Sunday, May 17, 2009

Religion as Immortality Project: An Anthropological Perspective at the Heart of the Study of Religion

Copyright 2009. (Please quote with attribution of authorship.)

In his Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The Denial of Death (1973), cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker explores a set of themes that illuminate important facets of religious life and contribute significantly to the study of religion. Becker examines how we as human beings transcend our animal bodies and death anxiety by experiencing our selves as persons of value in a world of meaning (self-esteem), culture, and heroism. We engage in what Becker calls "immortality projects" by creating and finding meaning, experiencing self-esteem, and practicing altruism (heroism). All of these activities confer upon us symbolic immortality. Becker examines how our symbolic activity represents our combined desire to overcome death, our fear of death, and strive for immortality. Beginning by addressing the basic polarity of human experience, that we have both an animal body and self-consciousness, Becker asks: "What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal?" (Denial of Death, p. 87)

We live with an animal body and a self-consciousness. In this situation we face the crisis that since we are conscious that we will inevitably die, we live with the fear of death and a repressed anxiety over death. But in our self-consciousness we often think of ourselves as immortal, while we know -- even those of us who believe the soul will survive -- that the body will die. Our cultural expressions immortalize us symbolically. When we remember and honor people we symbolically immortalize them. When our work is shared among and transmitted across generations of people, we are symbolically immortalized. We have made a difference and left ripples of our influence. These cultural expressions extend from and contribute to our immortality projects.

Our language-based understanding of our selves places us beyond the limits of our animal bodies. We fulfill our symbolic self as beyond our animality when we use the pronoun “I.” When we begin to self-identify, by using the word “I,” we enter a new domain: the symbolic, beyond the body. When we start to use pronoun “I,” in addition to symbolizing, we are practicing self-reflection. With our symbols and symbol systems we can create works of art, literature, dance and music, etc. In this sense, humans alone can create what I call -- playing on Wordsworth’s poem -- “simulations of immortality.” Becker avers that death-anxiety is the pivot around which all symbolic action turns. This death-anxiety is the turning point around which we spin a world of symbols. In this way we strive to overcome our death-anxiety through our heroic immortality projects (making a name for ourselves, leaving a legacy, making a lasting difference in the world).

Our immortality symbols, projects, and ideologies often do outlast our deaths, especially when they are recorded in writing or art or manifested in architecture, or when they take form as nations and religions. One good example is the 4,500-year old epic of Gilgamesh which we still read. Becker argues that through our capacity to symbolize and create cultural artifacts (writing, music, dance, architecture, painting, etc.) we can leave a legacy behind us that will outlast our physical bodies. This means that through our cultural artifacts we create “simulations of immortality.” Becker broadly suggests three main categories of the hero: artist, saint, and knight. We can identify various types of heroes as falling within these three categories. Thus the athlete metaphorically is especially a knight, but also an artist as well. He or she may even be a leader (knight). Some leaders are also artists and vice versa -- and, sometimes, saints. Rock stars and actors count among artists.

One major type of heroism constitutes surrendering to God in our actions, what Becker following Kierkegaard's description of Abraham as a "Knight of Faith," calls "cosmic heroism." Much of religious life consists of two types of heroism: cosmic and cultural. The everyday heroism is the morals and manners that we live by as a culture. Cosmic heroism appears in the lives of great religious leaders: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, The Dalai Lama, to name a few. Such heroes impart the gift of heroism to others. Sainthood is heroic altruism, consciously addresses our mortality (and offers a vision of immortality), and results as an immortality project -- a response to death that enters history. Religion is spiritual heroism. Religions are the ultimate immortality projects. Religions, Becker writes, serve this role in four ways: we can (1) surrender to a meaning that is greater and beyond ourselves, (2) distinguish ourselves in personal greatness, (3) gain hope in the encounter with a sacred mystery, and (4) ultimately achieve a heroic victory over death. Becker describes how the everyday cultural hero system of morality, manners, righteousness, etiquette, and virtue provides our means to symbolic immortality and our heroic models of artist, saint, and leader are models of people who live on in history.

At many points, religious experience arises from encounters with death (mortality salience events) and a response to them based on heroic altruism or sainthood. Some people who encounter death use that anxiety creatively. Kierkegaard described this as "the school of anxiety." The Prophet Muhammad taught that to awaken one should practice, "Die before you die." When the angel Gabriel appeared before the Prophet and some of his companions and asked the Prophet how to live in spiritual beauty, he replied, "Worship God as if you see Him; and when you don't see Him, know that He sees you." Here the prophet underscored the importance of living in the presence of the one eternal and immortal reality.

Another dimension of Becker's work addresses violence and evil. Evil includes an experience of death or danger, or a violation of a human right. Research and experience show that people with rigid world-views have a greater need to protect their world view. Thus they will also project their death-anxiety onto those who seem different or those who seem to threaten their cultural world view. Those who have high-self esteem and tolerance will find meaning in reminders of death (mortality salience) and will help others and increase in their altruism. Our culture, either everyday or "cosmic" encourages altruism and sainthood, what Becker calls "cosmic heroism," heroism with a transcendent perspective.

Becker traces what types of violence result when perpetrators experience a challenge to their immortality project(s). Derogation and annihilation are two prime examples. But these are often mitigated when a person has high self esteem and an attitude of tolerance. Thus the more literalistic or rigid a person's world-view, the more they will derogate and annihilate opposition. Some types of religious rhetoric and culture may exacerbate insecurity and low self-esteem and increase defensiveness against opposing world views. Some types of religion develop high self-esteem (often as a form of humbleness or heroicism) and promote diversity and tolerance.

Both violence and evil arise in a spiraling cycle: the more a person or group works to suppress and eradicate evil, the more they perpetrate evil in that cause. Becker asserts that many of our attempts to deny our mortality and create heaven on earth -- as we witness in fundamentalism -- create more evil. Evil results from a negative "fetishization" of what we seek to destroy. And because of transference and projection, much evil is exacerbated by failing to acknowledge our own evil (as it hides in the shadow from our consciousness). Then, instead of acknowledging our own darkness within, we blame others for it and project it onto scapegoats. Becker effectively describes how our sense of evil is rooted in our anxiety over being an animal, especially because our animal bodies are at the heart of our fear of death. As Daniel Liechty has pointed out, often Satan is depicted with animal features, especially, horns and tail, and always decay and death. I think it is productive to reflect on how the problem of evil is related to the experience and fact of either physical or symbolic death. In this light, evil tends to be whatever brings us closer to death: e.g., danger, doom, harm, injury, curses, and disasters. A part of our intrigue and interest in murder and killing is motivated by the way that in effecting the death of another we experience the symbolic conquest of death. It is only humans who kill for the sake of killing. In the sense that we kill over our immortality projects, all wars are "holy wars."

I see in this view of evil and violence a powerful explanatory model that sheds light on forms of fundamentalism, radical religious ideology, and terrorism. As theologian Paul Tillich said, religion becomes socially problematic when the symbolic is taken to be literal. When groups take their immortality symbols, projects, and ideologies literally and exclusively, the possibility of experiencing being threatened is heightened. A body of empirical research proving this model has been developed under the rubric of Terror Management Theory.

This fundamental analysis of the human being presents at once a simple, yet profound and effective set of tools for understanding and improving varied dimensions of human experience: psychological, social, historical, cultural, religious, and spiritual.

References

Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (rev. 2ns ed., 1971)

_______The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

_______Escape from Evil. New York Free Press, 1975.

Liechty, Daniel. Transference and Transcendence: Ernest Becker's Contribution to Psychotherapy. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1995

Pyszczynski, Tom, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2003.

1 comment:

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