Fear of Death

Death is the inescapable consequence of mortal life. Fear is a primeval emotion, a defensive mechanism emanating from the primitive limbic system in the brain of all mammals and perhaps other animal forms as well. In humans, who over millions of years have evolved an enlarged cerebral cortex and cognitive state of being, the realization of mortal finiteness evokes our sense of fear. We know we are going to die; it is the most quintessentially human quality. Interestingly, not all humans fear death, nor do those who fear it realize that fear in the same way. But are cognitive perceptions surrounding death and the innate fear of it can only be truly contemplated and understood when viewed in context of the historical backdrop these cognitive perspectives have evolved within.   

In the course of our mortal existence, particularly during our years of youthful exuberance we disregard and discount our awareness of an impending mortal ending. Neither is our mortal death a subject of discussion in our tutelage, instead we are spoon-fed mythological notions of an eternal afterlife right along side of fairytales and superstitions about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and alike. Even so, even if there is a post mortal existence we can look forward to, the fact we must experience a mortal death to achieve it remains an impediment to our embracing it.

In the historical record, the first evidence of human observance of a death ritual and possible post mortal existence is found in the graves of ancient modern humans in Europe. These people, simply known as the “Funnel Beaker People” began at some point to bury their dead and along with them the supplies and necessities they might need in the afterlife. Not long after, ancient Egyptians who may well have learned of the practice from their European neighbors, took the life after death concept to the extreme, outfitting pyramids and burial chambers with every conceivable utility of life a person could need in the next life, even including human companions and servants. The Egyptians also believed, that in the after life ones earthly body would be needed and ultimately resurrected, taking great care to preserve it.

While pyramid building lasted for almost a thousand years, no rebirth of any bygone personalities, no tangible realization of any afterlife became apparent. Tomb robbers likely poured fuel on  the fires of skeptical thinking, reporting that all that remained in the temples of the afterlife were well preserved bones. The idea of a post mortal existence, at least in the sense of transcendence of the mortal physical embodiment to it, began to loose favor  circa 16th century BCE. Then, in Egypt, a new concept of the post mortal life emerged, designed around ones personal relationship with an omnipotent supernatural deity. The concept was short lived then, but would experience a resurgence in Babylon about a millennium later. It is then and there, that the notion of a chosen people destined to aspire to a blissful immortal realm first materialized in the minds of men. It is only fair to note, of course, that this new amalgam of monotheist belief incorporating an immortal heavenly abode, may well have borrowed its concept from the far east where notions of a Nirvana had long before gelled in the minds of men. The monotheist Heaven may equally have been influenced by more ancient Teutonic notions of Valhalla.

In the sixth century BCE, ancient Ionian investigators visiting and contemplating the attributes of more ancient Egyptian and Babylonian cultural edifice, evolved a new cognitive sense of human existence and of the universe around them. They dared suggest, that phenomena assigned to godly notion be it of mono or polytheistic flavor, was more likely natural in origin. Moreover, they reasoned if there was to be any transcendental conduit to an immortal realm then its realization would more likely involve the spiritual essence of human existence. In their way of thinking, the physical incarnation was simply a temporary repository for the soul which would enjoy the benefit of reincarnation until its gnosis was complete and a union of physical and spiritual essences was realized thereby; ushering the individual or what they perceived to be the essence of their individual nature—the soul— into the eternal realm. This Ionian group, then exiled to Croton on the Italian peninsula, were known as Pythagoreans. Again, as with the Egyptian form of monotheism, the Pythagorean dualist belief would last just two generations before the establishment still holding to strict classical notions of polytheism would eradicate the minds holding its notion.

Fortunately, a fragment of Pythagorean dualism survived, but to this day we have only later derived interpretive perspectives of it. Nevertheless, during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE this new way of relating to mortal existence and the human realization of mortal death had a profound effect on the psyche of humanity in western culture, and from it three succinct themes emerge. One would take form in a compendium attempting through anthological record to establish the preeminence and chosen status of a new and reemerging sect of monotheist belief called Judaism. Another more philosophical vein of thought evolved in the mind of the polytheist Greek thinker Plato. Finally, there was an aspect of human study not tethered to religious ideology, but to the understanding of natural phenomena which would centuries later be termed “scientia” by the Romans and which we know today as science. In Latin, the term simply meant knowledge, being derived from the Greek word of congruent meaning “gnosis.”

During the latter half of the 1st century BCE, a new effervescence of intellectual interest resulted in a proliferation of new versions of neo-Platonism and Judaism spilling outward from the city of Alexandria in Egypt. One form of Gnostic belief, which began as a reformational form of Judaism during the period, later gained greater acceptance in the Greek community than with the Hebrews, perhaps as a direct result of its association with the former Pythagorean concepts of humanism and brotherly benevolence. Indeed, what would later become identified as Gnostic Christianity was deemed heretical by rabbinic Judaism, the death of its namesake being called for by the priesthood. While this belief was emerging, Judaism which had mounted an insurrection against the Roman occupation of their perceived promised land resulted in an all out Roman assault against  Judaism.

In the second century CE, a second form of Christianity emerged in the Roman community. The Gnostic Christian doctrine continued to follow a course of dualist belief, albeit quite different from the dualism of Judaism, but the Roman form of the belief would established a tangent to it called Trinitarianism. This belief suggested a new status of a “holy spirit” or the essence of God in Man through the example of Jesus the Cristos and provided a new ascent to the post mortal plateau of existence. Moreover, the new belief hinted at the idea that one could achieve transcendence without necessity of mortal death, a certainly alluring attribute of Trinitarian Christian belief.

So virulent was the Trinitarian belief that it was able to do what no opposing legion ever could, bring the Roman Empire to its knees. In the fourth century, the Trinitarian’s gained absolute power, the religion unified with the political state and any non conforming belief was outlawed. Essentially, if you were not a Trinitarian your life would be forfeited and the situation remained this way for more than a thousand years. Every new generation of Trinitarian Christians  believed they were the chosen one to be plucked from this earth still breathing, still alive in every mortal sense, to spend their eternity in the blissful heavenly abode. Indeed, even those who died but were believed worthy, would be resurrected from death and given a new “mortal” body, or so suggests the facade of Trinitarian belief.

The Trinitarian belief, of course, persists to this day, hundreds of millions of subscribers to it awaiting the moment of their rapture and in some cases attempting to hasten it by instigating the fulfillment of theocratic prophesy. This Trinitarian prophetic interpretation is one of Zionism  calling for the reestablishment of a Jewish state and the rebuilding of the temple. The problem is, there is currently a mosque at the location in Jerusalem where that temple must be built, and until the Muslims are subdued that can’t happen. In the mind of George Bush and the many who share his Trinitarian belief, the purpose of the Iraq war was not to bring democracy and freedom to the people of that country, to neutralize any weapons of mass destruction or subdue Al-Queda terrorists. In his own words, that war was a “Crusade against and axis of evil,” and it was his full intention to carry that war to the heart of radical Islam in Iran. The term “crusade”  is Latin for “gods war” or “holy war;” in the Arabic lexicon, “jihad” implying the same exact meaning.

So what does all this have to do with the fear of death? Well, the only reason the Trinitarians wish to reestablish the Jewish state and erect a new temple, is so all the Jews can be destroyed in the tribulation following the rapture as called for in St. Johns Revelation. George Bush, Sarah Palin and the multitudes of others who believe as they do have only one objective, and that is to cheat death. Indeed, released in 2000, the motion picture sensation “Left Behind” and its subsequent follow on books and sequels has made rich men of its writers and spawned a giddy exuberance within Trinitarian believers, catering to the insecurities of those so mortified by the prospect of their pending mortal demise that they will forgo any sense of rational process to cling to any vane hope of avoiding it. These conscripts to Trinitarian tutelage have overcome their fear of death by simply subscribing to a facade of belief they neither understand nor can in any way substantiate, Its all a matter of faith, belief without proof, but its enough to belay their fear of death; or so they will tell you.

Ironically, in the 16th century the facade of Trinitarian belief developed a few cracks. One would come from within the religious establishment instigated through the Protestant reformation. The other was manifest through the practice of scientia and Nicholas Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe, the biblically stated immobility of the earth and long held Aristotelian geocentric model called into question by it. If Copernicus was right, the Bible must be wrong and fallible, hardly the literal word of an omnipotent creator deity dictated to and written down by man. The Trinitarian solution to the problem was to assault science, ignoring what they couldn’t dispute, maligning through character assassination any practitioners of science who’s intellect they could not subdue with their wordy irrational theocratic arguments. It was an effective method and to this day remains the sharpest arrow in their quiver. Just look how they continue to malign Charles Darwin while failing in the past 150 years to provide a scintilla of evidence in disputation of this brilliant and methodical scientists theories, even though science has since established as a factual certainty of evolution.  

The problem is, they have no choice, they are petrified by the fact they will some day die and the only option they allow themselves in dealing with this mental cancer is to ignore their impending doom at all cost, even if that means discounting what they know is the real truth. But what of those who don’t share a belief in Trinitarianism or for that matter any sense of a blissful eternal realm? A hundred and fifty years ago, you could probably have entertained all the atheists and agnostics in western culture in a single small room. Today their number has grown substantially representing as much as 13 percent of the aggregate populations of European and North American. But are these non or quasi theists any less afraid of death? Hardly.

In the greater part of a life lived by this human, the occasion to witness death has been all to frequent, and as one approaches the median of mortal expectancy the fact of death becomes all to frequently reinforced. But I have to say, no matter their status of belief, I have never met another human who didn’t fear death, although I have come across a few who were equally afraid to live. I would propose that in the final analysis, anyone who claims no fear of dying should not be trusted but suspect of some nefarious deceitful motivation. But can any atheist believer, anymore substantiate their belief to any degree of certainly? Is there truly no post mortal existence we can strive for, some notion which gives reason and purpose to our mortal existence.

Interestingly, the ancient Pythagoreans and Gnostic Christians may have been able to provide answer to this. In fact, some 1st century Gnostics actually believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the reincarnation of Pythagoras himself. When we consider reincarnation we generally jump to the immediate realization of it in the sense of physical and spiritual embodiment. In other words, we think of ourselves in terms of the reemergence of our exact persona, reborn in some future human or animal specimen. That is an absurdity disprovable through simple mathematical analysis of probabilities of genetic configuration recurrence. The fact is, no two humans ever have or ever will have exactly the same configuration of DNA nucleotides, a minimum requirement for reincarnation in any biological sense of it.      

But consider for a moment a perspective of reincarnation in a more  intellectual sense. For instance, when we consider the intellectual product of some antecedent human, we have the opportunity to instill in our own mind the exact same perceptions that human realized. Furthermore, given the anatomical similarities of our brains wired by 10,000 years of the human genetic cognitive legacy, can we not speculate that a thought in one human brain would require the creation of pretty much the same neural connections in another attempting to contemplate it. This would suggest an element of intrinsic evidence establishing instances of intellectual reincarnation. When you read and understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, committing it through synaptic capture to your own cognitive facility, are you not in essence capturing too, a subset of Einstein’s own intellect, his own unique synaptic configuration? Are you not giving new life to Albert Einstein if only in the cognitive intellectual sense? Amazingly, this is an instance of reincarnation which can be scientifically substantiated and a true reality, in essence supporting in one aspect the notion of intellectual immortality; incidentally not inconsistent with the teaching of Pythagoras or Jesus of Nazareth.   

If nothing else, the forgoing notion erodes the atheist premise that there is no post mortal existence, that this life is it. It affords new hope that death is not the end but the beginning, given that we have established a personal intellectual presence to pass on to the next generation. But is it enough to subdue our fear of death? Maybe.

As eluded to at the outset of this article, death is the ultimate consequence of mortal life. As we have seen here, we can conjure up all sorts of notions to belay that consequence, but in the end we can and must accept it. This process of acceptance is called learning and we have a whole life time to learn how to deal with our death. The only difference will ultimately be how we live our lives.

Pythagoras and Jesus of Nazareth were two men who contemplated the reality of their death and came to terms with it. They spent the rest of their lives  committing acts of selflessness, practicing the virtuosity of benevolence for their fellow man and a doctrine of humanism. There quest in life was not to better their own lot but that of their brethren. They were willing to give all, even their own life for the betterment of all mankind and in so doing have been immortalized. Yes, we all must die one day, but if we can come to terms with and accept the eventual certainty of that reality, perhaps we too can quit fearing and worrying about it and find the purpose for our own mortal existence.