Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #17


We continue the presentation, here offering:

Thesis #17 – Modern human beings, simply because we are becoming more consciously aware of the processes of socialization, group dynamics and psychological functioning, are already more likely in the first place to suspicion the fictional character of their cultural/religious narratives than those of previous generations. This is further aggravated because improvements in travel and communications technology force modern humans to confront the reality of the culturally/religiously Dissimilar Other on a regular, even daily basis.

Just to recap here a little, we have seen that mortality and death is a unique problem for human beings because we seem to be the only species that has the cognitive capacity to be aware of it and its inevitability years in advance of our actual death. We have created psychological defense mechanisms (also more or less unique to our species) designed exactly to block out ongoing consciousness of mortality and to mask it in symbols and stories that assure us of our significance, endurance, connections to the transcendent realm – in short, that death is not the final word, that we can conquer death or at the very least rise about the suspicion that death colors our lives in shades of inconsequentiality. Although these symbols and stories work on the level of the individual, they also work on the collective level, and this collective level of our most cherished symbols and stories is essentially what we mean by the word ‘culture.’

For most of human existence, the shielding effect of culture has served to guard us against naked confrontation with the inevitability of death and the highly stressed state of anxiety this awareness produces. Our basic trust in the correctness of our particular cultural worldview, with all of the values, beliefs, mores and customs that involves, has remained strong mainly because most places most of the time, human beings have only had direct and prolonged contact with those who share the same basic cultural worldview.

This easy and daily reinforcement of faith in the dominant cultural worldview has come to an end in modern society. High speed communications, travel and other types of technological advancements has had a paradoxical impact. While it certainly has ‘widened the horizons’ many people, it has also had the effect of making the world much smaller and compact, making all of us densely aware of the fact that our ‘way of life’ is but one among many possibilities.

When I was young, growing up in small town Indiana, I was vaguely aware that there were people in the world who did not believe in the Christian religion in which I was being raised. I knew this because of sources like National Geographic magazine, and because of the slide shows given by missionaries telling us about their wonderful work in the ‘foreign fields’ bringing the Christian religion to these people. But if I had really wanted to learn seriously about the beliefs and teachings of any religion other than Christianity (in fact, anything other than conservative Protestant Christianity!) I would have had to go to the local public library and seek out the few sources there, under the watchful eye of the librarian, who was also likely to have been one of my Sunday School teachers at one time or another.

Today, in that same small town, not only would a young person be kept abreast of the lives of people of other religions though television and the internet, but that young person may well have traveled to lands of other cultures themselves, and, while Christianity still dominates, would be able to find inhabitants of that same town who adhere to many other religions than Christianity, some by conversion but many others because they have moved to the town as immigrants from cultures in which their non-Christian religion dominates. That same young person may well be learning the basics of anthropology, psychology and sociology in high school or certainly in college. These disciplines are geared toward nudging students to see everyday life with a new eye, with the sense that reality is socially constructed, and that things could be very different from what they are. An unavoidable condition of life in the modern world, in other words, is a constant and daily confrontation with the culturally Dissimilar Other.

In short, modern human beings have the ‘fragile’ nature of our cultural worldview thrust in our face on a scale and a regularity that other human beings simply did not have. This cannot have any effect other than to weaken our sense of the ongoing utter rightness and unquestionable correctness of the values, beliefs, mores and customs by which we live. This in turn can only weaken the effectiveness of holding onto our cultural worldview as a barrier against the anxiety produced by awareness of mortality and the inevitability of death. People living in the modern world, as an inescapable consequence of our technology and population geography, must carry a burden of anxiety, now simmering, now boiling over, that no other era of human beings has had to bear.

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