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    How The Fear of Death Gave Birth to Religion

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    Death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. Their brain shuts down, they stop breathing, and all life process ceases. Death is the final state of life, at least medically. The principal proposition of what occurs after death is explained through different religious beliefs, all in vast reasoning across thousands of years of ancient texts and scriptures. Even with the passing of time and the development of scientific reasoning, there is no finite answer to the question of what happens to a person after they’ve passed away.

    Death is a fundamental feature in life, yet the fear of death itself has been present in human culture for a prolonged amount of time. The fear of death roots within deeper reasoning than just dying, such as the fear of the unknown or the fear of nonexistence. The birth of religion stems from the fear of death, religion allowing human beings an opportunity to reduce these fears with the hope that their souls will travel to another place. While having a belief in an afterlife may give the living a more prospective outlook on death, it may seem to appear as a threat that if the beliefs of a religion are not abided to, punishment will ensue.

    Thanatophobia, or the fear of death, is derived from Ancient Greece where Thanos was the ruling god of death. Early twentieth century Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud believed that death can not truly be believed as a real occurrence, thus concluding that the fear of death actually stemmed from something else. The fear of nonexistence is a common factor to a person fearing death. Nonexistence is the concept of a person’s consciousness permanently ceasing upon death, leaving them stuck in an eternal oblivion. To null this fear, it is believed that upon death a higher power will take you to a place of everlasting peace such as heaven or afterlife. Freud suggested that religion is an illusion, comparing it to a childhood neurosis.

    In one of his final works, Moses and Monotheism, Freud suggested that “religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities.” (Moses) His writings suggest that religion is a human being’s desire for hope and fulfillment, and since people need to feel secure and absolve themselves of guilt, they choose to believe in the powerful father-figure of God. This theory was put forth again by anthropologist Ernst Becker who believed that the fear of death was most prominent in those who couldn’t accept death. Becker believed that a person’s own character was developed around the process of denying mortality and that much of the evil in the world is centered around those who denied death. Therefore, he suggested that the key to coping with an inevitable death would be to engage in life.

    “Primus in orbe deos fecit timor” translated as “Fear first made gods in the world” appears in the first century poem “On the Nature of Things” written by Lucretius. The ideas of Lucretius centralized around his theoretical fascination that the fear of death and all nature was the baseline for religion. He believed that the particles of a person’s soul immediately disseminated upon the death of the body, concluding that there would be no such thing as individual immortality. Consequently, this thinking illustrates that it is foolish to fear death and the terrors of the unknown when all that is known is based on superstition.

    Religious teaching embodies philosophy to possess whole and constant knowledge. The constant reminder of how precious human life is leads people to actively seek the guidance and protection of some kind of higher deity, and therefore turn to religion. The idea that humans can be completely mortal with no sense of divine interception is a terrifying concept for some, and the fear that perhaps God doesn’t exist is too horrifying to contemplate. Furthermore, the existence of God is based on no reliable evidence, only religious texts and a long standing belief. The ubiquitous belief in God all over the world through thousands of years of time cannot be explained since no consensus has developed any supporting belief even after so many years of research and debate.

    The price of living is the awareness that death is inevitable, and the fear associated with facing death creates an incentive to self-delude and assume that another life waits when death finally comes. However, it is scientifically impossible to know where a person’s soul will travel to after they have died. Despite being far from reason, the teachings of religion are actually worthy of some praise since it is directed by a concern of what is most needed for human flourishing and wellbeing.

    The idea of religion centers around the simplest human anxiety, mortality, therefore causing it to be eternal. Vidya Narayanan, a journalist through Mission, considers religion as “the only concept that has lived on for a millenia without being adapted to the advances in human society.” (Mission) The main principles of religion have remained unchanged for thousands of years and the “workings of God” have been explained through valid hypotheses and reasoning in science, yet people still maintain an unwavering belief to their god and religion. Human progress has moved forward in all dimensions of life, yet when it comes to religion, there has been no progress at all.

    Religious views are played off of human being’s worst fears as a means to bring tranquility into their lives. In the face of life’s uncertainties, many people turn to prayer as a form of hopefulness. Religion is a universal feature of humanity but at the same time, not all people are religious, and furthermore, the types of religious beliefs are within a wide range. Those who are more socially isolated seem to have a higher motivation for religion as a way to feel less alone. Likewise, people facing death may seem to embrace God near their end so their souls may go to a good place. It is human nature to perceive a higher force in the face of complexity and unpredictability.

    “Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms.” For the non-religious, it is an almost instinctive response to pray to a higher power in the face of a crisis. Even though these people do not strictly follow the teachings of a religion, praying in a time of crisis is a way to make them feel as though there is somebody somewhere who may be able to take control of the situation. Among the non-religious, “As many as one in five people pray to god.” (Independant) Personal crisis, family matters, and desperation tend to be the leading causes of the non-religious reaching out to God for assistance. Mostly as a last resort. This reinforces the idea that God and religion may not necessarily hold truth, but can be used as a barrier between reality and hopefulness.

    Even though there may have been a point in time when the ideas of religion brought about order and peace, the current abuse of religion is responsible for horrific brutality and rifts in humanity. Humans believe that through religion they can achieve redemption for sin, continuing a heinous cycle of recurrence. There is a deep rooted fear that those who sin will be eternally punished, therefore people will do anything to achieve redemption in the eyes of God. This belief is flawed however, as there is a strong misconception over the path to redemption. Religious texts and scriptures can be interpreted to say virtually anything that someone wants it to say.

    The Islamic terrorist group ISIS instills fear and violence across the world in the name of Islam. However, ISIS is a horrible distortion of Islam’s actual teachings. Religious scholar Resa Aslan makes the point that “people don’t derive their values from their religion [but] they bring their values to their religion.” (Aslan) Therefore, people use religion to justify beliefs and actions that may not be justifiable. Religion is a powerful means of motivation, yet there are thousands of violent instances in which religion is the main cause of conflict.

    The Bali bombers, hijackers who flew planes into the twin towers on september eleventh, and the Pakistanis who rampaged in Mumbai, all violently killed and terrorized in the name of religion. In an interview with The Guardian, Jane Caro speaks to the ties between terrorism and religion. “Terrorism occurs when you combine a sense of military and economic inferiority with a sense of moral superiority. Religion is very good at conferring a sense of moral superiority on its followers.” (Guardian) Caro’s thought process about religion illustrates that anybody can claim they are doing a moral thing as long as they can justify it with the words of God. Between people who otherwise have no differences, the ideas and practices of religion can create major divisions that can lead to violent conflict and wars.

    A principal mythology of death is the idea of “Mind-Body Dualism,” a thesis introduced by seventeenth century philosopher and scientist Renè Descartes. Descartes explains his mind as “simply a thinking, non-extended thing,” while on the other hand, he explains his body as the opposite, an “extended, non-thinking thing.” (Descartes) He concludes that since it is certain he is distinct from his body, he can exist without it as just his soul. The soul is the essence of a human being which offers humanity and individuality. It is further considered as a divine power, often thought of as having the ability to survive death long after the body.

    In Christian theology, Saint Augustine considered the soul as a “rider on the body” which reinforced the idea that the soul is an entirely separate entity of the body. Descartes believed in this theory, thus concluding that even after the destruction of the body, the soul may still live. The concepts of rebirth, heaven, hell, and purgatory are all based on this premise, promising death as something more than simply no longer existing. All religions such as Christianity, Buddism, Islam, and Hinduism describe what follows after death, all teaching different things. Yet, almost every religion holds the same basic idea that when a person’s body dies, their soul somehow remains alive in a different place and time.

    Death resides at the very core of the religion of the Christian religion and within that, a strong reliance on fear. The symbol of Christ hung upon the cross is a symbol of the Christian faith, a symbol that accounts for the ideals of redemption and rebirth. The First Letter of John exhibits the basic understanding that “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (John Letter) This suggests that within Christianity, fear and love are one in the same, furthermore suggesting that to abolish fear, one would have to completely devote themselves to God. As in the case with the Second Coming of Christ, there would be an immediate judgement against the dead and therefore, instant justice would follow.

    The judgement would henceforth send the good to heaven and sinners to hell, leaving purgatory as a middle ground for those who may yet achieve individual redemption. Jesus’s resurrection after being put to death gives those of the Christian faith that following truth and good morals will result in reward. The abuse of the power granted to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, stripped them of the prospect of an immortal life and promised them that death would one day descend upon them and upon their future descendants. The story of Adam and Eve enforces a deep rooted fear of punishment in the face of sin, reinforcing the idea that God will only send the faithful to heaven, while the unfaithful with be punished in hell.

    In the Hindu religion, it is believed that a person’s soul is immortal, therefore meaning that death is not the complete end. The Jiva is a living being or entity that is tied with a life force, such as a soul. Death is therefore a natural process in the existence of Jiva, a resting period in which the soul prepares and adjusts its course to return to Earth and continue its journey. The Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita follows the two possible paths of the soul following death, the path of the sun and the path of the moon. The path of the moon is followed by the souls who are to be reborn again on Earth, while the souls who travel the path of the sun are never to return.

    Lord Krishna describes the path of the sun as “the highest goal,” only to be achieved once a soul is “controlling all the openings of the body, with the mind established in the heart, fixing the prana in the self at the top of the head, establishing oneself in the yoga, uttering the monosyllable, which is Brahman, who leaves the body remembering Me.” (Bhagavad-Gita) The Hindu religion offers the chance for redemption while upon the path of the moon, giving unlimited opportunity for a soul to reach the path of the sun. However, the religion still follows the basic principle that all who sin will be punished, leaving believers with no other option than to devote themselves to God’s teachings if they ever hope to reach a stable and happy place when death comes.

    In the Islamic religion, Muslims believe that the present life is a series of trials and tribulations in preparation for the next phase of existence. With death, the Islamic believe that the deceased are tested by the divine power, questioning if the dead lived their life in sin. Those who did not devote their lives to the teachings of God are laid to rest in extreme agony and torture, having been said to become trapped in a grave of torture. However, this torture may not be eternal. The torture ends at the very latest with reserruction of the soul when God deems that the suffering has been endured long enough. Muslims are frequently reminded to adhere to these ways, warning that the only way to get to heaven is to show complete love and devotion to God.

    Across all religious traditions, regardless of the many paths of the afterlife, the same message is demonstrated throughout; Sinning and unlawful behavior is punished in the worst ways. The idea of Hell and eternal torture is simply a way of pressuring people into devoting themselves to their god and their religion, creating a farce that the only way to achieve happiness during and after life is to follow the teachings of something that has never been proven to be fact. The teachings of Islam suggest that a day of reckoning will come upon the human race, and everybody will be judged accordingly. Like in Christianity, it is believed that those who commit acts of sin will be sent to hell.

    In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it is believed that sinners are punished in their next life. Despite minor differences in beliefs, all religion follows the same moral principle; The only way to reach heaven or afterlife is to completely love and devote yourself to God and his teachings. Otherwise, the after life will be spent in agony and torture.

    Religion was born primarily in an attempt to lessen the burden of fear. It is partly the horror of facing the unknown and partly the idea that there is a higher deity that watches over and stands behind a person in their times of trouble. Fear however, is also a burdening symptom of religion. The looming threat of punishment in both life and death causes an unnecessary fear of judgement in the face of doing something wrong. God did not create man, but man created a God whose very existence is vague at best. When human beings are faced with trials and tribulations, they illusion that something out there can save them, and they grasp onto the higher power.

    Death begins when a person’s heart stops beating. Nobody knows, or will ever know, when death stops. Yet, regardless of religion, people will all end up in the same place in the end.

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    How The Fear of Death Gave Birth to Religion. (2023, Feb 09). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/how-the-fear-of-death-gave-birth-to-religion/

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