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Science and the fear of death

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Science and the fear of death

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By Jan Shannon

People are afraid to die; this is humanity’s truth. Our attempts to understand death, the why of it, not the how, are fueled by grief and fear and loss. These passionate feelings drive us to find a remedy for our pain at the loss of a loved one, or find a solution for the fear raised by seeing enemies on the horizon. How do we assuage our grief and deal with our fears? By creating religious systems that answer our questions and calm our fears.

Lacking any scientific reasons for the death, primal peoples were left to fear the unknown forces that struck down their friends and family. As time has gone on, and scientific knowledge has increased, one might conclude that our fear of death would lesson because now we at least know the causes of death and have some tools to prevent it, but I would argue that instead, science has increased our fear of death.

Ancient people sought to buy the favor of these unseen forces, thus buying themselves longer and happier lives. Primal religions created death rituals complete with gifts to placate the gods, and food to feed the beloved in the afterlife, whatever that may be. The Dieri of Southeast Australia even went so far as to ask the deceased who killed them by dropping the deceased and, by watching which way they fell, determining the culprit. All these rituals were simplistic forms of religion meant to ease the way of the dead into their new reality and ease the pain for those left behind. With the advent of scientific truths, we often no longer have to wonder how someone died, but we are still left wondering where they went.

With our newfound science, we can now assuage some of the fear of death, for example by knowing that contact with bacteria and germs causes illness we can refrain form that contact or inoculate ourselves from the resulting disease. This creates a more reasoned approach to death, in that we know why the person died so it is not the feared unknown quantity of the past. Death is a physical reality, and we now understand that, so modern peoples need not fear unseen gods who take our loved ones from us unexpectedly. Though we can explain the science behind death, this explanation creates a separation between us and the afterlife; between us and the divine. Whereas we used to grieve the dead because we did not know why they died or where they were going, now with this science-created separation from God, modern people grieve our loss and our pain not the deceased’s.

Our modern death rituals involve funeral services wherein the ones left behind can openly grieve their loss, with a meal or party afterward to celebrate the earthly life of the dearly departed. The emphasis is on this life and the people left alive. No longer do we offer gifts to the gods of the afterlife because modern people often don’t believe there is an afterlife. The lack of spirituality has place the importance on this life, and science has shown us show to prolong it.

As science has evolved, people have moved away from belief in the afterlife or the spirit world, but we have not lost our fear of death. Now, instead of putting food offerings in the casket, we try to eat right, exercise more, and live longer in a vain attempt to avoid death. Science has not removed the fear of death; it has just showed us how to play hide-and-seek with it.

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