How Our Terror Of Death Forms Our Beliefs

stoppingVia New Humanist, Steve Cave on how an obsession with immortality shapes everything we do, believe, and create:

A group of American psychologists have discovered a simple way of turning ordinary people into fundamentalists and ideologues. It can be done anywhere and in a matter of minutes. It is just this: the researchers remind these ordinary folks that they will one day die.

The researchers behind this work were testing the hypothesis that most of what we do we do in order to protect us from the terror of death; what they call “Terror Management Theory”. Our sophisticated worldviews, they believe, exist primarily to convince us that we can defeat the Reaper.

Atheists and agnostics should not think that they are free from such comforting illusions of eternity. The psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists who developed Terror Management Theory have shown that almost all ideologies, from patriotism to communism to celebrity culture, function similarly in shielding us from death’s approach. Even the most enlightened of rationalists tend to have some solace-giving views that shape their action.

Read the rest at New Humanist

75 Comments on "How Our Terror Of Death Forms Our Beliefs"

  1. Unfortunately, I experienced this first hand. As an atheist, instead of some stupid
    magical BS deity hand delivering me eternity on a gold platter, I thought it would be
    science. Science will come up with a way to immortalize us all! Science will cure disease and extend our lifespans into the millions! Then reality gave me a cold, hard slap in the face.
    We’ll either blow ourselves up first or we’ll simply never get there because we’re too friggin ignorant. I mean hell, 60% of America doesn’t accept the fact of evolution and 1 in 5 thinks
    the Sun goes around the Earth. We haven’t even come close to curing cancer yet. We are still using fossil fuels for fuck’s sake. Sure, theoretically, it’s possible that science could indefinitely extend our lifespans. Is it likely? No.

    Even if it could happen, how would we sustain ourselves? It was a pipe-dream, a brief stint as a science-worshiping fundie before I finally came to terms with the fact that someday, I am going to die – my mother is going to die – my dogs are going to die – my friends are going to die – my lover is going to die – we’re all going to have to watch each other die one by one – some suddenly, some slowly, some horribly and painfully. It’s an ugly fact of life and I have come to terms with it – we die, the end. That’s all there is to it. And no, there won’t be any happy-fun-times yay let’s party in heaven for all eternity afterwards either.

    Thusly, enjoy the everloving FUCK out of life while you can because it’s the only chance you’re ever going to get.

    • How does one “enjoy” life?

        • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 23, 2012 at 9:07 pm |

          Isn’t that what atheists call ‘an irrationality mechanism in the brain’.

          • I could go on with the complexities of emotions, thoughts, instincts. But to sum up my comment,

            I don’t feel understanding the nature of emotions detracts from the experience.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 24, 2012 at 1:30 am |

            I see what you mean. I feel the more important question is the nature of experience.

          • No, no it isn’t. You’re thinking of Vulcans. News flash- they’re fictional.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 24, 2012 at 1:54 am |

            Richard Dawkins is a fictional Vulcan, well i’ll be damned.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 24, 2012 at 1:59 am |

            And the christian version of love is ‘God loves you as long as you do what he wants, otherwise you spend an eternity burning in hell.’

          • First off, no. Secondly, so what if it is irrational? Sex is still great. Chocolate still tastes good. Nothin like a good book and a cup of steaming coffee.

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 23, 2012 at 9:09 pm |


    • Enlightened One | Mar 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm |

      This is what always confused me about religion. Humans have the ability to become Gods if they choose to. Yes, it would take a whole new way of thinking and a whole lot of scientific breakthroughs, but the probability is still there. 

      One of my favorite sayings is: “We are the universe realizing itself and we have the ability to manipulate our self. Who is to say what is or what is not possible.” 

    • Evolution is a theory, not a fact.

      • Calypso_1 | Mar 25, 2012 at 11:09 am |

        I’ll remember that next time I prescribe antibiotics.  Penicillin is cheaper than Vancomycin anyway –  thanks!

  2. Planet Suck | Mar 23, 2012 at 4:44 pm |

    No shit fear runs this world.

  3. DUDE, can you link to the specific entry that image comes from on the blog?  it blows my mind and i must have the source!  THANK YOU!

  4. This explains just about every post on Disinfo.

  5. Malkiyahu | Mar 23, 2012 at 7:07 pm |

    “Even the most enlightened of rationalists tend to have some solace-giving views that shape their action.” That’s because it’s rational that some views will be solace-giving.

    This is more evidence of the evil and unnaturalness of human death.

  6. Mr Willow | Mar 23, 2012 at 7:57 pm |

    Seasons don’t fear the Reaper. . . nor do I. 

    For what is Death? 

    An end? 

    A transition?

    A new beginning? 

    None know, all speculate. 

    Should it come peacefully, may it be as passing into sleep. 

    Should it come violently, may it be with haste. 

    Psychopomp, grant me naught but sheer relief. . . 

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm |

      Some know.

      • Yeah, the ones who can’t tell us what it’s like…

        Because they’re dead.

        • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 24, 2012 at 1:21 am |

          I’m sure you could orchestrate some sort of ritual and ‘experience’ the loved ones spirit, of course, understanding the nature of it shouldn’t detract from it right?

          • Other than that it’s bullshit? That kinda detracts.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 25, 2012 at 2:37 am |

            So is love bullshit? Even if it is it shouldn’t detract from the external effect it has.

          • gwen jackson | Mar 27, 2012 at 6:36 am |

             that’s EXACTLY why it should detract from the effect it has!
            would you say the same of hatred?
            as above, so below.
            bullshit=bullshit, regardless of arbitrary value judgements that something is valid merely because we, in our petty perception, deem it “good”.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 27, 2012 at 8:21 am |

            What did i say about love?

            Not ours but your petty perception.

        • readytosaybye | Mar 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm |

          It’s the most peaceful pure BLACK you could ever imagine.

        • Eric_D_Read | Mar 28, 2012 at 8:44 am |

          People who have come back from clinical death (like me) can. 

          It’s just a dreamless sleep; a black gulf of infinity where your consciousness ceases to be. Peace and quiet incarnate.

      • Mr Willow | Mar 24, 2012 at 3:44 am |

        Some claim to know. 

        When it comes to what lies beyond this particular vista, I remain pretty firmly in the camp of non-judgment—and this is from someöne who engages with the spiritual realm through meditation and ritual and the like on a semi-regular basis. 

        After all, when looked at objectively, anything that I experience in that space could very well be a product entirely of my mind—but that could be said of the waking world as well. My point is, I can believe it’s real all day long, and it can make me feel more at peace, but regardless of my perspective, even an opinion informed by direct experience, it all could be completely different. 

        I think it’s interesting that, in general, the only people you hear about that know, definitively, what’s on the other side are those willing to kill themselves or others to appease the entities that reside there. 

        • Calypso_1 | Mar 25, 2012 at 1:37 am |

          This appeasement you refer to – care to elaborate?

          • Mr Willow | Mar 25, 2012 at 5:42 am |

            Allah (or his spokesman), says that all infidels must die, so they shall die. 

            Jehovah (or his spokesman), says gays are evil, or abortions are evil—that they (gays), an those that perform them (abortions) are in league with Satan, and must be purged from the world—so they shall be purged. 

            It is the will of God. 

            That sort of thing. 

            (and that’s leaving out the occasional parent who murders their own children because their deity told them to do so, so they claim)

            The orders are followed because they are free from doubt, and because they have the impression that one should never question their mind or deity—mainly this is imposed by ‘spiritual leaders’ to control them, for said leaders’ benefit. 

          • Calypso_1 | Mar 25, 2012 at 10:53 am |

            ah, I was hoping that you, as someone who engages with the spiritual realm, might have had some personal contact with  entities that needing ‘appeasing’.  : )
            …I have had experiences I would describe as such, but would not make any claim that said entities existed in a realm that I would experience with continuity after death. 

          • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm |

            Unless some of those entities are ancestors. Maybe they are trying to communcate from the realms of death.? I know of someone who claims to repeatedly make contact with entities that take the form of loved ones who have passed away. You don’t have to believe it but i can see that gives him solace so I dont think it should be judged. I tend to contact entities such as Shiva, Ganesh, Kali, Pan, Buddha, Lakshmir, Grey’s and many other collective consciouscness deities or ‘archetypes’.

            Having said that I agree with Mr. Willow that i don’t necessarily take any fundamental beliefs from them & I also believe my perception of them could be comlpetely wrong – I’ve found the influence of perception is a massive realization when one explores the  ‘spiritual’ realm.

          • Calypso_1 | Mar 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm |

            I tend to define this environment as an astral ‘biosphere’.  There seems to me to be as much or more diversity in this arena as our own corporeal world.  As to the manifestations being solely of the mind – I do believe that consciousness as possessed within the human experience has properties that allow it to act as a medium for both manifestation and perception of entities that exist apart from the receiver/observer.  The form by which they can be perceived is, in my experience, radically determined by the both the individual’s state of mind and ability to interact ritually or relationally with said entities. 

          • Mr Willow | Mar 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm |


            In general, no. 

            I think it is incredibly important, when exploring the astral/spiritual/mental plain, that one treat anything encountered as if it were real—regardless if your sane and rational self believes it or not. 

            In treating these things as such, when one encounters something they could define as intelligent, one should engage with it as if they were speaking with another person (our closest analogue). But in engaging with it in this manner, it is imperative that you keep in mind that you can disagree with it. 

            That is were most of the problems come from—any voice encountered is taken as being some almighty force or mind that one must submit to; it is never considered—in the case of a parent killing their kid, to take an example—that they can ask ‘Why?’ and have the thing speaking to them justify their orders. 

            So, even if someone/thing told me to do something I would feel uncomfortable/disturbed/horrified doing, at the very least, I would feel it pertinent to question their motives. 

          • Calypso_1 | Mar 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm |

            I concur.  My own experience with appeasement in such circumstances is not intelligences that appear to be of very high nature.  I would liken it more to stepping into an alley and meeting a wild dog who really wants to eat you, but would be assuaged by your bologna sandwich instead.

      • gwen jackson | Mar 27, 2012 at 6:30 am |

         Some know the shallow function of ego when they see it.

    • Calypso_1 | Mar 24, 2012 at 12:23 am |

      more cowbell

  7. downtowndave | Mar 23, 2012 at 8:49 pm |

    But there is only one who says, “He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.”

  8. Yeah, death is pretty sucky.

  9. Nostromo Operator | Mar 23, 2012 at 11:36 pm |

    I think the author of this article and it’s commentators should have a deep +3 day sessions of Ayahuasca in the jungle with a seasoned shaman and do an update on this subject.

    • JungleJunkie | Mar 23, 2012 at 11:41 pm |

       Let’s stuff Ayahuasca in a dead persons mouth and see what happens.

    • gwen jackson | Mar 27, 2012 at 6:25 am |

      yes, your hallucinations are so much more valid than any old stupid make-believe, made-up stuff like a religion.

      • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 27, 2012 at 8:07 am |

        If you did some research on the subject you’ll find that all the mainstream religions have their roots in hallucinations. Mystic’s, shamans and altered states of consciousness were common in the earlier times of religions until authorities appropraited the teachings for their empire and banned that type of exploration – as with the pre-BC jesus mushroom cults in europe, mushroom and hash cults in India, Hash cults were also prominent at the dawn of Islam.

        You can say it’s all bullshit but frankly I couldn’t give a fuck what you think.

      • SimpleTruth | Mar 29, 2012 at 8:41 pm |

         There is never a time when your brain is not on drugs. The body is a drug factory. Only the dead know sobriety.

  10. DeepCough | Mar 23, 2012 at 11:52 pm |

    “21st-century psychologists come upon staggering discovery–people don’t like to die!”

  11. This sounds like a high-falutin way of saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” which is still bullshit.

  12. Calypso_1 | Mar 24, 2012 at 12:16 am |

    Must not have been any adherents of Santa Muerte in this study.

  13. Believing in GOD gives me someone to blame for my existence how do you athiest exist without blame?  I blame my mother for getting her fat genes and my grandmother for getting me addicted to sugar.  The list could go on but really GOD it’s all your fault.  Everthing GOD created is perfect, but maybe GOD isn’t perfect?     

  14. If you’re going to just try and shove your particular reality tunnel down much throat, please do so without representing it as an existential fact. And cite your articles.

    This is directed to the author of the New Humanist article, not JacobSloan.

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm |

      It might have been unasked but i think its pretty healthy to explore other reality tunnels. Then you can compare & contrast it to the other reality tunnel you were in and then your already in ‘intelligence squared’.

  15. Any true spiritual path begins with death. Everyone already knew that. 

  16. there’s terror only because t.v. hasn’t desensitized us to it

  17. gwen jackson | Mar 27, 2012 at 6:19 am |

    LOL, good news, disinfo-ites!
    as I have been told repeatedly by many of you on this board, only everybody ELSE’s version of eternity is bullshit.
    but yours, YOURS is *special*, and *real*.

    no, REALLY!

    if you don’t believe me, just eat a handful of hallucinogens. because when YOU hallucinate, it’s REAL.
    but that only works for you; when you hallucinate you see real things, but other people just, y’know, ‘hallucinate’.
    remember, everyone is special, but you’re more special than any of them.

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 27, 2012 at 8:16 am |

      Unless you think you might die from ‘death from astonishment’. I recommend that you smoke a huge pipe of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine.

  18. A warrior starts off with the certainty that his spirit is off
    balance; then by living in full control and awareness, but without
    hurry or compulsion, he does his ultimate best to gain this balance.
    In your case, as in the case of every man, your imbalance is due to
    the sum total of all your actions.     

    There is nothing in this world that a warrior cannot account for. You
    see, a warrior considers himself already dead, so there is nothing
    for him to lose. The worst has already happened to him, therefore
    he’s clear and calm; judging him by his acts or by his words, one
    would never suspect that he has witnessed everything.     

    Knowledge is frightening, but if a warrior accepts the frightening
    nature of knowledge he cancels out its awesomeness. Knowledge is a
    most peculiar affair, especially for a warrior. Knowledge for a
    warrior is something that comes at once, engulfs him, and passes
    on. – Tales Of Power

    • Monkey See Monkey Do | Mar 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm |

      Beautifully said.

      • “The worst that could happen to us is that we have to die, and since that is already our unalterable fate, we are free; those who have lost everything no longer have anything to fear.”
        -The Fire From Within

  19. Heyitsbetterthanyours | Apr 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |

    Dood, what book is that picture from? I’ve wanted to do a children’s book with that in the end. Someone beat me to it.

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