Over Our Dead Bodies: Conventional Wisdom Holds That We Are Afraid of Dying and That Religion Helps Assuage Those Fears. Now, Empirical Evidence Seems to Show That Reminders of Our Mortality Cause Us to Lash out Violently at Those Who Threaten Not Only Our Lives, but Also Our Belief Systems

Article excerpt

We'll do just about anything to keep thoughts of our own death at bay. We'll clog our calendars with the commitments only the living can get done. We'll yield our imaginations to mawkish late-night television. We'll jump out of planes, scale icy cliffs, and otherwise laugh in the face of gravity. Dying is for others, we like to think and say, and we will not concede. We will build big buildings; we will forge great art; we will raise up children; we shall plant a tender bit of something in the ground and take care that it becomes a tree.

Of course, no amount of bravura can obscure our mortality. We're too smart an animal; we are bombarded by too much news. We know that children are being gunned down in perfectly pleasant suburban schools, that villagers are being set on fire, that planes can be maneuvered into soaring city towers, that bombs fall from the sky. We know that people just like you and me, with families just like yours and mine, have finally succumbed. We know the clock is inexorably ticking.

Wanting desperately to survive, all too certain that we will not, we alone among the animals hold these warring thoughts inside our heads. Bliss is forgetting, life is knowing; and life, therefore, is riddled with anxiety. Anxiety, in its turn, creates instability, and instability opens the door to volatility. And when we're not careful, when we fail to hold ourselves in check, we step across the line and yield to the darker side of our given natures--to anger, to confrontation, and, ultimately, to violence.

"The theory of generative death anxiety points us toward a primitive contradiction in our human nature--the overriding biological survival instinct as it confronts the cognitive awareness of our mortal nature," says Daniel Liechty, who has degrees in both historical theology and peace studies and is currently a professor of social work at Illinois State University.

This contradiction, he says, is the point "from which the most sublime, creative, and spiritually uplifting aspects of our nature emerge, but from where equally the most primitively reactive, paranoid, and violent aspects of our nature emerge.

"If we at least begin to understand the psychological, emotional, and spiritual puppet strings that have us dancing in certain predictable patterns across human history," Liechty contends, "we at least have a better chance of setting limits on our violence than would be the case otherwise." In essence, if we can find constructive means of dealing with the innate conflict of our doomed existence, rather than destructive ones, we may be able to coexist in peace.

Over the last twenty years, three social psychologists have been recasting the psychology of terror in light of Liechty's theory of generative death anxiety and a more general theory of human nature. The origin of terrorism, they say, can be traced to the ever-present specter of death. Tom Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, and Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona have empirically tested what they call "terror management theory," or TMT, in six different countries, and in all of them, they claim, it illuminates why "hatred toward those who are different from oneself is rooted, at least in part, in basic fears that are inherent in the human condition." And, they say, it offers an intriguing way of thinking about how the hovering inevitability of death affects the way we live and seek to protect our inescapably ephemeral lives.

Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg are not the first social scientists to suggest an ever-present fear of death impacts our lives. Indeed, the matter was of compelling concern to Ernest Becker back in the 1950s. A cultural anthropologist credited with developing the science of evil, Becker was interested in the belief systems that human beings construct in order to give their own lives meaning. No belief system is terror-proof, Becker argued in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, but essential social relationships, such as romantic partnerships, play critical roles in shielding us from death anxiety by enhancing our sense of self-worth and giving our lives true meaning. …