There have been a number of recent articles and reviews that suggest the reason people cling to religious faith is their fear of death, and that the primary role of religion is to promote belief in an afterlife, in immortality. The implication is that it is a braver, more realistic thing to accept, as Epicurus and Lucretius did, our mortality and the fact that we will not be around to mourn our nonbeing.
More honest observers, like the atheist poet Philip Larkin in his fine, chilling poem “Aubade,” acknowledge that death is, in fact, something to fear. But the idea that the fear of death and the desire for immortality are the foundations of religion needs a more thorough examination.
Death certainly does get our attention, but the way in which believers have attended to it has changed over the millennia. The ancient Western view of death, shared by Jews and Greeks alike, saw the dead as “shadows of their former selves”: see Homer, Greek mythology, and Saul and the witch of Endor. The dead were shades, less vivid and shadowy remnants of who they were on earth, where life is truly lived to the fullest.
The idea of resurrection—first appearing among Zoroastrians and Jews, and then insisted upon with particular intensity by Christians—turned this view on its head. Resurrected life would reveal this life as the shadowy, unreal one. The fear is not so much death itself as that the life we have known—which offers hints of joy, glory, ecstasy, the possibility of love completely fulfilled—will finally not deliver what we have been educated, in these glimpses, to hope for.
We work to earn enough to eat, sleep, and get up again to work... And in the meantime, we have hints—in our loves, our celebrations, our momentary joys—of something much deeper and more beautiful. It is possible to settle for those shards, but who wouldn’t be reminded of the sentiments expressed in Peggy Lee’s great song, “Is That All There Is?”
What we are dealing with here is not so much a fear of death as it is a love of, and longing for, a deeper, wider living: a life more profound than we are capable of knowing in our present state, but one that such experiences have nonetheless pointed us toward. It is hinted at in the letters of St. Paul, in many places but perhaps no more pointedly than 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see, as through a glass darkly; then we shall know, as now we are known.” And Colossians 3:4: “When Christ, who is our life, appears, we also shall appear with him in glory.” And 1 John 3:2: “We do not know what we will be, but we will see Him as He is.” In the vision of the Transfiguration, the revelation at Emmaus, and all the post-Resurrection appearances: this is a new level of being, and we are called to it.
This is so much more than the fear of death or a desire to live forever. The idea of everlasting life, if it is understood as a simple continuation of life as we live it now, is horrible.
A look at what religious believers actually believe about life after death dispels the notion that religion is founded on a fear of death and a desire to live forever. Many observant Jews do not believe in an afterlife, but they believe in God. The religions of the East that believe in reincarnation do believe in an afterlife—one life after another, which we are doomed to live out until we manage, through serious effort, to escape the cycle. Buddhism teaches that the self which we might want to preserve beyond this life is itself an illusion. Christians believe in a resurrected life so unlike this one as to be unimaginable.
There is something about the nature of consciousness at its most pure and focused level—an incandescent quality—that can bring us to the present moment in a glorious, infinitely promising way; but our ordinary awareness is spoiled by past memories, present anxiety, and an imagined future.
The desire to be more awake, more aware, and a belief that on this side of death we are tempted to dullness, to a lack of acute awareness, has to do less with a fear of death than with a desire for life lived more abundantly.
What all religious traditions share is not so much a fear of death as a belief that life is not ultimately pointless; that it has a meaning human beings can know only partially; and that its value is not conferred by human beings alone. The secular, nonbelieving alternative seems to any serious believer a thin, attenuated approach to human living and to what we are called to be—both in this life and whatever may, or may not, follow it.
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