I am most grateful to Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick, who produced Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. I never knew them before that trip to Sun Coast, and still have not physically met them, though I hope to rectify that soon. Their movie provided both a direction for my Words Matter project, as well as a pointer toward the leaders of the research into the thought of Ernest Becker, much of which is now described, in abbreviated form, as Terror Management Theory (”TMT”).
Professor of Psychology Sheldon Solomon, at Skidmore College, is one of the principal investigators of this research. I interviewed Sheldon, and his colleague, Jeffrey Greenberg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, shortly after seeing the documentary for the first time. Here’s how Sheldon defined TMT in our interview:
Terror management theory was originally derived from the ideas of Ernest Becker, who, in the 1970’s, wrote a series of books in which he claimed that the uniquely human awareness of death has a great deal to do with just about everything that human beings do day to day. His argument is that people are the only creatures that are smart enough to recognize that we’re here, and if you know that you’re here, you also realize that you won’t always be around. On top of that, we realize that we will die someday, and that our deaths can occur at any time, for reasons that we could never anticipate or control. We also recognize that we’re animals and that, whether we like it or not, we’re no more significant than lizards or potatoes.
According to Becker, all these realizations would give rise to potentially debilitating terror, but for the fact that human beings, rather cleverly, although not necessarily consciously, solved this existential dilemma by the creation and maintenance of what anthropologists today call “culture.” Becker’s point was that human beings construct cultural Worldviews, beliefs that we share with other people in our groups, that essentially give us a sense that we are individuals of value in a world of meaning. When we have those beliefs, when we confidently subscribe to a belief that we have meaning and value, that in turn gives us a sense that we can live forever, either literally in the context of different religions, that provide the hope for an afterlife, or symbolically, just the idea that tangible representations of our culture will remain nevertheless.
“You’re calling it ‘Terror Management Theory.’ Were you calling it that before 9/11?”
Sheldon went on to say that, because our culture protects our psyches from the fear of death, if someone challenges our worldview or culture, then we often feel the need to defend that worldview in a variety of ways. If we are desperate enough, we may even be willing to kill others, who do not subscribe to our worldview, which explains quite elegantly most of the wars in the history of man. Sheldon asserts that approximately 175 million people were killed in the Twentieth Century alone, because of one group trying to change another group’s worldview by means of violence.
When you think about it, applied to the current tribulations of our fragile planet, we can see that much of what is happening regarding life in the Middle East, and with terrorism, is directly related to these ideas.
While I do not relish being compared to a lizard or potato, I do have to ruefully admit that my death is inevitable, and that, at the most base level, I am a stomach, fitted with teeth, who leaves great quantities of waste in the World, while consuming only other living things, in their herds, flocks, schools, gardens and orchards. I speak only for myself! All of this notwithstanding, I do feel a strong attachment to a supreme being, who we call God and Muslims call Allah, so I found Sheldon’s comment rather troubling, and likely unacceptable and disparaging toward holy figures in many parts of the World.
Sheldon corrected me immediately. He said that Becker, himself, was a very religious man, and that psychology only drops one off at the doorstep of religion.
I infer from Sheldon’s comment that, as all of God’s children know, there are some points that cannot now, nor ever will be, explained by science. It is at this point that religion provides us with faith about the absolutes. But just as religions are modalities for great good, they can also be modalities for great evil. All religions have been on both sides of this equation, from time to time. It seems to me that it is in the making of that distinction, on that holy/unholy teeter totter, where the future of humanity hangs in the balance.