Religion & Culture | Religious delusions and the psychology of death
"As early as five years of age I prayed fervently for Jesus' return. Little did I know that I was really fearful of dying."
Since time immemorial, death, an inexhaustible, implacable enemy, has stalked and devoured mankind. A sworn enemy, death is a morbid and depressing subject, even taboo, although, like birth, it is the signature, defining moment of existence.
If indeed there is life after death we believe that we have somehow conquered this deadly foe.
Ancient civilisations have presented the hereafter as an extension of life. The dead, especially royalty, were interred with items, sacrificed animals and their much-needed staff.
In Eastern cultures, an intriguing system of birth and rebirth was introduced called reincarnation or metempsychosis. (In the latter, the soul can devolve into animal form, depending on one's karmic debt).
While there are some compelling books on the likelihood that reincarnation is credible, none more so than Dr Ian Stevenson's Children Who Remember, the jury is still out on this complex doctrine.
No doubt, it is man's deep-rooted psychological fear of death that has given rise to all these unverifiable teachings.
In the article, 'Fear of Death Underlies Most of Our Disorders', the following is most telling:
"When we look closely at the symptoms of several anxiety-related disorders, death themes feature prominently. For example, children experience anxiety disorder that is connected to fear of losing major attachment figures, such as their parents. Compulsive checkers repeatedly check power plants, stoves and locks in an attempt to prevent harm or death.
"People with panic disorders frequently visit the doctor for fear of dying from a heart attack or serious illnesses.
"And specific phobia characterised with excessive fears of heights, spiders, snakes and blood - all of which are associated with death."
The fear of death is based on our unhealthy attachment to a myriad of things and people, including ourselves. The thought of no longer existing can be unsettling, even frightening.
We dread our inability to control what we think belong to us. We dread losing all influence over others, especially over those to whom we are attached.
When asked what is the source of pain, (fear of death) Gautama Buddha answered, "attachment".
It is this attachment to self that has created mythologies of the afterlife. It is the fear of death and hope of existence in some other form that has given birth to religious delusions in eastern and western traditions.
So unhinged by the thought of dying that some of these delusions even promote immortality of the body. How else can we explain the stupendous promise made by Jehovah's Witnesses that the generation of 1914 will not pass away.
This claim has long been discounted and, as critic Doug Shields notes in 1914-2014 What will The Watch Tower do Now, many witnesses will turn away from their faith because of unfulfilled promises. (See 1914 - The Generation that will not Pass Away, The Watchtower, 1984. (Note that every witness featured on the magazine cover has long died).
Another equally fantastical teaching is that of the Rapture promulgated mainly by evangelical groups. According to this doctrine, the faithful in Christ will be seized or taken away (raptured), to assemble in heaven while unbelievers struggle to survive in choleric, tempestuous world.
Believers cite the following references to support their claim:
1 Thessalonians 4:17: "Then we who are alive who are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words."
Philippians 3:20-21: "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things unto himself."
1 Corinthians 15:51-53: "We shall be changed in a moment ... in a twinkling of an eye, for the perishable body must put on the imperishable and this mortal body must put on immortality."
David Cox, who disagrees with this premillennial doctrine explains, "(The Rapture) carries the idea of a sudden and secret coming of Christ in the air to catch away from the earth the resurrected bodies of those who have died in the faith and with the living saints.
"Those who teach this believe The Rapture is to occur just before the seven years of tribulation that overwhelm the earth as they believe is described in Revelation 4 through 19. Those that believe in The Rapture will often refer to the secretive taking away of those on earth.
"They say that families will be shocked by the strange disappearance of a father, mother or a child. A husband and wife we are told will be in bed and one will hear a sound and will turn to look to find the other is gone. This doctrine then teaches that the second coming of Christ will be invisible, leaving confusion and chaos among the remaining unbelievers ..." (Gospel Power, Vol. v11, no. 44, Oct. 29, 2000.)
In a fit of fatalism many, including agnostics, have resigned themselves to their fate in this life and just maybe the hereafter. Conversely, some have embraced a materialist philosophy, i.e., that there is absolutely no evidence of life after death.
While others, unconsciously stricken by the dread of dying have contrived, over time, wildly imaginative and spurious doctrines that defy reason. Not surprisingly, the majority sheepishly follow, urged only by their primal attachments.
- Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. His latest book: 'In Search of Truth: A Course in Spiritual Psychology', is available on Amazon. Feedback: email: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby