Living in rural isolation has both its benefits and its detractions, both of which are acutely stressed during the winter. Whilst the warmth of a roaring drawing room fire is rarely better appreciated, the lack of light-time robs one of hours to roam the green pastures. Yet every day I try and make a point of it. Ambling through the winding roads and fields, one inevitably passes two inescapable features of an English countryside village: the local pub and the local church. For myself, it is tricky to decide which one is more sacrosanct. Though an unbeliever, I can appreciate, as Larkin articulates in his poem Church Going, the special significance of an historic religious edifice as a symbol of centuries old tradition, and to many an emblem of deep spiritual recourse. Though I do not partake in its beliefs, I can admire it in the same way I can admire the Parthenon, without committing myself to the cult of Athena, or the Athenian imperialism that sponsored it for that matter.
Yet I am reminded each time I visit of the psychological underpinnings of religious faith by the graveyard surrounding the church. To materialists, this sight has always been a sober reality check that reminds us of our transience. Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher who formulated atomic theory, would visit tombstones daily precisely in order to reaffirm this ‘memento mori’ truism to himself. An epitaph represents a life lived but thoroughly ended, the person within eventually reduced to the same natural matter from which they were formed. This is not necessarily a bland idea- we are ultimately made from star dust, if you go back far enough. Yet I can concede it may be a depressing one to imagine this finality in such an uncompromising, unsentimental manner. This is why a symbol of worldly morbidity is always coupled with the image of eternal life. They are paradoxical but work in tandem to satisfy the most profound mental anxieties that religion was made to attenuate.
There is a long tradition that ascribes faith-based thinking, that is belief without evidence, to certain fundamental human emotions. The paramount feeling that religion mitigates is fear, namely fear of death. Sigmund Freud distinguished this argument in the field of psychology where predecessors had formulated it in the sphere of philosophy. Religion, he writes in the Future of an Illusion, originates in man’s realisation of his own vulnerability against the caprices of nature and his own mortal condition. While the protective forces of civilisation may help to protect him from distinctly human threats-murder, theft, assault-there is no worldly power that can argue away, suppress by law or force, detain, the unwavering drought, the indiscriminate diseases, and the inevitability of death that he sees all around him. The father figure of heaven is therefore a consolation to assuage his sense of helplessness. The image of a father is an important element to stress, for it reflects in mentality the kind of weakness felt by a child. A child looks to his parents for comfort and defence in its dependent state. We stand in the same relationship to the divine.
Of course, this was incidentally our first steps towards understanding things, before there was anything better to offer. If the thunder and the earthquake are personalised; if, as Ancient Greek paganism did, they adopted all the characteristics, good and ill, of humans, the callous nature of the universe in a pre-scientific, specifically pre-Darwinian age becomes rationalised. Yet an attempt to make sense of things through supernatural explanation is merely a necessary, rather than insufficient, part of religious psychology as it must have begun. The real point is that miscomprehending natural phenomena in this way leads to a certain hope for safety akin to the infantile prototype. If the gods that dictate nature are indeed humanised, then perhaps they can be appeased, cajoled or otherwise won over in the same way that actual humans often are. To win favour from one of these gods is perhaps to win for oneself refuge from the storms and the tsunamis, and perhaps even the finality of death. Thus begins the process of propitiation and prayer, and the formal rites and rituals that go with it. Religious community forms through this common incentive.
Yet in time it became clear, perhaps beginning with the Greek miracle of natural philosophy in the 6th century BC, that natural phenomena had its own independent logic. The gods, and in time God, had arranged nature but rarely intervened but for perceived miracles- aberrations of the natural order that merely proved the rule. It was noted for instance that in spite of all piety, the earthquake visited the believer and the infidel alike. A related anecdote tells how Diagoras of Melos, as far as I know the world’s first recorded atheist, was once caught in a storm. His crewmates blamed his unbelief for the unyielding waves and torrential rain, to which he merely asked whether every ship caught in the storm was carrying a Diagoras on board. Gods therefore recede into the province of the supernatural alone, wherein lies humanity’s hopes of escaping their gloomy fate. Morality is then assigned to the gods so that men may be favoured in the world to come, when their makers are met. Men live in ways that they believe pleases the gods, even in ways that they believe the gods have told them to live. Naturally, the ethics arrogated to heaven is the ethics of the society in question, as each society at each stage in history considers their culture and way of life to be the proper one. So, as Freud argues, man is able to square his helplessness against the world with the consolation that ‘Death itself is not extinction, is not a return to inorganic lifelessness, but the beginning of a new kind of existence which lies on the path of development to something higher’. Yet that new kind of existence is only higher if one acts correctly, of course.
This is a standard explanation that was prefigured by the likes of Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza and Hume, and Karl Marx to name merely three of many. The first imagined the ‘over provident’ man to be like Prometheus, who is perpetually terrified of the fate that is coming to him. Just as Prometheus, chained to his rock, is fearful of the regrowth of his liver only for the eagle to eat it again, so is a forward-looking man ‘hath his heart all day long, gnawed on by fear of death, poverty or other calamity; and he has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep’. This is a rather dystopian condition for sure, and perhaps rather extreme. The philosopher who is this morosely brooding was not of course a prototype but a phylogenetic analogy for the earliest thinkers. Yet the analogy with Prometheus is not so apt. Prometheus fears what he knows is coming. In man’s case, it is not fear of death per se which is so paralysing, but fear of what comes after this veil of tears. Hobbes focuses on mankind’s ‘ignorance of causes, as if it were in the dark’, and thus echoes Freud’s theory of infantile vulnerability, but really it is the dark itself that is the root of terror.
Spinoza made the same point but focusing a touch more directly on the self-interested nature of religious belief. One does not maintain the same degree of piety at all times in all scenarios, since ‘Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune’. In other words, their religiosity fluctuates according to their degree of adversity and sense of hopelessness. People turn to God when they don’t know where else to turn, but lose that desperate recourse when there is no need for desperation. Man’s capacity for credulity is enhanced by that truism of antiquity that fortune rarely stays in one place, and this uncertainty makes the mind very impressionable to all forms of counsel, however fatuous, if it provides hope of alleviation. Alexander the Great, Spinoza notes, lost all superstition he had adopted when he had learnt to fear fortune in the passes of Sysis after he had conquered Darius of Persia. Yet there are infinitely more reliable examples one could posit in corroboration of Spinoza’s point. Hume similarly stated ‘The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events.’ This natural state of religion has a domino effect on the mind. Our enormous scope for imagination is only magnified when entertaining fearful ideas of invisible powers. The overtly malevolent and capricious figures of, say, Euripides’ Dionysus or the Hebrew Yahweh, are merely our darkest dreams made manifest. The imprint of our nightmares on religious text acts as a preparation for the worst should we have to deal with it. For if we are able to be so servile as to appease even the most dictatorial of celestial tyrants, then we can consider ourselves in the safest possible position from an unknown and thus infinite range of fates after death.
As for Marx, his famous idea of religion as an opiate is rather hollowed without its preceding sentiments, which follow on directly from Spinoza: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’. Its utility rests entirely on its falsehood, the illusion of immortal paradise that acts as a metaphysical antidote to worldly worries. This serves as a distraction that chains people to delusion. Removing the ‘imaginary flowers’ of wish-thinking from that chain is not to abandon men to hopeless despair, but to allow him to throw off the chain ‘and gather the living flower’. In other words, to enjoy life by accepting the reality that it will one day end and may often be painful requires the rejection of the condition that requires illusion, and to thus trade illusory happiness for the chance of real happiness. It is rare that I will endorse a man whose ideology has been responsible for so little real happiness in the material world. Yet the self-abnegating quality of belief, particularly when saturated with specific theological doctrine, is both real and of real consequence.
All these thinkers have subtly different emphases to their writing but all agree on the fundamental root of religious worship. None of these versions of this theory should be taken at face value but all are vindicated by observable patterns of human behaviour throughout history. The idea that religion is most important to someone when experiencing hardship, and is at its core an attempt to evade our worst nightmares, is nothing controversial. Of course, there are the extremists or fundamentalists who always unwaveringly live their lives with religious absolutism. Yet for the most part, confrontation with death and suffering in any way catalyses the wish-thinking of belief. When people say, upon someone’s death, ‘they’re in a better place’, it is a statement of hope for a peaceful, Edenic afterlife stimulated by the realisation of our mortality. It is also the case that proselytization, in a highly predatorial manner, is most effective when at our most vulnerable. The death bed is a moment of conversion for many not because of some sudden recognition of the truth of, say, the transubstantiation, but because it is at that moment when they feel they have most to lose potentially by continuing their unbelief. Pascal’s wager, which states that one has nothing to lose in believing and being wrong but everything to lose in false incredulity, seems most sensible at that liminal point between the known and unknown. The most self-aware of people, however, do not submit in this way. Hobbes for instance, when pestered in his final moments to accept Christianity by a flock of priests, is said to have retorted ‘let me be, or I will detect all your cheats from Aaron to yourselves’. Likewise, Voltaire, when asked to renounce the devil, quipped ‘this is no time to start making enemies.’ Yet these most impressive of individuals go to their graves with a fearless wit and dignity that most cannot match.
Since self-conscious reflection is not available to most people, and instinctive preoccupations about fundamental matters such as death and the unknown trump reason, religious authorities can prey on such fears for their own benefit. For Seneca, religion was regarded ‘by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful’. Elitist as this may sound, it mirrors what Spinoza says regarding the ability of the powerful to manipulate the many below through capitalising on terror. The Catholic Church, to highlight merely one example, could utilise the grief of mothers whose babies had died unbaptised to extract money from them in exchange for the promise that, through prayer and propitiation, the Church would ensure their escape from an unsavoury fate. The sale of indulgences was central to the reformation movement and yet managed to persist in the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages until 1567. This mountain of extorted gold forged St Mark’s Basilica and other panoplies of wealth the Vatican boasts. The argument ‘do this or go to hell’, amongst the uneducated in prescientific times was a rather effective way of getting what you want. It works better too when people’s worst conceptions of the afterlife are rendered certainties by their inclusion in official religious doctrine. Religion is more effective the more certainty it can project, and by authenticating images of eternal fire and endless subterranean prisons in the minds of those already fearful of them, it consolidates its hold.
Religion’s universal hold, and the sense of collective safety that comes with religious community, can be derived from this universal urge to deny death. For instance, one school of psychological scholarship assigns faith to the principle of ‘terror management’, coined first by Ernest Becker, which attempts to reconcile our instinctive, animalistic urge for self-preservation with our distinctly human awareness of our inevitable end. Terror management can include anything that represents a defiance of finality. Religion of course promises immortality, but the same consolation of a kind can be provided by a commitment to such concepts as a nation, or a magnum opus of timeless art, both of which will survive long after one’s death and will contribute to the establishment of a legacy that may tether the deceased to the living world. This anxiety buffer, the attempt to somehow stay on earth, rebaptised in many different ways by many different cultures (Greek ‘kleos’ is to Rome’s ‘fama’ as to our ‘legacy’ or ‘glory’), has been shown to be triggered today by the most seemingly simple of stimuli. Within terror management theory lies the ‘mortality salience hypothesis’, which states that when people are reminded of their deaths, in even the subtlest of ways, they subliminally acquire a heightened desire to affirm principles of religiosity. For instance, reminders of death make people more contemptuous of the notion that humans are animals, bound by the same laws of nature, and are more accepting of killing them. Religion is a vegan’s worst nightmare.
These reminders have yet deeper ramifications. They make people more uncomfortable in nature. A group of Dutch Psychologists showed one group reminded of death and another not photos of urban settings and photos of natural settings and asked which they preferred more. Those who had been reminded of death preferred the urban setting and the other the natural setting. The reason for this is that nature only reaffirms the terror inherent in mortality salience, as it represents the uncontrollable forces of birth, ageing, decay and death that we so struggle to accept. A city however symbolises a certain eternal quality that affords comfort; it implies the continuity of community. It offers the subconscious delusion that we are different from other animals unprotected by laws, technology and big buildings. The escape into civilisation affords safety from the nasty brutishness of nature, but also from our own awareness that we are still bound by its dictates. We can go about our daily lives and transient cares without having to be constantly haunted by the larger questions of our fate that depress us most.
This death denying urge can affect, if tested, all walks of life, where the consequences can be fairly pernicious. Even legal justice, dispassionate and objective as it is and very much an aspect of the civilised rather than natural world, is miscarried by our deepest angsts. A study from the University of Arizona in 1989, using as subjects 15 male and 7 female municipal court judges, gave all the same questionnaire to complete with the exception that some received a copy with simply the word ‘death’ on it. These judges also were afterwards asked a few questions about their own death, like ‘what do you think happens after death’ and so forth. They were then told to look at a court case on the solicitation of prostitution and recommend a bond for the prostitute. Those who had been reminded of their death recommended on average a bond of $455. The others recommended an average of $50.
Why was there such a big difference? Why would the thought of death spur judges to be so radically harsher? With other variables between the judges minimalised, a subliminal reminder of mortality clearly is shown to go a long way. Further evidence in fact corroborates the implication that one’s ensuing terror induces unedifying behaviour. One of the developers of terror management theory, Sheldon Solomon, found numerous examples of increased tribalism upon a range of votaries who were reminded of death. For instance, Christians become more derogatory towards Jews. Antipathy towards Jews is a hardwired doctrine, stemming from Mark 27:25 which blames the Jewish people collectively for Christ’s murder, yet there is something more fundamental at play here. The word ‘death’ does not catalyse better recall of specific gospel passages. If we look further, in this experiment Jews become more hostile towards Muslims, Germans sit further away from Turkish people, Americans become more hostile towards people with different political beliefs and even become more supportive of pre-emptive chemical or nuclear attacks on countries they consider threatening. Iranians are more supportive of suicide bombing and more willing to consider becoming ‘martyrs’ themselves. Tolerance of one another therefore is effectively reliant upon ignoring one’s mortality.
Managing one’s fear it seems involves maintaining a protective layer of community comforted by ideological conviction. Religious beliefs in particular (though, as we can see, strictly political or national associations can substitute), given their eschatological focus, serve as a balm to our dread awareness of our fates. Yet this defence mechanism is only as strong as the degree of certainty with which it can be held. Problems arise therefore, bred of psychology that spill terribly into political life, when one encounters people who do not share the same certainties. The realisation that one’s own perceptions of reality, of the gods, of the actions through which they are pleased or provoked, are not universally accepted, creates a horrible sense of internalised doubt. If one tolerates the existence of other such worldviews, then it grants them a form of legitimacy which necessarily dents one’s own ideological armour. Christians therefore become more hostile to Jews simply because somewhere ingrained in Christian consciousness is the awareness that Judaism, for as long as Christianity has existed, has represented an alternative to it. It thereby questions it and threatens it. For the death denier to truly feel safe, they must be totally secure in the rectitude of their beliefs. Otherwise, one exposes oneself to the anxiety that they may not in fact have the perfect answer to the conundrum of death. Their consolation, unique ideas of heaven and the afterlife and so forth, may in fact be false if it is not abundantly clear to everybody.
The practical consequences play out in the world as we would expect. Religious violence, absolutism and tribalism have plagued us for as long as religion has existed. In some traditions, death-denialism paradoxically leads to death itself. If one can imagine an afterlife to assuage mortal fears, then one can imagine a paradise (as well as a hell) for those who best serve their deities. The Islamic principle of ‘ishtishad’, ‘martydom’, is what fuels suicide bombings across the world, in the belief that heaven will be the destination and that sins will be forgiven. Apocalyptic Judaeo-Christian Millennialism traditions fantasise a 1000-year period of earthly paradise after the Second Coming, the Last Judgement and the inception of the ‘world to come’. The actions that can result from mortality salience are indeed limitless, for once someone believes they can be saved from oblivion, there is no man-made law, no moral argument, that can dissuade someone from doing whatever divinely-warranted work they believe will win them this reward. Hence the sanguinary totalitarianism of practically all religious histories, particularly the monotheisms. It all makes sense once this universal psychological stimulus is recognised.
We can also understand why, as a corollary, the religious are found incapable of tackling rational critique without resorting to aggression. As religious, aka ‘death denialist’, doctrine becomes more elaborate, there naturally grows greater scope for questioning its specifics. To pre-scientific civilisations, the notion of ‘there is a God who we should worship for eternal life’ may all be well and good. But is Jesus really physically present at the Eucharist? Does limbo exist, or predestination? Is the Quran literally co-eternal with God and uncreated? If it was spoken, then surely God precedes his own recitation, right? All these questions and infinitely more have proven the bane of religious authorities whose only form of rebuttal was through persecution. If there were logical arguments that could dissuade these empiricists from their heresies, they would have surely made them. In today’s more civilised societies, when debate is the only acceptable form of religious discourse, most arguments are circular in having to presume God’s existence. Either the burden of proof is shifted to the one arguing against the existence of what cannot be known, arguments for deism rather than theism are made, or supposed deontologists merely become utilitarian and argue for religion’s usefulness rather than its innate truth. This latter argument, recognisable to anyone who has engaged in religious debate, testifies to the psychological underpinnings of belief itself. The anxiety buffer simply cannot be abandoned even in the face of unimpeachable evidence. Dr William Lane Craig, for instance, though a self-claimed believer in evidence-based defences of faith, also writes that ‘should a conflict arise between the witness of the holy spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith, and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter’. Evidence in other words can help but must be rejected if it shows that death really is the end. In a yet more startling admission, the creationist Harvard geologist Kurt Wise proclaimed that even if all the evidence in the world, easily recognisable from his scientific profession, pointed to an ‘old earth’, he would be the first to admit it, but the last to accept it. There are no limits to the delusory capability of this ideological safety mechanism.
If delusion is an insult to the human intelligence, then the servility entailed in religious belief is an affront to human dignity. This is perhaps the most poisonous aspect of death denialism, yet the one which is most brushed over. Whenever I am at an Anglican congregation at Christmas, supposedly mild and innocent as it is, I cannot help but shudder when I hear some of the proclamations made. The self-hating language ascribed to humanity is remarkable. We are ‘sinful’, nothing without Christ’, ‘fallen’. We kneel and prostrate ourselves before one we are supposed to both love and fear at once. We are mendicant, tainted, made from dust and cursed to forever inherit the original guilt of Adam and Eve. I find this nauseating. We accept to be, in Fulke Greville’s words, ‘created sick and commanded to be well’. We are happy to be morally bound to a human sacrifice that happened 2000 years ago. We consider it fine to debase ourselves without realising it. We call it ‘humility’ and ‘penitence’ when it is really enslavement. This really sometimes stuns me. People can go about their lives after a service completely indifferent to or unaware of what they have actually confessed. People will come together in a community, which is all well and good, but to absent-mindedly bleat about their own awfulness. I for one think we can be modest while also standing upright on our own two feet. Yet in the hope of appeasing the judge of our mortal fates we will disregard any notion of self-respect.
The consequences of this mentality can be articulated by long histories of religious liberality. Nothing was too heinous to be committed if it was believed to be divinely mandated. Yet it can be revealed also in officially ‘secular’ spheres. Many before have made a psychological link between religious self-abnegation and subordination to human tyranny. Orwell said that all dictatorships are essentially theocratic. Indeed, there is a reason why the likes of Stalin and Mao were characterised by what we call a ‘cult’ of personality. Just as Islamic faith is predicated entirely upon ‘submission’ (the meaning of ‘Islam’ itself), so the dictatorial, through a process of ideological lobotomy, must accrue to itself absolute loyalty. Despots are deified. Emperor Hirohito was literally considered divine by a people who were therefore willing to do absolutely anything in defence of the empire he represented. Boys as young as 10 years old became suicide bombers at Okinawa. Meanwhile North Korea’s official state ideology of Juche teaches that the leader of the country is ‘sacred’, and in the constitution the founder Kim-Il-Sung is the ‘eternal President’. His son’s birth on Paektu Mountain was miraculous, heralded by a double rainbow, Korean birdsong and the appearance of a glowing new star in the sky. Christopher Hitchens, after visiting North Korea, considered it to be the world’s most religious state. Perpetual deference and worship to an idealised and infallible figure defines life there. In other words, it’s exactly what heaven would be like, and its hell.
Any process of extrication involves a catharsis, because it involves the dismantling of an entirely totalitarian worldview. This can be highly troubling. When Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalinist propaganda and deceit in his 1956 Secret Speech, some of those present suffered heart attacks and even later committed suicide through shock. As Eric Hoffer detailed, faith in fanatical causes and ideas, such as communist utopianism, is really a compensation for lack of faith in oneself. When the veil is lifted, the devotee has nothing left. The Russian acolytes of Stalin had lost their belief system, their defence mechanism in which they had vested all their hopes for protection against their fears. All they had left was empty despair. The nature of their fear, directed to distinctly worldly concerns, is obviously different to the more fundamental and eternal religious fears, but the neurosis and the consequences are the same. It is not the case that a religious conversion today generally comes with a similarly harrowing breakdown, but it does explain why many religious people are so unwilling to (without being haughty) ‘see reason’. You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into- the only reason why Khrushchev’s speech worked is because he came from the inside. God’s right-hand man was telling them the lie. The deeper one’s fears, the deeper one’s belief, and the more impossible scepticism becomes. Additionally, just as the religious acolyte cannot tolerate the existence of threatening external worldviews, so the North Korean state convinces its followers that the entirety of the outside world also believes in, say, Kim Jong-Il’s miraculous birth. Creeping doubts may set in if the population actually knew that the rest of the world considered it bogus. The history therefore of 20th century totalitarianism, still alive in some regimes, is secular only in name, not in spirit. It symbolises the same mind-forged manacle as the history of God.
If this is all too real, let me offer a different consolation. There is one kind of person who tries to glean everything he can from life, and another who can never be satisfied. Joseph Conrad used to say that he was ‘too conscious of the marvellous to ever be fascinated by the supernatural’. The deranged Mel Gibson once said ‘there has got to be more to it than this’. Be more like Joseph Conrad. There is more to enjoy and marvel at in the material world than anyone could ever hope for. Do not impoverish your time here by wishing for something else. What’s more, if the idea of death is discomforting, imagine how boring living forever would be. Everything that gives our lives meaning would cease to be meaningful. Eventually everything would become stale. We would lose our passions. That is the real hell, and instead of denying death, we should be thankful for it and meanwhile, as per Oscar Wilde ‘try the fruit of every orchard in the world’.