Was Religion Made Up Just to Sugar-Coat the Fear of Death?


gollywholly asked a question:

Have you ever read “The Worm at the Core” by Sheldon Solomon et al? It’s about death, and basically the theory is that everything we do and believe in is to mitigate our fear of death. It follows from that that religion, and our belief in Jesus, is just a way to mitigate our fear of death. And this is messing with my head big time. What do you think?


Hey dear friend, I’m sorry for my late reply. I’ve been on a break (due to a breakdown) but still checking my inbox, and I really love this question.

I actually studied this very phenomenon for my undergrad in Psychology, also known as “Terror management theory” or “Mortality Salience.” The basic idea is that death is inevitable, so we must give meaning to life. Therefore, religion and culture and identity are responses to death. We could call this “whistling past the graveyard.”

While the premise is intriguing and persuasive, it’s also a bit Swiss cheese, which sociologists have addressed and countered just as persuasively. Many of the counter-arguments can be found online, but I’ll offer some of my own thoughts.

Here are a few things to consider about “Christianity as a way to mitigate the fear of death.” Please feel free to skip around.


1) A correlation between desire and reality can go either way, so that it cannot prove or disprove either side.

The biggest problem with saying that religion is only a way to “absolve the fear of death” is that it doesn’t prove anything either way. It doesn’t negate the possibility of an afterlife. Even more so: some fears actually point to a concrete reality, and some realities evoke our emotions. Fear itself can point to any number of imagined or real circumstances, and so often the “fear” that we claim about God is in itself based on a faulty view of God.

All that to say: I could just as easily say that we “make meaning” just as much as we “discover meaning.” My fear could make up a religion just as easily as the objective truth could evoke real fear. To say that we only “make meaning” is a huge leap of over-definitive certainty.

In fact, hunger points to food, which exists. Thirst points to water. Exhaustion points to sleep. Of course, this doesn’t mean that my third grade drawing of the boogeyman points to a monster under the bed. But if someone poisoned my food without my knowledge, then my belief or lack of belief doesn’t matter: the reality remains. My fear of poison also doesn’t activate the poison somehow: there’s a very clear causation. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but either there’s an afterlife or there’s not, and I can speculate on the objective reality, but it doesn’t change the X on the treasure-map.


2) A theory about the fear of death is in itself a response to the fear of death.

If we made up religion and culture and identity to mitigate the fear of death: then we must’ve made up that we made up this idea of mitigation to mitigate the fear of death. How do I know then which idea is the false one? That sort of infinite regress gets us nowhere. As C.S. Lewis said, to see through everything is to see nothing. To over-explain is to eventually cut off the branch we’re sitting on.


3) Some religions, including Christianity, do not attempt to resolve the fear of death.

One of the implicit expectations of “Terror management theory” is that religion is just a silly construct. Yeah, let’s be real, we’re going to die, and you can’t sugar-coat it with heaven and all that nonsense. And I agree. We can’t. I’ll even propose that fear is natural, it’s okay, and it doesn’t have to be mitigated.

Not every religion is trying to make death easier. Christianity faces it head-on, calling it out for what it is: a terrible injustice. Death, sickness, dying, and disasters are all unsettling realities, and there’s no combination of words that can alleviate how much it stings. While Christians ultimately don’t have to fear death, dying itself still sucks, and the fear is still welcomed into the conversation as the norm. I’d even go further and say that any Christian doctrine which glosses over death as “God’s Will” or “It was meant to be” is skipping over the pain of a world that was never meant to contain dying.


4) Explaining our motivation by “fear of death” should logically conclude with certain behaviors, but there’s no consistent conclusion.

It’s a strange claim to say “every motivation arises from a fear of death.” Many motivations do. Many do not.

We would expect that if all our cultural systems are a response to death, that we’d have very similar responses within each category of belief. In other words, people who believe in an afterlife might care less about their time on earth, while people who believe in annihilation after death would care more about their time on earth.

But we find a variety of people with different beliefs acting on a wide spectrum of motivations. Each of us react to “inevitability” with wildly varying responses, even contradicting the things we claim to believe. There is no empirical evidence that “a fear of death” has given us our culture, much less does it logically explain what it tries to conclude.

A theory rests on the idea that it can account for the reality around us as logically as possible. It is observable, with few outliers, within a measurable range of behaviors and symptoms. It’s why we can say with some accuracy, This looks like depression or The therapy is working or This box of cheesecakes will magically shrink your clothes.

A reductionist/deconstructionist can boil everything down to bits and parts, but such an exercise is so narrow-minded that they can’t account for every person. When Freud implied everything is about sex or Machiavelli implied everything is about power, these ideas only held up in so far as we looked for the evidence to support them, but there is also plenty of evidence that people are not solely motivated by these skeletal, simplistic frameworks.


5) Life is just as frightening as death.

I don’t mean to be too morbid here, but:

There are many people who are bitter at being alive, at humanity at large, at the horror of existence. They’re not driven to mitigate the fear of death, but to mitigate the anxiety of being alive. And I don’t think this is an exception to the rule.

I’ve found that many people have more trouble living for something than having to “die for it.” Perseverance is difficult, which is why so many people embrace disengagement, cynical solitude, and even death. Some people are not afraid to die, because of a “martyr complex” or the unwillingness to face another day.


6) Religion is not merely a response to death, but a code of life.

The truth is that there are many other inevitabilities besides death.

Religion is a response to those inevitabilities. There will be times when we are lonely, angry, lacking resources, under oppression, in community, ostracized, humiliated, applauded, and given tasks before us.

“The fear of death” hardly answers any of these realities. It’s difficult, even impossible, to connect the dots on how such fear motivates us to face these other conditions. “The fear of death” might explain why we want to leave a legacy or why we’re often hedonistic and obsessed with youth, but it does not create a logical response to shame, guilt, connection, happiness, and justice.


7) Christianity isn’t a tool to get what we want, but the very truth we want in itself.

Lastly: the very idea that we’re only motivated by mortality is to assume that people only use something to get something else. In this case, it assumes we use religious ideas to get comfort and avoid the macabre. But religion, specifically Christianity, teaches us that the second we use it as a spiritual opium, we’ve lost the essence of the truth it really offers.

Christianity might say, “If you only believe Christianity (or some vague self-concocted idea of Christ) to mitigate your fear of death, you are still thinking in terms of what’s in it for you, in terms of contracts and transactions and commodities, instead of getting to the pure source of connection in itself.”

One of the reasons I’m a Christian is because the Christian faith is not motivated by fear or by the “outcome of death.” It doesn’t hinge primarily on eternal bliss or eternal punishment. It hinges on a connection with the Creator and with the people around me. Christianity is not a vehicle to alleviate my mortality, which would simply be treating God as a waiter. That’s using something for what it can do instead of enjoying it for what it is—andChristianity is an authentic purity of the soul that revels in the life before me.

J.S.


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5 thoughts on “Was Religion Made Up Just to Sugar-Coat the Fear of Death?

  1. “Life is just as fearful as death,” now there is a new thought! Among a multitude of people that is probably true. Off the top of my head, I would say Job probably thought so, at least at times. Good blog. You are right; it was not God’s plan to have people die. He has worked out an alternate plan; I am on its bandwagon.

    Like

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