SocraticGadfly: Fear of death, or of dying? And why does this trouble conservative Xns?

May 30, 2015

Fear of death, or of dying? And why does this trouble conservative Xns?

This new Atlantic piece, about thinking about death and how that has changed over generations, centuries and millennia, got me to thinking about related issues, as indicated by the header.

How much are we modern Westerners afraid of death and how much are we afraid of dying? In other words, how much do we fear the end of this life's existence (and, if you're a confirmed materialist, the end of any human life's existence), and how much do we fear the pains of dying, at least from certain types of death?

I agree with articles like this about how we don't memento mori much today, probably in part due to the near-elimination of childhood diseases. I also agree that atheism, because it represents a view that we are ... mortal! ... is a version of reviving memento mori.

Further confirmation for these ideas come from this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, also about the same three psychologists. They talk about the "terror of death," and how it has not only driven religious belief, but many actions based on that belief, from the building of the Pyramids to the deliberately crashed planes of 9/11, for good and for evil.

Speaking of ...

There was a big article, about a month ago, related to that, based on a research paper, about religious people associating atheists with "death" and thus feeling antagonistic toward them on this ground.

I taught a college class on death and dying, and it was an adult continuing education class, not one for new high school graduates. Everybody was 40 or older. I was upfront with the students about being a secularist. This being in the Rust Belt, most of the white and all of the Hispanic students were Catholic. Of the couple of black students, I think they were evangelical Protestant types, but not the most conservative ones. We had a couple of New Agey types, including one who identified as Wiccan. And, a lot of the Christians had a lot of "generic American religion" ideas. No Muslims or Jews that I was aware of, or members of Eastern faiths.

Perhaps because I was the instructor, perhaps because I wasn't at all strident about my secularism, and I think only once used the word "atheist," I must not have challenged people's fears of death too much. But, today, I can see that as possible.

What’s really funny about all of this is that conservative Christians, if anybody, should be the most unafraid of death. After all, especially if they buy into “faith alone,” they’ve got a guaranteed ticket to paradise.

Unless they’re not sure about it, and as a result don't want to think about it, in which case we just opened a big old can of “faith alone” whup-ass.

And, that's what I think we have. Upper-middle-class megachurch Protestants are thinking about the success gospel, as are New Agers in their own way. Conservative evangelical Protestants are thinking about the culture wars. Liberal Catholics and Protestants are thinking, if not always exactly the same, about social issues. Conservative Catholics? Some are joining the conservative Protestants in the culture wars. Others, mainly immigrants, are holding on to cultural traditions from the homeland in a different type of conservativism.

That said, they all COULD think about death more. But, the success gospel types are like Jesus parable of the rich landlord farmer in Luke fixated in building bigger grain bins. The various conservatives have generally bought into identifying Christianity with America, and maybe think they need some works-righteousness from fighting against the nonexistent War on Christmas or whatever. Most liberally religious who are also metaphysically liberal, but not that liberal, are probably afraid to peek behind their own metaphysical curtains too much.

So, people don't meditate on death, and because we don't have deaths from childhood diseases, and we have fewer deaths from accidents than a century ago, and because the euphemized "living room," the former parlor, has been replaced by a funeral parlor, and what I've said about hospitals, nobody faces death on a regular basis.

And, because they're either hypocritical, or more scared than they'd like to admit, they don't want to be reminded of death.

So, we move to dying ... the process of dying.

That said, the modernized West has removed the views of dying from most people. The sick, with some hospice-based exceptions, usually die in hospitals. In turn, that and selective perception bias leave people seeing deaths by accident, deaths by gun violence, and other media-reported deaths regularly, and probably overestimating their likelihood.

And, so, this cuts both ways. We're more detached from "death," but we're more confronted with "dying" in some ways than before.

On the graphic deaths, I think I noted that under selective perception/media bias, increasing fear of dying, not fear of death. I think people's stereotypes about the hospital system, and, despite improvements in knowledge, not knowing much about hospice and related options, has fueled this fear of dying.

As for death, and more specificially,  the idea of memento mori? I don't think we do it that much.

That's contra a Facebook friend. I'm reproducing my side of the dialogue only, since the post, like most of mine on Facebook, was not set to "public."

Santa Muerte? That is at least a partial exception to my statement about death, but per where her worship is most popular, it at the same time confirms my modernized West observations. Well, I guess we could count the Zetas as part of the modernized West, if you will. But, in general, we're talking about a subculture. Santa Muerte, outside the Zetas, is worshiped by other Mexicans not to memorialize death, but to thumb their noses as the institutional Catholic Church precisely because it opposes the cult of Santa Muerte.

Dia de los Muertos? Other than among culturally conservative Hispanic Catholics, I think that's becoming an excuse for an alternative and/or extended and/or souped-up Halloween for some, and a cultural twist on Halloween for others, along with being a tie-in, or throwback, to Mexican culture specifically within the Mexican-American community in the U.S.

Descansos, the Mexican and Mexican-American roadside shrines to the dead? Sure, they hold on among conservative Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics, but that's about it. Beyond that, they're memorializing the already dead. To me, that's a different issue, per my link up top the the memento mori explainer.

And, maybe part of this is part of a larger, continuing belief in "purpose" in life, or teleology, to be more precise. It's something that infuses evolutionary psychology, to the point of totally contaminating Pop Ev Psych. As Michael Ruse notes in this good essay, it's a current that still runs broad and deep through a lot of biology.

It certainly, as he and others note, also spills into Ye Olde Singularity folks, who demonstrate as much of a fear of death after any conservative Christian being confronted with a hardcore atheist. Why else would the likes of Ray Kurzweil spout nonsense that, in some corner of his mind, he knows is not true?

And, anyway, in an America of 315 million and counting, having to face death probably reminds a lot of the people I listed above that they've found little religious-related purpose in life. The success gospel isn't knocking at their door, or they don't think they're winning the culture war, or a hyperfocus on "faith alone" seems a bit sterile, or whatever.

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