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

By Kephart, Beth | Science & Spirit, March-April 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Kephart, Beth, Science & Spirit


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.