Rather the gradual evolving of the religious ideas, has provided a much needed higher order content for the neocortex, the  mind.

Initially with rites, and then with stories of the sky (the unreachable land of little fires), and then the stories of the dwellers, and then with stories of our past, then the stories of our coming into being, and the Creator, and then with stories of our future, the stories helped the development of our ability to hold the metaphorical, the abstract. Along with the development of language, by the time we learned to write, the rites and stories were becoming increasingly elaborate. And while the tendence for the neocortex is to get somewhat obsessed with its information, the ability of the mind to step away from all information, to look at the unknowable (the future), and in religious terms, the Great Unknowable, the derivative of everything, has been the real source of its inspiration.

Religious ideas initially helped homo sapien to manage his fear of death.  It has used that management to loosen the obsession of the mind around death, and apply the mind to the future, to travel, new spaces, new herbs, new animals. There has always been that balance being found between the new idea and the potential obsession with the old, with the fear of death for survival and  the excitement of the future even death, where everyone survives.

Yet modern religious ideas have taken on additional complexities. At some time the idea of the afterlife as an ameliorator of phobia, became less important. A more complex idea entered religious thought and carries through today. This idea seems determined to reinforce the fear of death. This is, of course, the idea of hell, the afterlife that is hurtful. I will suggest that this idea was brought into play at a time that the progress of society was powerful enough to provide the neocortext with enough material that the fear of death was no longer so significant in any case. This was probably a time in social development in which many, at least the leaders, were well protected from the immediate predators and elements. These people then lost their empathy for all humans in pain and danger. The religious idea that your lack of provision and protection for others will lead to an afterlife of misery for you, restores a necessary element for the progress of society.

Today, Baha’u’llah has turned that on its head again. By teaching that there is no essential heaven or hell, just a state of more near or more far from the Creator, or more approaching or more retreating from the bounties of God, Baha’u’llah has placed the behaviour of our lives in our own hands. This is supported by teachings on the prayful life, education, scientific endeavour, striving to find social mechanisms to bring the world of humanity into a unity. Baha’u’llah’s teachings are directed at minimising the lower brain messages for a more complete observance of higher order messages: metaphor, arts, sciences, communication.

Religion saved humanity from the fear of death. Now saved, religion will be a primary force in the progress of human capacity as a spiritual and technological society.

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