15 Jan How Not Thinking About Death Shapes Cultural & Religious Conflict (Part 1)
How can we use our own awareness around mortality to help overcome our aggressions and promote peace? Some social theorists assert that much of the violence and strife in our world is fundamentally the result of a shared cultural fear of death. As we look at the recent incidents in France, as well as other ethnic conflict around the world, we begin to see the application of this theory.
The existence of alternative worldviews can cause us to question our own convictions and beliefs. Sometimes it leads individuals and groups to lash out at others who do not share similar beliefs. This may lead us to feel defensive and hostile toward people who are different from ourselves—what sociologists call the out-group. And this defensiveness can lead to conflicts, including religious wars, state conflicts, and racial battles.
The ideas outlined above introduce the concept of Terror Management Theory (TMT), which I discuss in my upcoming book Death Makes Life Possible. Below, I share an excerpt with you that expands on this concept (originally theorized by anthropologist Ernest Becker) and offers a hopeful vision for its social implications.
Inspired by Becker, Jeff Greenberg and his colleagues proposed that a basic psychological conflict results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and this terror is believed to be unique to human beings. Each of us, according to TMT, is holding this suppressed death terror, largely at an unconscious level. In other words, we are not aware of the fear. To buffer ourselves against death terror, we seek to boost our self-esteem by affiliating with cultures or groups whose values provide our lives with meaning.
For example, religious affiliation is a strong factor in Becker’s model (for example, if you are Christian, or Hindu, or Jewish, you will affiliate with people of the same faith tradition). As we are confronted with our own mortality—or, in psychological terms, as our mortality salience increases—the theory predicts that we may become more aggressive and violent to other groups that hold different opinions, values, and worldviews than our own. At the same time, we may identify even more strongly with our “in-group,” which offers us a greater sense of social support and security against outside threats.
Researchers have also explored mortality salience in the context of various forms of extreme worldviews. In one study, the researchers explored Islamic extremism. Student volunteers in Iran were either given a mortality-salience prompt or not. They were then instructed to read an interview on martyrdom or an interview on peaceful solutions to a conflict. The volunteers who received the mortality-salience prompt were significantly more inclined to think favorably of martyrdom than the control group (those who didn’t receive the prompt). A similar study focused on politically conservative Americans and found that the group in the mortality-salience condition advocated for more violent measures when dealing with foreign conflict than the control group.
Becker described how our death terror ultimately can lead us to a perception that the world is frightening. There are various ways in which we attempt to manage this terror. Becker’s model says that we conspire to keep our terror of death unconscious by pretending that the world is manageable, that humans can have godlike qualities, and that the self is immortal. Society reinforces the creation of hero systems that lead us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth—the pyramids, for example, or great cathedrals, an orbiting space station, or the Internet. To deal with our own mortality, we feel compelled to create works or take actions that will live on after we die, giving us a perception of immortality.
But in the process of developing the hero myth, as comparative religious scholar Joseph Campbell called it, we have created personal and collective struggles. As our emotional stability is threatened, Kean explained to me during an interview, the existence of alternative worldviews can cause us to question our own convictions and beliefs. As we saw from the TMT research, this may lead us to feel defensive and hostile toward people who are different from ourselves—what sociologists call the out-group. And this defensiveness can lead to conflicts, including religious wars, state conflicts, and racial battles. In Kean’s words, we suffer from a crisis of heroism: “Our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world. Human conflicts are life and death struggles—my gods against your gods, my immortality project against your immortality project.”
Returning to the question posed at the outset of this blog, we can begin to understand the profound importance of our relationship to mortality. Our feelings about death deeply influence how we interact with the world and with others. In Part 2, I will expand on this idea and share the words of an Islamic man I interviewed for my book who speaks to the unifying nature of death.