How culture and religion condition people for death
Humans are hardwired to not die. Since the birth of everything from medical science to dieting, humans have nurtured the natural drive to remain alive. As crucial as this is to modern lifestyles, why are people so adamant about not dying?
Death is the common denominator for all, and it compels the fulfillment of life in general. This idea is present throughout Western media. From musicians like Logic in the songs “Fade Away” and “Everybody Dies,” to movies like The Fault in Our Stars, Boyhood and Cloud Atlas, death persists throughout all modern media in some way, shape or form and serves as a reminder of individual mortality.
It becomes obvious that there is a common theme of mortality that encourages a somewhat virtuous lifestyle through American media, but this mode of thinking traces back to ideas in philosophy and theology in general.
Explanations for death fill people’s lives to provide security for the day they enter their posthumous existence, or non-existence depending on if the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was right. His philosophy theorizes that death is painless because the state that surpasses life cannot be experienced.
However, theologians like Thomas Aquinas emphasized that faith is necessary for living a full life and is reasonable — as exemplified in his Five Ways. This theologian philosophy stresses the notion that God exists indefinitely.
Agnostic atheists may welcome the presence of God, but the unknowable has made it easier for such individuals to believe that death brings no suffering, no subject and no consciousness — hence Epicurus’ philosophy.
Although atheism generally practices disbelief in a higher power, it is still considered a religion.
“Atheists are religious, Atheists have a moral compass and a sense of self-righteousness,” said Senior Pastor John Yenchko of the North Shore Community Church in Oyster Bay, New York, “Man is inherently superstitious and [has] created many religions.”
The intangibility of death has been left open for interpretation, and humans have done more than interpret this concept throughout the history of humankind. Although the basic tenets of prevailing religions are inherently peaceful, people exploit these codes so that they may push an exceedingly human agenda. Evidence for this lies in everything from the Sunni-Shiite extremist conflict in Iraq to the Crusades of the late Middle Ages.
In the 11th century, Pope Urban II started a holy war with the Muslims of the Middle East to capture sacred holy sites like Jerusalem. The first period of the Crusades was pioneered by the Byzantine emperor at the time who needed protection from the Ottoman Empire. When manpower was becoming an issue, Pope Urban II told the people of the Holy Roman Empire that fighting in the Crusades would absolve them of their sins.
The Middle East, typically in Iran and Saudi Arabia, has a wide array of issues separate from its religious conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Many of these include hunger, disease and oil possession.
Although the human interpretation of certain holy books has caused a portion of the world’s violence, the core of monotheistic religions is to encourage their respective followers to live a benevolent, nonviolent lifestyle. Religion provides a set of guidelines to eliminate the fear of death so that when life comes to an end, the individual is prepared for whatever may come next.
“I have peace of mind remembering that Jesus Christ, or the second Adam, lived the life I should live — he died the death I deserve to die,” said Yenchko
Some denominations of popular, monotheistic religions like Catholicism, Hasidic Judaism and the traditional practices of Islam have played a role in the marginalization of certain peoples. This is also true with polytheistic religions like Hinduism and even Buddhism.
In Catholicism, homosexuals are seen as heretics in more traditional sects. In traditional Islam, women have to go through other men in order to get married and marriages are often arranged, which is also common in Hinduism — honor killings were also a prevalent feature of Hinduism in the 20th century. In Buddhism, women are often blamed for arousing the additional desires of men, which is a commonality with other religions as well.
Regardless of the similarities and differences of belief systems, accountability in death persists throughout all of them. Whether the end goal is enlightenment or passage into heaven, the inevitable mortality of human life acts as a motivation to live that life virtuously. Imam Muhammad Abdul Jabbar of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, New York, said that mortality plays an important role in both the lives of Muslims and other religious people.
“Mortality is always there, and it affects our behavior, our transactions with other people and why we should be honest,” said Jabbar. “This is not the whole life and people have to go to God with accountability.”
Without religion, humans still seem to manage. According to American Atheists, humans are born with instincts that prevent them, for the most part, from outright murdering someone because they disagree with them. Culture also fine-tunes instinctual behavior to encourage people to blend in with the environment they’ve been exposed to.
“For some people, finitude is a license to do what you want. Whereas for some people, the thought of finitude makes every moment more valuable in doing the right thing,” said Professor of Philosophy Terry Godlove of Hofstra University, “I tend to think more people are virtuous by nature.”
Whether or not the idea of an afterlife seems viable, in the end, it probably serves to not be an asshole in life. In the words of Senior Pastor John Yenchko, “You can’t go into heaven with dog crap on your soul.”
James Baratta is a first-year journalism student who’s here for a good time, not a long time. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.