Fear and Loathing in Your God Hole
There are two core aspects of human nature that, when put together, are both powerful and dangerous. The first is the human mind’s ability to abstract ideas. The second is the human mind’s ability to create stories to connect ideas. Without these two things we wouldn’t have technology or civilization. Yet, we also wouldn’t have war or hatred.
Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist who focused on the effects the fear of death have on society. His book “The Denial of Death” won the Pulitzer prize in 1974 for general non-fiction. This book basically is an argument for the idea that civilization is the result of a natural human tendency to chase immortality projects as defense against human mortality. He claimed when these immortality projects clash, you end up with fighting and war. Overall I agree with the core premise of this idea. In fact, I think the God Hole is really a collection of questions and fears that emerge from the fear of death.
At some point in your life you eventually realize that you are going to die. There is no escape. If you read much science you will also eventually realize that everything in the universe is going to die, thanks to entropy. You can thank the brain’s ability to abstract ideas for this. If you see that everyone gets old and everyone who gets old dies at some point then that means you too will die at some point. There’s also all the ways you will realize you might die at any moment. I’m looking at you aneurysms.
Next comes in your brain’s desire to look for stories that give answers to problems. You are going to die but you don’t want to. Maybe you can’t even imagine being dead. Well maybe when we die our body just dies but our mind and consciousness goes off somewhere else, so we never really die. If you’re willing to accept an answer like this, you’re also probably willing to accept similar answers to other difficult life questions. Pass on these answers to your children and build them up and eventually you get a religion. This is why religion fits so nicely in the God Hole. It’s designed to fit.
If religion helps you live your life, who am I to judge? I actually think religion can be a valuable way to deliver deep thoughts and discussion. But I’m going to guess that if you’re a very religious person, you’ve already stopped reading. If not, you might be angry. This is because I’m sitting here saying things that conflict with your immortality project: your faith.
Yet while these easy answers can assuage universal fears, the propensity to accept quick and easy answers can also be extremely dangerous. And everyone is at risk of accepting easy and quick answers. Your brain seems designed to work that way. The human brain evolved in order to make snap judgments and act in order to live in the wild. It evolved to feel like these answers are correct. The only check on it is conflict with new experience and information, but often your brain will just come up with a new easy answer or it’ll make you angry.
This propensity to accept and defend easy answers can let them control your life. It can let other people wield those beliefs to control your life to their own ends. These answers aren’t necessarily religion. They can be beliefs about politics, business, race, gender, nationality, conspiracies, etc. Any answer where you’re grouping members against non-members is dangerous in this way.
Often times these answers and groups will push and reinforce ideas about superiority over non-believers. Religions do it. Political parties do it. Sports teams do it. Nations do it. Racists, bigots, and terrorists do it. Businesses do it. Conspiracy theorists do it. These things let you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself and give you a sense of escape from death. As these easy answers run into constant conflict, it will let fear and loathing control your life. You let your God Hole be filled with landmines that lead to anger, hatred, and violence.
The only answer I see to this problem is to become a natural skeptic, to remain decidedly undecided. Any belief held too firmly can become a weapon, against you or someone else. Many injustices do exist and many beliefs are valid. But you always have a choice about what you believe.
When you’re angry or afraid, consider why you’re angry or afraid. Does your answer really make sense? Did you willingly choose that answer or did someone choose it for you?