Something that I have always found frustrating is how religious people (and people who are really into politics) are so dogmatic about their beliefs. As a skeptical atheist, I have come to realize that challenging peoples' beliefs is usually frustrating, maddening, and completely fruitless. Well, Doctor Professor Luke Galen gave a talk recently called Terror Management: How Our Worldviews Help Us Deny Death. You can listen to the lecture through the Reasonable Doubts podcast (of which he's a part): RD Extra: Denying Death, and you can see Dr. Galen's slides here (pdf)

I know not all of you like to listen to podcasts. So I went through it and transcribed a good chunk of what Luke said in his lecture, the parts that I thought were most important. I have a few thoughts afterward. By the way, I missed the beginning for reasons I can't remember (this took me a couple of days to make it all make sense) but this is a lecture about Dr. Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory.

Partial transcript:

...This is where we get neurotic about death. It's the ultimate inferiority complex. Our lifespan is limited. We realize we must die but in striving to overcome that, it creates more problems. We put a lot of energy into denying death.

One way to summarize Becker's theory: It's good to have a brain that can plan for the future and be self-aware, but the problem is that when we become scared of our own mortality it sets up a defense against that. Part of the defense involves symbols. We think symbolically and so our symbols set up a barrier. These symbols can be religious, political, symbols of our mastery over the world, symbols of making money, etc.

What Becker thought was that culture itself is a buffer against these threats to our self esteem. We set up our belief in culture and human culture really is an attempt to deal with threats to our own mortality and our self esteem. So first, what is self esteem?

Self esteem is not just a product of you, individually. What Becker thought was that self esteem was something you get a sense of only through other people. So you think of yourself as a valued person who has powers, who can act upon the world, but that is socially validated by parents, siblings, peers, a gradually expanding group of people. This gets more abstract and symbolic as the child grows up. So as a young adult you might latch onto ideologies. For many people this is religion. You join a church and get a sense of what you need to do to be good or bad from those groups too. The good thing is that these groups give you clear guidelines to derive your self esteem.

This can be positive or negative. So if you don't get positive reinforcement, you'll look for self esteem and validation in other ways. So this is why people join cults and gangs, etc.

Hero Striving System: whatever you use to seek pride and superiority. Everyone does this in different ways. The system is different for different people but it all boils down to wanting to feel worthwhile.

So cultural symbols can provide a buffer against our mortality fear. How can I transcend death? This is Immortality Striving. It all boils down to "the end is not the end." This could also be more abstract. Your cultural striving could be symbolic striving against death. You believe your genes and your legacy will pass down even after you die through your children. You create something that will last after your death, like a pyramid, or a lot of money, etc. You're saying, "I was here, I mattered." This maintains your self esteem.

Here's where the problem comes in. If you are so invested in these strivings, in these worldviews to drive your self esteem, that means any threat to those worldviews, to that symbolic system, if they are poked at, is not trivial. This will poke at your self esteem. This person is challenging my worldview. And someone doesn't even have to be mean to threaten you, because there are different worldviews. Every time you encounter a different person, a different culture, you see the standards of normal differ.

What Becker thought was that being presented with a different worldview is inherently threatening. Because if that guy's right, he has a different worldview, he seems perfectly happy with his system, and it's contradictory to my system, there's a problem for my system.

So a lot of war, strife and prejudice was really about more than just "you're different, I don't like you, you have funny gods", but it's a threat to our self esteem. So if he's right, I'm not going to heaven, or there isn't a heaven.

So an atheist's world view is very different and therefore very threatening.

People, when confronted with different worldviews have to find a way to deal with it. You can denigrate people (call them stupid); try to convert them to your worldview (proselytize or missionary work) - which validates your worldview and your self esteem; assimilate people - neutralizes the threat by getting them to give up part of it (Native Americans, etc);  accommodation - declaw the other worldview by incorporating some of their elements into ours (like blue jeans, hippy symbols, etc) in a very sterilized sort of way; or annihilate the other worldview - genocide, stamping out everything about the American Indians, even their buffalo, don't let them speak their own language, etc.

Here's where Terror Management Theory comes in, with empirical testing. There are 2 main predictions to test:

1. If we threaten someone with mortality thoughts, if we remind them of death, that should result in compensatory response to bolster their worldview.

Mortality Salience Hypothesis (around the 30 minute mark)

2. If we poke at someone's worldview and suggest that they may not be correct, we should see an increase in their death anxiety. They might become more fearful of their own mortality if their worldviews are challenged in some way.

From the clip of the video, Life and Death: Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality (video on demand), Flight From Death - The Quest for Immortality (dvd)

The first component of TMT states that individuals need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview.  The second component states that individuals need to feel as though they are value protected members, objects of significance within this worldview. This is self esteem.

Talk of politics and what kinds of leaders people will choose when their mortality feels threatened: (39 minute mark). (there is a polarizing effect)

There is a reciprocal relationship between threats and my own mortality and worldview.

49:00 - more religious studies: Here's an interesting one. A group of high fundamentalists (believing in biblical literalism) were confronted with contradictions in the bible, they unconsciously thought about their own mortality more.

What does that mean? What's at stake? It goes a bit deeper than they just want the bible to be perfect and literal, or that they want to preserve a belief in doctrine. When people are defending religious concepts, their worldview is at stake. When someone pokes at their belief and says your belief isn't true, or here is evidence against your views, it's more than just a contradiction of these facts, it's an emotional reaction the person is going to have because that is their ticket to immortality. It raises fears of their own death when those are challenged.

52:30 - creation and evolution worldview studied with similar results. Creationists who had their worldview threatened had higher unconscious death fears.

Implications: why won't people accept data on evolution? This study would imply that it's not simple bullheadedness or dogmatism, it cuts deeper than that. From a TMT perspective, these people are defending their worldview. This is what keeps mortality fears in check. If someone comes along and pokes at that worldview it's not just a matter of intellectual debate anymore, this is an actual threat to their sense of symbolic immortality.

55:00 Dual nature to mortality salience. Studies show that if you show the positive aspects of a religion, for example, then expose them to mortality salience, the people end up defending a worldview that is more accepting. So religion and politics might contain mixed positive and negative messages. If the positive ones are primed and made more active, the person when under threat defends those more too.

So mortality salience isn't all about doom and gloom and threats. What this would imply is that, it depends on what message is accentuated.

57:20 What about atheists, who don't have a worldview of literal immortality? Does that mean that we're immune from the effects of death threats because we're not expecting to live for the resurrection, or be reincarnated? That is, we are probably not using that as a security blanket. Essentially Becker says it  doesn't matter - "It doesn't matter whether their cultural hero system is frankly magical, religious and primitive, or secular, scientific and civilized. It's still a mythical hero system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of unshakable meaning. Civilized society is a hopeful belief and a protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense, everything that man does is religious." So there are just as many non-theistic, nonreligious worldviews that can be defended as religious worldviews. For example, the cult of Stalinism and Mao. Or other things people value like human rights, humanism, science: these things are also worldviews that are defended because they give our life meaning.

Somebody might not say, "I'm going to go to heaven, that's the only thing that would matter to me", but they might say that they support these values. That's their ticket to immortality. So this has the same effect. If anyone pokes at the Bill of Rights, messes with Jefferson, or says that science doesn't matter, to many people who have a naturalistic worldview that would be just as threatening as people who have religious worldviews. So these theories don't just apply to people who have supernatural or religious worldviews.

1:00:00 What should people do with this information? The denial of death in our culture is particularly strong. So one way to deal with that is to learn to have a worldview that acknowledges mortality on a regular basis. Live more consciously with those reminders everyday, not in a negative or morbid sense, but in a sense that this is part of life. "This is going to happen to me, and I'm going to make life count now, instead of saying I can transcend and cheat death."

Also, choose ideologies that don't rely upon the strident defense of "that guy is threatening my worldview, I'm going to wipe him out". Ideologies don't have to be threatening to other people. Make the unconscious conscious. Recognize that this is a bulwark to my worldviews, to recognize when you see a commercial, a political package, or a doctrine that this is really more than what it says. It's actually a worldview defense. If we make that conscious, we can recognize what it is that we're doing when we do it. So then we can take a step back and say, "I'm going too far. I'm defending myself against my own sense of insignificance by doing this action."

1:02:13 There are ways you can strive for immortality in a nondestructive way. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to strive against other peoples' worldviews. Find positive ways to find meaning for your lives through positive ways to defend your worldview; charity, supporting other people, etc.


If you've made it through the transcript and are still with me, congratulations. This isn't the most fun topic, and this post is really long. But it does have huge implications and can really help us in understanding our own motivations as well as how other people are dealing with their own fears and thoughts.

I have a followup, also by Dr. Luke Galen and the rest of the Reasonable Doubts crew, that will give us some very practical advice in dealing with people and their dogmatic beliefs. But this post was plenty long enough, so I thought I'd save it for later.

I welcome your thoughts.

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