Vancouver Sun

Humble people more ready for death: SFU conference

corybeckersite | August 17, 2015

Humble people, who don’t have inflated egos, are more comfortable with death. That’s one of the fascinating research findings to be discussed at a public conference on death on October 2nd and 3rd at Simon Fraser University.

The conference will revolve around the work of arguably SFU’s most famous professor, radical anthropologist Ernest Becker. {Readers should feel free to try to disabuse me of this extreme claim on Becker’s behalf.}

Becker, an American, is the author of The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974. The book won the aware two months after Becker died from colon cancer, cutting short his time at SFU, which began in 1969. The Pulitzer gave Becker’s work a great deal of international recognition.

“In formulating his theories Becker drew on the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm, Hegel, and especially Otto Rank,” says Wikipedia.

“Becker came to believe that individual character is essentially formed around the process of denying one’s own mortality, that this denial is a necessary component of functioning in the world, and that this character-armor masks and obscures genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.”


SFU’s October conference, titled Death Ideologies and Culture: The Legacy of Ernest Becker, is sponsored in part by SFU’s vibrant Institute for the Humanities. Go here for more details.

One section of the conference will explore five studies looking at the relationship between humility, egocentricism and the acceptance of death.

As a result of this research, Becker scholar Pelin Keseber concludes that “the dark side of death anxiety is brought about by a noisy ego only – and not be a quiet ego. This reveals self-transcendence is a sturdier, healthier anxiety buffer than self-enhancement.”

Some of the conference presenters are leaders in their field, such as Buddhist scholarDavid Loy, Skidmore College psychology profess Sheldon Solomon, Vancouver psychologist and LSD pioneer Andrew Feldmar  and several psychoanalytic thinkers associated with SFU, including Jack Martin and Hilda Fernandez.

Here’s another subject that Vancouver-based organizer and presenter Larry Green, a Vancouver psychotherapist and psychology instructor, says will be explored at The Legacy of Ernest Becker event:

The conference will appeal to both academics and concerned citizens as it offers one way to understand ideological conflict and “clashes of civilizations.”

Vancouver psychotherapist Larry Green says Becker taught that some ideological conflicts “occur because people’s allegiances to their ‘in-group’ help ward off their death anxiety.”

According to Becker these conflicts occur because people’s allegiances to their ‘in-group’ help ward off their death anxiety.

Anything that unconsciously brings their mortality close to awareness also brings with it a tendency to value members of one’s ‘in-group’ more highly and rate ‘outsiders’ more pejoratively. This is because the outsider, foreigner or “other” is experienced as an existential threat.

People derive their sense of well being through their ideological identifications, Becker taught. Therefore, when their ideology is critiqued it is equivalent to an attack on their sense of reality.  Identity politics is one manifestation of this tendency….

In addition, there will be some presentations at the conference that will focus on the characteristics and dispositions of people who accept their mortality without having to disparage the “other”.


Here’s a quote I appreciate from participating Buddhist scholar David Loy, who is also highly familiar with process philosophy.

In this quote Loy challenges those who breezily dismiss all religion as inherently wrong-headed or evil, particularly because religion often includes notions of an afterlife:

Becker offers a powerful critique of religion: its attempts to evade death end up crippling life. But is that its only role?
Yet religions are not only umbrellas to ward off the overpowering light of a truth we cannot cope with, or ideological drugs to dull and control the masses.Sympathetic evaluations of Becker’s work often present religious worldviews as exclusively defensive, in that their “vital lie” protects us against a harsh reality we cannot endure.

At their best they also provide paths for self-transformation that instruct us not only how to live in the world but how to change ourselves so that we live in the world more consciously.

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