Posts

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/business
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.

Podcasts

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
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  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.