Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fear of Dying

It is ironic that those would rescue an animal from otherwise certain death face their greatest risk from the animal itself. Trapped, and too stupid to know the difference between predator and benefactor, they assume that their rescuer is a predator and seek to defend themselves accordingly. More than one person has died trying to save a creature that could not appreciate the effort.

One of the reasons that people turn to religion is the fear and pain of death. Unable to handle the prospect of their own death, they get grasp onto the idea that there is a life after death and cling to that idea as tightly as they can. No rationalist can pry his or her fingers away from it. Those who try are at risk of being attacked.

In saying this, I am not making any grand claim that all of religion is a psychological crutch for those who are emotionally weak. People have a number of different reasons for adopting religious beliefs. This is only one of them. Fear of death does provide a motive (even though not the only motive) to adopt religious beliefs.

The irony that I spoke of above is that those who are motivated to embrace religion by a fear of death have ultimately ended up shortening their own lives (on average) in the process. The religions they embrace have them dying sooner than they otherwise would.

Killing Oneself

First on this list, of course, are the religious commandments that cause death directly. The Kamakazi pilot who dies for his emperor, the suicide bomber, the crusader, the jihadist, all of whom head off to do battle and to die in the name of their God. This label also applies to the Jehovah’s Witness and Christian Scientist who refuses medical treatment that would otherwise keep them alive.

These people think that they are cheating death. They think that the manner in which they leave life on this earth determines whether they will die in fact, or simply transition to a new phase of life. As a matter of fact, all who choose these options do, in fact, die. No 9/11 hijacker or suicide bomber has ever found himself in heaven. No Jahovah’s Witness ever made a transition to an after life. They have, in fact, brought about what they most wanted to avoid.

The situation is as tragic as that of a mother who, thinking that her child is ill and in need of medicine, feeds her child a substance that ultimately kills the child. The mother, acting on her false beliefs, brings about the situation she wanted most to avoid.

I wrote recently about the debate on embryonic stem cell research. This, is another type of case in which a person’s religious beliefs hasten his or her own death. However, in these types of cases the tragedy is compounded. This is not a case where, like the Jehovah’s Witness or Christian Scientist, the individual refuses to accept certain medical treatments for religious reasons. These are cases in which an individual, for religious reasons, seek to prohibit others who do not share their religion from getting medical care that could save their lives.

The same arguments that are being used to block stem-cell research could, from a slightly different perspective, be used to make blood transfusions illegal – because the practitioners of a particular religion believe that God would not be pleased. Indeed, some religious practitioners, given the power of the state, can use the same principles being used to ban embryonic stem cell research to prohibit all forms of medical treatment.

Inoculation against disease, for example, was once thought of as “playing God” in that it took away God’s choice to wipe out whole populations using plague. Humans were thumbing their nose at God if they acted to inoculate humans from God’s wrath.

These are just two ways in which the fear of death causes people to embrace religion, which then causes the person to act in ways that hastens that which the agent fears most - their own death.

Being Killed by Others

These examples suggest another type of case in which those who turn to religion out of a fear of death do more harm than good. Not only do some of them end up killing themselves (though they foolishly believe they will not actually die), but they put themselves at risk of being killed by others.

Tragically, one common set of cases that fit this category involve the killing of children by parents and others following religious commandments. This applies to the child who dies because he is denied access to life-saving medical care. It also applies to cases in which children are forced to endure ‘treatment’ that is potentially life-threatening in its own right. An example of this is the case of an 8-year-old boy who died in 2003 due to suffocation in an attempt to ‘expel demons’.

This is a case of somebody killing somebody that they love out of misguided religious beliefs. The death, in this case, was not intentional. Yet, most cases of killing others for religious reasons are intentional. These are the suicide bombers, crusaders, jihadists, inquisitors, and even those who advocate capital punishment for certain criminal offenses because the Bible tells them that they are to kill such people (e.g., murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, witches, apostates, or anybody who denies the One True God – whoever that happens to be).

Science: The Rescuer

The rational person who fears death has no reason to turn to religion to find rescue from this fate. Indeed, religion will often hasten his death, and even more often suppress and destroy those things that have the best chance of saving his life. The rational person, instead, turns to scientists and doctors – people who study real-world physical and biological systems, rather than scripture. Through their study of biological systems, aging, consciousness, and the brain, they are continually finding ways of preserving a particular stream of consciousness, allowing it to continue under situations where it would have otherwise come to an end.

I know, for example, that scientists have kept my wife’s stream of consciousness going far longer than nature or God (if there were such a creature) would have allowed. As a child, she was treated for cancer that would have otherwise killed her. In March of last year, doctors inserted a pacemaker since her heart was not functioning well enough to keep her alive without such aid. If her parents had trusted to prayer alone when she was a child, or if we had trusted to prayer alone last year, she would almost certainly be dead today.

There are, of course, indirect ways in which science allows us to extend our particular strands of conscious over time – the hurricane and tsunami warning systems, the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors for our home, the circuit breaker, materials science and its relevance in sound construction and safe wiring, cars engineered to protect passengers from the force of impact, sanitation, and the like.

However, in doing this, scientists have routinely uncovered a set of explanations for the causes of these phenomena that leave no room for a heaven and an afterlife. The scientist says, “The theories that are the most proficient at generating hypothesis that then allow us to preserve and protect human lives are theories that contradict the basic claims of every major religion. They are theories that make it less and less likely that we have reason to hope for a life after death. Human consciousness is being tied more and more tightly to the brain to the point that we can tell with greater precision what parts of the brain to change in order to change the person’s psychology. If minds and brains are so closely linked, it us absurd to believe that the person himself can survive the destruction of the brain.”

Those who fear death hate science for saying this. They do not want to hear it. They view science as the enemy – snarling and kicking and doing anything in its power to strike back at this ‘attacker’ – paying no attention to the fact that the theories that yield these conclusions also yield the treatment options that can be empirically shown to save lives.

Religion actually does nothing to extend the length of a strand of consciousness over time. It only creates the false belief that a strand of consciousness will continue, then that strand of consciousness ends in fact. Even if we hold to an obligation to respect another person’s religious beliefs, my respect for somebody else’s belief in a life after death will not change the fact that he will not have a life after death.

Science, in fact, is the only institution that has had an actual affect when it comes to prolonging human lives, allowing strands of consciousness to continue when nature, or nature and religion, would have brought those strands to an end.

As a matter of fact, those who are alive today will almost certainly die. One of the reasons we will die is because earlier generations embraced religion over science. If earlier generations would have embraced science more and religion less, we would have a stronger foundation of medical science today to draw upon, and people who are dying today would have otherwise lived.

Scientific advances can give some of us a few years that we would not otherwise have, or improve the quality of life in any given year. However, embracing science today will not protect us from death indefinitely. It is too late for us – thanks to the generations that came before and their embrace of superstition over reason.

However, we could save the lives of our children, or their children, or their children. We could, at least, do a better job of protecting them from those forces that would otherwise end their streams of consciousness, if we care enough to do so. What it requires is getting a grip of our own fear of death and spending the time we have helping others.

What type of parent allows his or her own fear drives them to sacrifice the lives of their children?


Anonymous said...

Carl Sagan once held a lecture on science vs. pseudo-science to a great number of leading scientists. At the end he asked how many people would be present if not for modern, science-based medicine. Only one hand was raised.

Mine wouldn't be. (to readers) Would yours?

Anonymous said...

One should not underestimate the power of fear of death. It's probably one of the key tools in evolution that allow us to be here today. The exceptions to survival at any cost are rare enough among humans and animals to be remarkable, and are generally associated with sexual/reproductive situations, where the other powerful evolutionary force comes into play.
For this reason, I would not expect much success in attempting to change the desire not to die. You could even make a reasonable case that our brains are primarily intended to find ways to keep us from dying. It's not surprising then that when we run out of real ways to keep from ultimately dying, we turn to imaginary ways to accomplish it. Even if it doesn't accomplish it, it reduces the fear level. So the imaginary concept is a useful tool to achieve a real goal.
Given that the fear is driven by a powerful, necessary, involuntary process, trying to deal with it on a rational, intellectual basis could well be futile.
When you tell someone, "Your religious beliefs are wrong" you may also be telling them, "That big ugly death you thought you had escaped is back and it's going to get you no matter what you do."
They've got to want intellectual integrity or have some other desire more powerful than the desire to avoid fear to go along with you.