Is today a good day to die? Try and seriously think about the question without having a little death anxiety. Now, I hope your answer is as close to a yes as there can be, but odds are, it’s not. I was asked this question about two years ago in midst of my own existential struggle of sorts, and was vexed to find an answer I was satisfied with. My first instinct was to say yes, but I sat on it and thought a little. By now the question had already slithered its way in my ear and was slowly wrapping itself around my mind, squeezing tightly to constrict any other chatter. My gut instinct suffocated under its vice grip until the question enveloped my mind and I blurted out No, I’d actually hate to die today.
My mind kept churning and my bones began aching. Hadn’t I come to my own semi-salient understanding of the circle of life after prowling through philosophy and science since disbanding the church as a teen? I should be L. Ron Hubbard clear by now, right? I’d been telling myself I’d learned how to accept my own inevitable fate, but the core of my body still trembled at the idea of me being me no more. The angst I was feeling turned into terror as the thought of my death evolved into the death of the sun, the solar system, the universe, time, space, and everything I’ve ever loved.
Thinking about death can often times be scary, and in psychology it’s referred to as death anxiety. Knowing you have a due date with demise, but not knowing when, how, where, or what will happen once you get there can be a real doozy. We spend our lives seeking to make sense of it all, but there’s no satisfying answer for a lot of our questions. Science has theories for gravity, black holes, universes, you name it; still there’s no consensus theory on death.
Searching For Truth
Prophets, preachers, and imposters have told their versions of truth for thousands of years. When people have near death experiences, sometimes they’ll come back with beautiful and elaborate stories of their afterlife. Maybe you took psychedelics for the first time and were comforted as your brain rewired itself to give you a childlike state of consciousness, providing profound feelings of ego dissolution and a deep understanding of everything as being one rather than independent. No matter what you want to tell me happens to your self after death though, the truth is, you don’t know shit.
So where does that leave us? Terrified yet? Feel some death anxiety? Well, no matter your answer to the question of whether or not today’s a good day to die, fear not and throw your ego in the backseat for a while. Stomp that metaphorical gas pedal into the floorboard and travel with me down a highway of theory and speculation. The trip may take a bit, but along the way we’ll see why we’re compelled to want to stay alive, how we manage our fear of dying, what impact religion can play in mitigating the stress of death, and how that’s amplified when it’s in the right environment.
We don’t wake up just to wipe the crust off our eyes. We get up and grab our toothbrushes every morning because we want to experience life. Consciousness is more than being awake, and it’s different than being conscious or self-conscious (please bare with the tongue-twisters). Consciousness is a state of mind, and it’s most active when we’re awake and aware of our surroundings.
We experience this state of mind in a first-person view, interacting with the environment around us through a highly individualistic perspective. Each of our flesh vessels embodies a form of self whose recognition is independently tethered to its corresponding body. So we feel our own personal experience private to our body and mind, and we fear nothing more than the detachment between the two.
Is our Consciousness Different Than Animals?
This fear seems to be an innately human characteristic, although really who knows? The subjectivity of it all is what makes it so compelling. As I look over at my dachshund and Jack Russell, odds are they could care less about dying right now. Their understandings of the world just aren’t evolved like mine, leaving them exuberantly happy to go chase the squirrel running along the backyard fence in hopes that it’ll shortly slip to its own end.
Of course, the squirrel always cunningly drifts across the fence and hops onto a tree until it’s out of sight for me, and smell for the dogs. It’ll go on to forage for food and try to get laid, strangely unaware of its own thoughts. The concept of thinking about thinking is what’s known as metacognition, and it isn’t unique to us humans.
Metacognition has been observed in some other animals (dolphins, certain monkeys, elephants, etc.), begging the question of what consciousness is like in different species? If their metacognition is on the strong side of the continuum, how self-aware are they? As it turns out, usually not very, at least in the way we are. Humans have a uniquely strong self-actualizing tendency thrown into the soup of our consciousness that provides the perfect recipe for us to be distinctly aware of our own boiling mortality, and of course, hardwired to procrastinate it as long as possible.
In psychology, Terror Management Theory (TMT) offers up an interesting explanation for this phenomenon. It lays out the idea that we suppress thoughts of nonexistence in order to cope with our own inevitable mortality. The biggest problem with this method of maintenance though, is no matter how hard we try not to think of it, we all know we’ll eventually die. Some believe the angst of it all stems from the uncertainty surrounding death, and not from the idea of dying itself. Others think the malaise spawns from the lack of control you feel from not knowing when exactly you’ll bite the bullet.
Regardless of how the discomfort is fostered, TMT argues that in response to the underlying terror of our looming mortality we’ve come up with systems of belief that extend our selves
after death. It’s a beautiful little piece of architecture, constructing elaborate realms of existence and then using them to buffer our knowledge of the world. The most compelling part of it all is that it actually works. These systems (religions) take the scariness of death and squash it under the ego’s fragile thumb, numbing the fear with effect.
How Religion Mediates Death Anxiety
Not all religions rely on an afterlife system, and that needs to firstly be noted. Tons of religions have differing dogmatic ideals on the nature of reality, and they don’t tell you that death is merely a transition. For those systems, I applaud the effort to embrace spirituality without relying on scaffolding involving a definite afterlife. However, because of this, TMT excludes your religion from those that mitigate mortality.
For the religions embracing the afterlife system, mortality salience diminishes in its population because followers challenge the idea of truth. When someone claims unprovable and highly improbable stories as fact, his truth changes and the line between life and death successfully blurs itself.
Unique Versions of Truth
Pair the idea of a life-after-life with some books written thousands of years ago that hold cherry picked lines from a bunch of white guys at the Council of Nicaea, and you get the perfect combination to squish anyone willing to put their truth in belief. Religions thrive on this and pack their pews week after week as people flood in to listen to antiquated and ultimately unprovable tales of lore and mysticism, no matter the fallibility.
A young boy from Religion X feels his deity (and of course know he’s the only and correct one) when he goes to a building and sings with his peers, but the Religion Y mom down the block isn’t getting past those pearly gates. Around the corner though, the mom feels as if she’s found the only truth and sings praises toward her creator. When our hands are raised in the air and we shout a Hallelujah! or an Amen! our skin suits fill with goose bumps in awe of the pure and idiosyncratic religious experience. That feeling we get, that alteration in our consciousness can compel our personal beliefs to triumph in the face of logic.
Adding Strength in Numbers
Religion becomes the true hero of the story, opposite the big bad Grim Reaper and his sharp sickle, by relieving the stress of dying. It comes in at the last second only to cut the red wire and save everyone from destruction. Study after study shows that having an intrinsic religiosity (holding belief in an afterlife system) decreases mortality salience. But what happens when it’s not just you? What happens when groups of people amass worldwide and live according to this type of belief? It bolsters their self and strengthens their ideas, building their intrinsic belief into an impenetrable wall of defense.
Religion and Group Mentality
Group mentality is so prevalent in our species that it’s an undeniable reason we’ve prospered in a world where only the strong survive. Societies operate with different political systems and use different money because they’re on made up patches of land, millions of people watch the Superbowl and pick which team they want to win before the game starts, and gangs/cults still recruit the youth without any problems. Just look at the Stanford prison experiment if you want to see the full effects of how the us-versus-them mentality grips us at our cores.
It also helps us form a religious identity, establishing a sense of self and community within the church system. Creating a religious social identity also provides us improved psychological well-being and supplies us with a higher self-concept. This deadly combo keeps us droning back for more, assembling around the coffee and donuts ready to listen to the sermon. When Brother Robert gets up on stage and climaxes with a heartfelt cry about the world coming to an end, the crowd weeps alongside him for the poor folk not joining them in their version of eternity.
Wrapping up Death Anxiety Nice and Tight
So religion and churches work for people for a number of conscious and unconscious reasons. The positives associated with intrinsic (and even extrinsic religiosity) are astounding. The extrinsic side of it bolsters family values, social gatherings, and what should be a positive message. The intrinsic side washes away the line between life and death, effectively increasing mortality salience. So we can surely benefit from the spiritual journey toward self-discovery religion provides us with, right?
Ultimately, I hope we can learn to just use the moral tenets behind the religions to treat others the way we’d like to be treated. Prescribing to an ideology that’s flawed in a lot of ways can ultimately have a deleterious effect on the way we lead our lives. Maybe I feel this way because TMT didn’t suppress my fear of death when I was a teen, as I quickly realized how hard religion seemed to be to hold in the face of what we now know as a society. This only pulled me away from the group and hindered me from creating that religious identity as part of my self-concept. Because it all happened below my awareness, I was shocked when my viewpoints started changing from my peers’ until we had little to nothing in common.
Whether you’re a kid living in Oklahoma like I was, a religious prophet, a young Jewish carpenter, an epileptic, a sinner, or a saint, your decisions are being affected mostly beneath the veil of your mind. The truth relies on your interpretation of truth, and if religion affects you in a positive way, who am I to judge? What I do know is that the fear of death lies in most all of us and coming to grips with it in a non-religious way can be very hard.
However, when you do finally gain enough knowledge to understand the beauty and complexity of life, the struggle and angst will reside back down deep away from the light of day. Your self will improve beyond any measure and you’ll gain a well-rounded view of the world without the self-reliance of a lot of religions.
Challenge Your Death Anxiety
We may never know the impetus that spawned religions involving systems of afterlife. Were the stories passed down through hundreds of generations as our ancestors looked at the sky in search of their own understanding of death, or was it something different? Did someone you know have a near death experience, re-animating only to tell you of wonders from beyond the grave? Did you try psychedelics and get the same experience? Whatever sparks your thought, I urge you to dig a little deeper and ask yourself why you believe what you do. Just as you start to feel confident with your logic, ask yourself: Is today a good day to die?
You may be surprised at your answer.