A Peaceable Faith: Part 1, The Dark Side of Outliving Your Life

My book The Authenticity of Faith, perhaps my least read book, is an attempt to face a significant concern that can be leveled against religious belief. Can we practice a peaceable faith? Or is faith intrinsically bound up with hostility and violence?

I first faced this issue when I encountered the work of Ernest Becker, his books The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. I reencountered the issue when I discovered the empirical research of Terror Management Theory. 

Many people know about and have read Becker's The Denial of the Death. Fewer have read Escape from Evil. But the argument Becker makes across both books, and sharpened by Terror Management Theory, has devastating implications for the life of faith.  

Becker begins his argument by noting that humans face an intolerable existential predicament: We are the animal that knows it is going to die. This knowledge creates a crushing weight of existential anxiety. This anxiety would prove to be debilitating if it were not for cultural worldviews that provide us with pathways toward symbolic immortality, along with religious beliefs in literal immortality. Literal immortality, like going to heaven, is straightforward enough. By symbolic immortality Becker means human efforts to leave a mark on the world after your death. We want our lives to have made some positive difference, and that positive difference, the ripple effects of my life, is a form of symbolic immortality. At my school during May commencement we give an alumni award called the "Outlive Your Life Award." According to Becker, we're all trying to win some form of an outlive your life award. 

All this effort, along with religious beliefs in life after death, assuage and sublimate our death anxiety. "Sublimate" is a Freudian term that describes how we channel our anxieties into valued outlets. Our death anxiety becomes productive. Those alumni who win the Outlive Your Life Award have done some pretty amazing things. They have started businesses, engaged in philanthropy, impacted thousands of lives for the good. Anxiety becomes the engine of culture creation.

Which is good, and bad. Becker mostly focuses upon sublimation in The Denial of Death, how we try to outlive our lives through what Becker calls "cultural hero systems." But he turns to the dark side of these efforts in his follow-up book Escape from Evil. Few people have read this extension of Becker's argument. 

In Escape from Evil Becker asks the question: What is the source of the hostility and violence in the world? Shockingly and disturbingly, Becker points his finger at our outlive your life awards. Basically, the values and beliefs that imbue our lives with purpose, meaning, significance and existential security are being deployed to manage anxiety. Simply put, our cherished beliefs, our religious beliefs among them, are operating as psychological defense mechanisms. Consequently, when we face people who deny, challenge, or espouse alternative values and worldviews we engage in what Terror Management Theory calls "worldview defense." We lash out and demonize cultural outsiders, for their mere existence calls into the question the ultimacy of my cultural and religious worldview. Cultural outsiders challenge the truth and legitimacy of my beliefs simply by existing, simply by being different. This implicit (and explicit) challenge makes me very anxious, so I attack difference. Sometimes physically, but most often through hostility, stigmatization, marginalization, and other forms of social and political coercion. 

Summarizing, Becker brings us to a very depressing conclusion: The values and beliefs that give my life purpose and security are the primary source of evil in the world. This is the darkness that haunts the outlive your life award.

As you might guess, when I first encountered Becker's argument in graduate school I was stunned. Shaken. Ernest Becker was one of the most shattering religious experiences of my life. My encounter with Becker triggered many decades of my own peculiar sort of religious "deconstruction." While most people "deconstruct" to come out of religious fundamentalism, my quest was preoccupied with Ernest Becker: Can religious belief escape worldview defense? If it could, how? 

Is a peaceable faith possible?

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