Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Looking Square at Death

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

I’ve already written a fair amount about Richard Beck’s work, including a synopsis of what I’ver read of his Death Trilogy. In case you don’t want to read that, though, here’s an altogether too quick Coles Notes version:

Richard Beck is an experimental psychologist working on the psychology of religion and the fear of death, drawing extensively from the work of Ernst Becker. According to Beck’s studies, most people are intrinsically afraid of death. In order to manage their fear of death, they invest themselves in worldviews which promise that their lives will have some sort of value beyond their death: maybe these worldviews promise a literal afterlife, or maybe they promise that you can live on in your grandchildren, or maybe they promise that you can live on through your achievements. Religion is often such a worldview. Because people deny their fear of death through these worldviews, they defend their worldview against threat as though losing their worldview is a threat to their life. Losing one’s worldview is a psychologically equivalent experience to losing one’s life, in fact. The existence of alternatives to their worldviews can constitute a threat, so people who especially rely on their worldview to avoid acknowledging death can be very hostile to people with different worldviews. For this reason, the fear of death can drive people to bring death and suffering to others. However, not all religious people use their religions to avoid their fear of death; a minority of religious people confront death and doubt directly. This makes them less hostile to alternatives. That said, as much as it is likely better not to deny death through religion, it is impossible to sustain an honest confrontation with death for all of your life, and all people will construct a worldview of some kind, whether they realize it or not. Thus, it is important to build a worldview which is not threatened by the mere existence of other worldviews, so that we do not react with hostility to people who do not agree with us. Only then can we be hospitable to outsiders and loving to those who threaten us. If you’re going to have a worldview anyway, try to have one that helps you be welcoming.

If you’ve been following this whole Taxonomies for Religions series, I’m guessing you can already see the categories I’m going to get from Beck’s work. In this synopsis, we can see two dichotomies. The first is between a) those who tend to use their worldview or religion to deny the fear of death, relying on that worldview’s promise to extend their life past death, and b) those who tend not to use their worldview or religion for such purposes; the second is between a) those worldviews which are threatened by the mere existence of other worldviews and b) those worldviews which are more hospitable.

However, I’ve started noticing limitations in Beck’s work here. As my synopsis and critique argues, it might not be fair to assume that everyone fears death in the first place. Some people—like me—are quite comfortable with the thought that we’ll eventually die. In private correspondence with me, Beck acknowledges as much, noting that his work applies mostly to the majority who do fear death, and not to those of us who don’t. He works on obstacles to love, and for that minority of us the obstacle to love might instead be the experience of the Absurd.* I suppose that our small numbers might explain why so many religions and worldviews are so bad at addressing absurdity rather than mortality as the primary obstacle to love. Nonetheless, this insight gives us another dichotomy: those for whom the primary obstacle to love is the fear of death, and those for whom the primary obstacle to love is the experience of absurdity.

I think I have enough material for some headings for a chart:

These categories are not entirely independent, of course. Beck’s work indicates that those people who use religion to deny the fear of death are much more likely to feel threatened by, and therefore act with hostility towards, people with other worldviews. I’m not sure the correlation is 100%, so there might be a few examples of people who deny death but are very hospitable to those who have fundamentally different worldviews. But one often leads to the other. And, since Beck’s work does not address those whose primary obstacle to love is the experience of absurdity, I can’t say whether the other two columns correlate for such people.

(If you’re familiar with Beck’s work, you might have expected my chart to include mention of his distinction between Summer and Winter Christians. That distinction is good work: Beck notes that while some people tend to assume that complaint about the world indicates disengagement from God, many people are highly engaged with God and highly prone to complaint. These are Winter Christians, the ones who, while experiencing communion with God, more keenly feel the suffering widespread in the world; Summer Christians, meanwhile, feel mostly joy and happiness while in communion with God. I’ve found this dichotomy helpful…but I feel like it’s just a specialization of the above dichotomy, between those who use religion to deny the reality of death and suffering, and those who do not.)

As with the last post, these categories seem to apply to religious people rather than religions; after all, Beck was writing mostly about Christians—or, really, Protestants—of different stripes. It’s a psychological difference that modifies the person’s ideology, not an ideological difference that modifies a person’s psychology. But we can, perhaps, note that some religions are better at supporting some psychologies than others—highly relativistic religions might not prove to be so threatened by outsiders, for instance. When I explained Beck’s work to a friend from Taiwan, she observed that Buddhism and Taoism tend to be quite hospitable to other worldviews; Confucianism, however, is less so. Similarly, we can note that most worldviews primarily address (or deny) the fear of death, but a few, like existentialism/absurdism, address the experience of the absurd.

But let’s go back to the bit about Beck writing mostly on Christians. It’s here that I can see Beck’s investments most clearly. Beck is clearly writing as someone who is already a particular kind of Christian; his motivation is to improve our ability to live out the Gospels and welcome the stranger. As such, he takes as given that moving toward hospitality and love are desirable. His research grows from that. That’s not to say that his empirical findings are somehow compromised because of it: the science works or it doesn’t according to the quality of the experiment design and the interpretation of the results, not his motivations for conducting the experiments. But the pastoral message Beck takes from his research is based on his Christianity. Moreover, it is based on his American pragmatism, as well: the American pragmatists taught that a belief system should be judged by the result it has in its adherents. That is what makes a claim true: if it bears fruit in those who claim it. However, despite these clear investments, Beck’s work might be the most empirically valid of all the ones I’ve examined so far. It may be the case that a group of people might not even be trying to love more, be more hospitable, etc., and their worldview may not address or encourage these issues at all…but, nonetheless, they will either be using their worldview to deny a fear of death or they won’t be, and their worldview will either be threatened by and therefore hostile towards people with other worldviews, or it won’t be.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Let me know if you have a good reason for thinking I am.


* The Absurd, in philosophical language, means the conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life/the world and the human inability to find such meaning, or at least the human inability to find such meaning reliably and with certainty.



Pedro said...

I just discovered your blog today following a link from other blog, maybe you remember me. I quite enjoyed the few posts I read.

I had a close experience with death that changed my way of dealing with it. Don't get me wrong I'm still not comfortable at all with thinking about dying but it helped me to get another perspective.

Christian H said...

I certainly remember you. You're one of my favourite commenters at Leah's blog!

I hope you are doing well: certainly it is much different when a person deals with death directly than abstractly/existentially. The latter question keeps people up at night, but the first... it breaks us out of our worlds, I think.

Pedro said...

My last comment there for a while was about a death (I mean close call :)) experience. Unfortunately I think people paid attention to the first part of the comment and ignored the second one.

I liked very much you post about depression, as you may know I teach "part time" in medical school (neuropsychiatry mostly) and I was sad to know that you are battling depression. The word of hope I have is well treated this daemon can vanish from your life. I hope you are doing well and feel free to write me if you need something.

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