The Great Fear- Death
What stands menacingly behind many of the decisions we make- consciously or unconsciously- is the dark shadow of Death. The pain that often accompanies it and our ignorance of what happens after it gives birth to a fear that is hardwired into our psyche.
This most fundamental fear has been exploited by leaders both secular and divine in order to control a population and coax them into actions they would normally not commit.
In general, Fear is the most powerful impulse towards action, followed closely by the pursuit of pleasure. In fact, the reasons behind what we do can be boiled down to just those two reasons: Avoidance of Fear and the Seeking of Pleasure. But the one that reigns supreme over our decisions (conscious or unconscious) is Fear.
Fear and Understanding
Fear is a basic survival trait and- unless you are one of those who hold that ONLY humans have emotions- is experienced by all life on the planet. Species that do not have a strong fear impulse do not survive long enough to reproduce and so what we have left are life forms keyed up, stretched taught and ready for action. Fight or flight is the question our mental fears ask of our physical bodies. Can we overcome the source of our fear or do we increase our distance?
Fear is such a pervasive part of human life that we have labeled them all in an exhaustive list of phobias. Thanatos, the greek personification of death, has lent his name to this list for the phobia of death- Thanatophobia.
Advances in our understanding of the world have dispelled many of the primitive fears we once had. We now know what causes rain, droughts and eclipses. We understand what causes disease and, ultimately, death. Early man made up supernatural reasons in order to gain some measure of control over those events; prayers and sacrifices, we were told, would placate the angry god causing these unexplained happenings.
Now we understand the weather, the movement of the stars and the causes of most illnesses. Yet while the blind fear has been replaced with a little knowledge of these mundane happenings, what is in store for us after death still remains an area of “existence” that will probably forever remain closed to our living eyes.
At bottom, we fear the unknown. Publius Syrus, a 1st century Roman, wrote that “the fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself.” One can see this for yourself the next time you see a horror flick. Notice that your anxiety, your fear, heightens LEADING up to the monster jumping out. Once he appears, while the scene may be gruesome, it no longer holds the same level of terror it did just moments before.
Once a thing is understood, or in this case seen, it loses most of its fearful effect and becomes just another mundane danger we have to navigate.
Buying in to Save Our Souls
However, what has eluded all attempts at investigation is what happens following the moment of our demise. Do we continue on as before just in a slightly different state? Are we held accountable for the deeds we committed in life? Or do we just dissolve into nothingness?
Many people will have quick and ready answers to these inquiries, but the truth of the matter is that we have no idea. And that unknowing is what we fear. The terror is so great that we are drawn like magnets to any system that offers solace.
Once we have bought into that system and the bliss it promises, we forfeit a measure of rationality and relinquish an even greater measure of autonomy. We will believe anything to cleanse ourselves of the gnawing fear of death, even if it means cleansing ourselves of reason. The most unbelievable things will become certainties as our critical thinking skills take a back seat to the promise of eternal life.
We cannot relinquish the dogma that accompanies most organized religions because then we would have to relinquish immortality. Rational arguments stand no chance against eternity, and sacrificing reason for security is a seemingly small price to pay.
Capitalizing on Fear
A recent US survey of 345 terminal cancer patients found the ones who were most religious were also the most fearful of death. What this shows, contrary to the conclusion given by the authors, is that those most fearful of death are the most susceptible to falling prey to religious systems that promise a way out. Put another way, religious institutions that offer answers to life after death attract people who already have a predilection to Thanatophobia. Those who do not have this phobia do not populate systems that offer succor.
Those in power use this fundamental fear to manipulate a population for their own enrichment. The state uses fear of a foreigner (something from the natural world) while the church uses fear of a deity (something from the supernatural realm). Early on in history intelligent humans recognized this fact in their quest for an improved position.
Really, isn’t that what we are all searching for? An improved position? Or at least to keep our current position from degrading? And the ultimate in a degraded position is death. It gets even worse when that position which just went to zero stays that way for the rest of eternity. This is just too much for most people to bear.
Out of that despair critical thinking is jettisoned and Faith is borne.