Sep 17, 2011

Philosophical Phun - Denial of Death

The Denial of Death, by Earnest Becker, 1972.  His thesis (which builds on the work of Freud and Otto Rank) is that as mortal but conscious mammals, we are aware of the horrific reality that we will someday cease to exist. All of our personal investments, memories, friends, aspirations, and goals perish along with us. That truth is so immensely difficult, so all-consuming, that it dominates our psychology and is at the root of just about all of that we do.  

And its why we feel guilty. But what is guilt? Where does it come from? According to Becker, guilt is partially fed by the realization of all the life we know we’re not going to be able to live and by the fear that death my visit us on a schedule that doesn’t coincide with ours. Becker writes:

“To lie to oneself about one’s own potential development is another cause of guilt. It is one of the most insidious daily inner gnawings a person can experience. Guilt, remember, is the bind that man experiences when he is humbled and stopped in ways that he does not understand, when he is overshadowed in his energies by the world. But the misfortune of man is that he can experience this guilt in two ways: as bafflement from without and from within—by being stopped in relation to his own potential development. Guilt results from unused life, from ‘the unlived in us.’”

In a recent article for the Catholic periodical First Things, Wilfred McClay tackles the problem.  The demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them. The sheer number of guilt-inducing social responsibilities alone are overwhelming. Recycle more, drive less (and only a hybrid), help the poor, make sure your kids read, exercise, don’t buy a big house, do buy a small car, buy organic, buy local, buy fair trade, help the needy, walk for the cure, work more, work less, neuter and spay, vote democrat, and on and on it goes. As McClay points out, much of these are good ideas in general. But they’re presented as true moral options and choosing wrongly carries deep moral weight and because of that, guilt. Yet without a clear moral foundation on which to place the moral burden, the cognitive dissonance one must conjure up can be maddening—literally.

The bigger problem, says McClay, is that there is no clear path to alleviating all this growing guilt. We moderns have had to come up with all sorts of creative ways to salve the thousands of psychological cuts that threaten mental breakdown including inventing or transferring a certain amount of victimhood onto ourselves in order to establish a basis for excusing our intangible moral failings. The oppressor becomes the responsible one and the victim, as innocent, is released from the burden of guilt.

The reason theism works is because God’s forgiveness can allow us to bypass all the labor and burden of having to overcome the basis for our guilt (which, theists argue, we could never do anyway) and “relieve the debt” in one fell swoop, for now and for eternity. One’s guilt is relieved by believing that God has forgiven sins and this “works” as a psychological heuristic even if there actually is no God.

But this demonstrates that ideas are powerful things and if theism as an idea is powerful enough to help us manage guilt, maybe there are other ideas that are just as powerful and even more effective. 



  1. That's very interesting, and I definitely agree with the premise. The basis of religion is to focus and control the guilt and fear into making people do things they might not normally do if they had that fear and guilt. I mean, why would anyone do the "right thing" if in the end, you're just dead and forgotten anyway. There would be no growth of society. Unfortunately, over time, religion has ceased to only work on the philosophical, and has crept into our everyday, and now even our political arenas. And the downward spiral begins anew...

  2. I don't think the ORIGIN of religion is necessarily to make people do things as I believe religion as practiced by the major monotheistic religions seek to control for the sake of POWER. The so-called primitive, earth-based religions sought to replenish life and to accept ones part of a cycle.

    If the pursuit of power is a 'sin', it is my belief that religion, which is a construct that separates men and leverages the mystery of death for a position of power. It takes man out of the equation by not making him responsible for 'life' and his place in it by giving him a position that he may not have originally been intended to occupy.

    Religion, which makes little cognitive sense, is not about the redemption of man's soul as it is a weapon for the weak to overcome the strong. It is in this aspect I DO agree with some of Ayn Rand's philosophy.

  3. Interesting. but for sure knowing we will cease to exist as we know it is sometimes disheartening for us humans, where the animal just keep going living for the present.

    See you in a week, we're off to see the Wizard on a Ship.
    Sherry & Jack

  4. Very thought provoking indeed. I would write an equally thought-provoking response, but I really should be doing something else I promised I'd take care of before......arrghhh!!!! Too many commitments!!!

    Seriously...interesting. Thanks.

  5. Ken, I agree with your supposition that since theism is an idea that makes this work, other ideas could also fill the same role, to yield the same end.


Tell Me What You Think, Don't Make me go Rogue on you :o)