Religion In A Secular Age

As the world grows more secular with every passing year, it seems that when religion hits the news, it almost always looks bad.

To more effectively compete, religious leaders need to develop secular language to describe what is going on. For example, instead of talking about God, use the word “reality.” Talk about the power of human connection, community, and hero system.

From Academy of Ideas:

“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax. . . What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

This passage comes from Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death in which he puts forth and defends the thesis that the fear of death is the primary motivating factor behind much of human behavior. Or as Becker puts it:

“. . . the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

Humans, unlike any other animal, are aware of their own mortality. This awareness when reflected on, according to Becker, elicits levels anxiety and fear that can be so debilitating that to properly function one must repress, or deny, their mortality.

The way that Becker suggests humans go about denying death is by striving for the heroic, or in other words taking part in activities which lead one to believe they are part of something more than their physical body, something that will live on past their physical death and so grant them a form of immortality.

It is easy to grasp how an artist or writer can achieve this type of immortality through the creation of a great work which they know will continue to effect people long after their death. But it is more difficult to see how the masses of mediocre people, incapable of personally achieving the heroic like an artist, are able to fulfill their urge to heroism. Becker’s answer is that society acts as the vehicle in which the vast majority of people act out their urge for heroism. As he put it:

“In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush. We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having only a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

In other words, most people “deny death” by becoming fully absorbed in their social role and striving for whatever one’s society deems as most desirable; in our time this seems to be money, fame and status. As a vehicle for the masses to act out their urge for heroism, Becker went as far as to characterize society as a “codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”

In addition to explaining how humans deny death, Becker also spends time explaining why it is so essential for one to do so. In brief, Becker claims that the denial of death and associated urge for heroism is so integral to human existence because a failure to deny death through heroic achievement results in debilitating levels of stress, anxiety and depression which can potentially drive one mad.

“It was [Alfred] Adler who saw that low self-esteem was the central problem of mental illness. When does the person have the most trouble with his self-esteem? Precisely when his heroic transcendence of his fate is most in doubt, when he doubts his own immortality, the abiding value of his life; when he is not convinced that his having lived really makes any cosmic difference. From this point of view we might well say that mental illness represents styles of bogging-down in the denial of creatureliness.” (The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker)

Religious leaders should point out that the most intense atheist also subscribes to a non-rational hero system.

Ernest Becker writes in his book The Denial of Death:

The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over. But each cultural system cuts out roles for earthly heroics; each system cuts out roles for performances of various degrees of heroism: from the “high” heroism of a Churchill, a Mao, or a Buddha, to the “low” heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest, the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.

It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that lasts three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible…

You get a good feeling for what the self “looks like” in its extensions if you imagine the person to be a cylinder with a hollow inside, in which is lodged the self. Out of this cylinder the self overflows and extends into the surroundings, as a kind of huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag, a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape, with boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book, and the amoeba screams with soul-searing pain.

Usually we extend these pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly things; our selves are cluttered up with things we don’t need, artificial things, debilitating ones. For example, if you extend a pseudopod to your house, as most people do, you might also extend it to the inventory of an interior decorating program. And so you get vitally upset by a piece of wallpaper that bulges, a shelf that does not join, a light fixture that “isn’t right.” Often you see the grotesque spectacle of a marvelous human organism breaking into violent arguments, or even crying, over a panel that doesn’t match. Interior decorators confide that many people have somatic symptoms or actual nervous breakdowns when they are redecorating. And I have seen a grown and silver-templed Italian crying in the street in his mother’s arms over a small dent in the bumper of his Ferrari.
We call precisely those people “strong” who can withdraw a pseudopod at will from trifling parts of their identity, or especially from important ones. Someone who can say “it is only a scratch on a Ferrari,” “the uneven wall is not me, the wood crack is not me,” and so on. They disentangle themselves easily and flexibly from the little damages and ravages to their self-extensions….

Rony Guldmann writes in Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression:

The proposition that society consists in “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules of behavior” seems rather banal. And yet this banality is obscured by the subtraction account. For the latter relegates man’s need to “count,” to “earn a feeling of cosmic specialness” to a pre-modern past now transcended by strategic agents. Having been liberated from the illusory teleologies that once stimulated such aspirations, these agents simply maneuver through various coefficients of adversity toward their desired ends, dismissing any urges toward cosmic significance as illusion and vainglory. By contrast, Becker’s facially banal observations posit a certain symmetry and continuity between the pre-modern and the modern, as well as between the religious and the secular, which the subtraction account cannot acknowledge.
Becker’s observations speak to well-documented human experience. As he observes, the military leader who “after a short, whispered outline plan of attack, shouts, ‘Let’s go men!’ with proper gravity and conviction, says much more than simply that. He implies that of all times and all places, this is the situation that man should want most to be in; and that ‘to go’ into the attack is unquestionably the greatest, most meaningful act that one could hope to perform.”88 Culture, says Becker, “creates us”89 as agents. For it provides the language and symbols that allow situations to “call us to action.” Culture is what facilitates individual conviction, and therefore action, because it imbues the world with a significance that would justify action. And justification is what human beings want and need. Though attested to by common human experience, these dynamics are fundamentally incongruous with the subtraction account, and correspondingly with our sense of ourselves as disengaged strategic agents whose ends are not determined for them from without, by “forces to be reckoned with.” Strategic agents operate in a neutral environment where they determine their ends for themselves. The do not need to be somehow convinced from without that these are meaningful and justified. This may hold true of conservative “model citizens.” But liberals believe they have transcended this condition.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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