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IT IS NOT DEATH WE FEAR

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...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.