(On February 24-25, 2017, the writers of this post are holding a symposium in Atlanta on the topic of how our destructive behavior toward our fellow animals and the planet is driven by anxiety over our own mortality and our consequent denial of death. Sheldon Solomon will be one of the speakers.)
In his last book, Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker wrote:
Mortality is connected to the natural, animal side of [human] existence; and so man reaches beyond and away from that side. So much so that he tries to deny it completely.
As soon as man reached new historical forms of power, he turned against the animals with whom he had previously identified—with a vengeance, as we now see, because the animals embodied what man feared most, a nameless and faceless death.
Forty years ago, when Escape from Evil was published, Becker could not have imagined where this truth might be leading – or how quickly.
The most recent Living Planet Index concludes that global wildlife populations have fallen by 58 percent since 1970, and that the decline is on track to reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.
Another report shows that more than 300 kinds of mammals – from hippos to rhinos, and gorillas to camels – are being eaten to extinction. And sport and trophy hunting have left elephants, lions and most of the other great iconic species of Africa hanging on by a thread.
Richard Beck, the author of The Slavery of Death [Eugene, OR, Cascade Books, 2014], is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, a school affiliated with the Christian Churches, a self-described “evangelistic and Bible-based” denomination that believes in returning to the original teachings and practices of the New Testament. If, like me at the outset, you think that might be an unlikely place to find an appreciation of Ernest Becker’s work, think again. Beck has written a profound study of the place of death and death denial in contemporary life and Christian practice, and he draws heavily on the work of Becker, as well as the confirmatory empirical research of Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues.
Beck examines Becker’s notion of the role of self-esteem and “cultural hero systems” in allowing us to repress our fear of death, thereby closing us off, both from the realization of our true, vulnerable, existential situation, as well as from understanding and appreciating the worldviews of various outgroups. Beck understands and endorses Becker’s insight that the neurotic anxiety that underlies our death denial can all too easily spill over into violence, as we try to maintain our own heroism and our own self-esteem. One need look no further than the 2016 election campaign with its camps of “elites” (the successful cultural heroes), and the “left-behinds,” who feel that their cry for self-esteem is not being heard by the dominant culture; as we have seen, violence is often just beneath the surface.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) states humans have an unconscious existential anxiety arising from awareness of morality. In an attempt to buffer ourselves from this anxiety we create cultures to give life meaning. Our contributions to these cultures (e.g. inventions, novels, policies, etc.) are a means of living on symbolically after physical death. So when someone threatens our culture, they threaten us, which explains why people are prejudiced towards other cultures, races and ethnicities.
Initially, Terror Management Theory aroused defensiveness in me, on a personal level and as if I were defending society in North America. How could fear of death play such an important yet discreet role in culture? How could we elect incompetent politicians just because they promise to protect us from threats? How could my noble artistic aspirations be influenced by a pitiful fear of dying?
After setting sensitivity aside, I embarked on a project for the Ernest Becker Foundation to categorize academic research into important social issues such as women’s rights, racism, terrorism, criminal justice and mental health. In the process of reading research abstracts, I came to understand the profound influence of death anxiety on how people see different cultures, religions, policies and themselves.
Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently completing (with Jeannine Brown) a theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).
What is the demographic of the students you teach in terms of age and background?
It’s a fascinating mix. United is a small seminary, and a stand-alone seminary in that it’s not connected to a university and it was begun with intentionally loose denominational ties so it would have an ecumenical flavor. But as a historic mainline protestant school, of course it attracts students from the mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have a vibrant Unitarian Universalist presence as well. But we’re also seeing growth in students from non-denominational and progressive evangelical backgrounds, as well as Catholic students, non-Christian students, and a number of students who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition (i.e. the “nones”).
As far as age, the students at United tend to be a little older than is typical for seminary (the average age of a United student is around 45). Students come from all walks of life; some have been in active ministry positions and are just getting around to formal seminary training. I would say the majority of students that I’ve encountered at United however, have significant life experience post-college before they start their seminary career intensively. That life experience adds a wealth of insight to the classroom dynamic.
With time to spare before a flight out of Pisa, I recently looked in on the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the famous tower of Pisa leans. The Piazza is the size of a football stadium. A medieval wall encloses a cathedral, a baptistery, the tipsy bell tower, a green lawn, and a humungous crowd. At first glance it’s sacred Disneyland. But there’s much more going on than meets the eye.
We depend on habit and familiarity to make overwhelming reality user friendly. Like a factory, habit uses repetition to make us productive—you don’t have to think about tying your shoelaces. But habit also imprisons us. To grow, to solve new problems, you need to “break” clunky old habits. The ultimate problem, that everything changes and dies, can make your everyday life feel like a lifeless habit.
Wonder opens an escape tunnel out of the prison of routine. The use of “awesome” or “fabulous” as an all-purpose grunt of approval shows how important wonder is. Slang is trying to force amazement and awe into everyday life. Tourism likewise organizes wonder to be a handy product. The trouble is, escape from habit into amazement or wonder can mean blowing your mind, which may feel ecstatic—or terrifying. So tourism usually promises that you’ll experience “awe” from a comfortable mental couch—like TV.
One afternoon last year local police pulled me over. When I said hello and asked what was wrong (inspection sticker out of date—duh), the cop ignored me and stuck to his script (“Let me see your registration,” etc.). In a crime novel he would have had “steely blue” eyes. He seemed ridiculously grim, as if arresting a murderer. It was partly self-importance—the rapture of a uniform and a badge. But what most struck me was his icily impersonal manner.
Being aggressively impersonal allows you to dominate someone from behind a mask, as if the Law, not you, is making the demands. You’re just doing your heroic duty while the Law commands the other person like a slave.
This is puzzling because impersonal correctness is a management technique used to insure efficiency, objectivity and fairness. If all officers follow the script, there’s less likelihood of abuse, incompetence, or misinterpretation. It’s industrial technology: you write a program and it carries out a particular task as if by magic. In factories this works brilliantly. Machines and workers programmed like machines repeat prescribed steps over and over, producing more stuff at lower cost. In your personal life, a strict program may take you to an otherwise unreachable goal. The right routine can free you to create.
Dr. James Salwitz
David was 42 when he died from stomach cancer. He spent the last year of life receiving useless chemotherapy and debilitating radiation. More important, David was in terrible pain, all the time. He lay in bed for agonized months, as the cancer destroyed his ribs, back and lungs. Finally, David was rushed to a hospital, plugged into a breathing machine and invaded by countless IVs. Agitated, in pain, he died despite a futile storm of tests, drugs and several rounds of rib-cracking CPR.
His wife, previously positive, happy and successful, never recovered. She quit work, drank heavily, and spun into a therapy-resistant depression. 12 months later, she used those same pills to take her life.
At the time of David’s death, his son was 17. The teenager found comfort in the kind of pharmaceutical intervention that come from bottle and needle. A high school dropout, he was in jail by 20, and although paroled at 23, found the streets too much. Back in prison by 26, his life dissolved to rubble.
David’s suffering, poorly controlled during that precious last year of life, and the tragedy of his last days, were a direct result of the failure to plan for the inevitable and the inexcusable negligence of his caregivers to provide comfort. That misery transferred to those he loved. David’s pain continued after death.
Everyone wants to be rescued. It could be Tarzan plucking you out of the croc’s jaws. Or someone loaning you $5. Praise for some virtue or talent can rescue your self-esteem from self-doubt or depression. A new lover may save you from loneliness or the terror of rejection and self-disgust. Romance promises to rescue you from the tedium of yourself or the monotonous people around you.
You get the picture.
The idea of rescue seems to be built into us. We are among the most social animals on earth, and after all, what are friends for? They’re folks you’d rescue and count on to rescue you. In politics, progressives believe people come together to save each other. Conservatives imagine that you save yourself.
In the big bad world, “warriors” save you. In psychosis and some religions, messiahs play a leading role. A St Bernard with a cask of hootch under his chin answers if you phone in an avalanche. If you’re over troubled waters, you can count on “God” or belief in God. If you’re rescuing a needy and hung-up lover, heroic rescue can make you feel ten feet tall till you hit your head on a door lintel one time too many.
In the mock travel narrative, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift chastises humanity for hostile behavior, believing that people capable of reason fail to act reasonably when blinded by their personal illusions of reality. More than two centuries after Gulliver’s Travels was written, Ernest Becker also perceived a link between illusion and violence. Becker theorized that humans, terrified of their inevitable death, create a world of symbols, or immortality ideologies, that give their lives meaning and stability. Our need to conceal our death anxiety is so powerful that we often become intolerant of people with ideologies that threaten our own. Although living in different centuries and nations, Becker and Swift commonly found frustration in mankind’s inability to see reality and failure to reach its highest potential.
To show readers the danger of distorted reason, Swift uses satire to call attention to paradoxes, hoping to reveal the absurdity in certain accepted beliefs and behaviors. In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver enters the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he finds himself surrounded by difficult paradoxes, many of which are self-inflicted. He encounters two new groups of beings: one appears to have reason and one does not. Gulliver’s fear of insignificance among these groups drives him to blindly follow the individuals with reason, ironically leading him to become completely unreasonable. We, like Gulliver, experience many paradoxes in our lives. We are born only to die, and by attempting to conquer our anxiety, we make the world a more menacing place. However, by using self-analysis, unlike Gulliver, we can see the absurdity in our situation. By wrestling with our fears rather than denying them, we can analyze our behavior without dangerous bias, allowing us to experience our knowledge of death as a method of embracing life.
Turn on CNN any night of the week and you’d think you were watching “Escape from Evil, the Movie”. It’s not about theory any more. It’s not an armchair discussion. The armchair is at the controls of a tank. Case in point — after writing that last sentence, I clicked over to check my email and found a link to the breaking story of a suicide bombing in Istanbul staring back at me from the top of the page. The picture on this page is from that story. If I want a different picture, I’ll be able to check again tomorrow and find a new one, with a new story behind it. Carnage, masked men waving automatic weapons in the air, American crowds demanding “no entry” for Muslims, the body of a refugee child who died trying to escape the war zone – the pictures are easy to find — too easy. So what has this got to do with Ernest Becker? Everything.
Becker’s central point in Escape from Evil, that our need to deny our own deaths and helplessness is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, with destructive results, has seldom been so clearly in the headlines. The line between religious, political and ethnic groups has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. Accusations that Islam is a “political system masquerading as a religion” are answered by Jihadist fears that Western economic and political muscle will spell the end to their “way of life” (a term that signals dangerous ground whenever it is used). All sides concerned believe that they are doing God’s will, substituting concepts such as “Liberty”, “Freedom” or “The American Way” for the Supreme Being in the slightly more secular West. Either way, it’s all about identity, what Becker called the “hero project.” The individual becomes a hero by sacrificing all for the group, killing its symbolic enemies and risking or losing their own life in the process. The fact that one can deny their own death by literally, actually dying is probably the hardest piece to grasp in this scenario, but the most important if we are to understand it.