Gods with anuses? This post concerns some of the elaborate ways humans seem to compensate for their anxiety about death.
A 2008 Harris poll shows that 61% of Americans believe that Jesus was born to a woman who was a virgin. Thus, by a landslide margin, Americans believe that a woman named Mary got pregnant without any of that icky sperm/penis/vagina stuff (whether a human ovum was involved is keeping theologians busy ). To keep the Savior pure and holy, I can only assume that Jesus emerged into the world through some sort of Divine Cesarean rather than out of the vagina, but the Bible is not clear on the actual method of delivery. Ever since the alleged birth of Jesus, Mary (who was “without sin”) has been referred to as “Virgin Mary,” despite her long marriage to Joseph, suggesting that she kept Joseph sexually frustrated for the rest of his life.
All of this uneasiness our animal nature is typical of many religions. In order to keep people focused on the other-world, religions work hard to convince people that human animal existence is vulgar and vile. According to many religions, our earliest “ancestors” were taught that human bodies were shameful even as they were being unceremoniously booted out of the Garden of Eden.
Rather than considering our bodies to be exquisite machines that constitute and sustain us, many religions portray human bodies as ungainly, oozing, disgust-inducing earth-bound vessels from which we will eventually escape, thanks be to God! We are to God as slugs are to us. Rather than embracing the marvelous functioning of human bodies, many religions disparage them though, paradoxically, they attribute the “design” of our sordid bodies solely to God, not to natural selection. Thus, there is one notable exception to the general rule: only when Believers are trying to fight off Darwin do they consciously strive to appreciate the exquisite function of human bodies. Oh, such a tangled web religions weave . . .
It’s not that the clergy don’t ever appreciate the human body. It’s just that, on the whole, religions are wracked with ambivalence. This especially comes out when humans are portrayed as doing the same sorts of things that animals do. For instance, if you want to see a religious conservative get bent out of shape, suggest that Jesus probably had “sex,” as was suggested in the 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Most church leaders are uncomfortable with the fact that their “fully human” Savior peed, farted or had orgasms. Was Jesus breast-fed? Oh, pleeaasee, don’t go there! To imagine the Virgin breast-feeding the baby-God would be to simultaneously make mere animals out of both Jesus and Mary!
Religions often portray Jesus as different than every other healthy person. Consider, the stilted “quotes” attributed to Jesus in the Bible. Truly, no one talks like that. Where’s his sense of humor? Where’s any down-to-earth sense of passion? Where are religious images or stories of Jesus laughing, kissing or craving a tasty meal? Jesus is supposedly a human man, but religions most often paint him to be a spirit-like entity that looks like a man but lacks genuine human animal vitality.
Based on my lifelong exposure to various Christian religions, the Jesus of the Bible doesn’t convincingly play the role of a flesh and blood human being. One notable exception is that Jesus could feel pain. It is claimed that He felt horrific pain while being crucified—a pain that has been idealized to a mind-boggling extent ever since this story appeared (see here and here). Immediately after the alleged occurrence of that gruesome massacre, though, it is claimed that Jesus floated to heaven. He was eventually joined by his mother (who was also his wife), the still-Virgin Mary, who also floated up to heaven (celebrated in a feast called The Assumption). As the story goes, those holy people left the rest of us stranded on this icky, dirty, rat-infested earth. May the rest of us all join those holy people some day—Jesus, Mary, Moses, Elijah and others–in the pure rarified heights of heaven!
A good rule of thumb for religions is that anything “of the flesh” is imperfect, temptation-generating and disposable, whereas things “of the spirit” are clean, perfect and eternal. Bodies are portrayed as disposable stepping-stones on the way to heaven, just as the Earth itself is seen as one huge disposable diaper for all of the disgusting stuff we will be leaving behind. Human bodies are also portrayed as temptation stations, dangerous obstacles to our ultimate spiritual ambitions. For instance, hordes of fundamentalists pray for nuclear conflict in the Middle East so that they can begin their “real” lives—they believe that the Earth’s destruction will allow them to float into heaven, enabled because God will transform their “lowly bodies”) and see here and here and here). In sum, many Believers engage in extraordinary mental gymnastics to distract themselves and distance themselves from their human bodies. This happens to such an extent that it makes you wonder whether some Believers can bear to look in the mirror in the morning lest they see something that might remind them of an animal.
Religions aren’t the only institutions that disparage human bodies; this attitude is ubiquitous. For many years, I’ve noted widespread discomfort with human bodies. The prevalence of this attitude has so utterly puzzled me that when I created this blog, I used the phrase “human animals” as part of the title. “Human animals” is a phrase that causes many people to wince, which delights the iconoclast in me; I believe that using the phrase “human animals” also serves as a provocative lens through which we can instigate punchy yet fruitful discussions about what it means to be human. Using the term “human animals” rather than “human beings” also helps to cut through incredible amounts of obfuscating cultural baggage.
I do realize that we humans aren’t exactly like the other animals. That we are immersed in culture, though, doesn’t mean that we have ceased living on Earth. All of us are forced to live with one foot in our idealized cultural world and the other foot in our animal existences. Whereas religions push us to spend more time in a top-down idealized permanent world, I have made it my quest to spend much of my time trying to appreciate our exquisite human animal-ness. To the extent that the meaning of life is a question of ontology, I’m putting my chips on our animal nature as the best place to begin the discussion.
Our aversion to our own bodies takes many forms. Over the past year or so, I’ve explored many anxiety-inducing cases, including euthanasia, traveling public displays of plastinated human bodies. the uncanny sameness of humans, the predictability of personals ads, our relatedness to sponges, my own skeleton, my not-so-distant ancestors, (and here’s more about my not-necessarily human ancestors), the many synonyms for poop, the common aversion to breast feeding or this description of the work by a Martian anthropologist. Many other topics indirectly touch on our aversion to our gooey bodies, including a post that questioned the arguments commonly given for free will. Consider, also, prior posts that have considered the works of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, contending that all meaning is embedded, not “objective.” The bottom line is that I have discovered that the human animal existence is an intriguing launching point for contemplating the types of beings we actually are.
It was with some delight that I recently encountered a series of articles elaborating “terror management theory” (TMT) (see here and here). This week, I finished reading one of these articles, a well-written comprehensive description of TMT: “Fleeing the body: a terror management perspective on the problem of human corporeality.” by Jamie Goldenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon. It was published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, 200-218 (2000) DOI: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0403_1. I don’t see a copy available to the public anywhere on the Internet, so you’ll have to take a trip to a university library to read it. [Update: I have found a copy]. Here’s the central thesis: “The body is a problem for humans because it reminds us of our similarity with other animals, which is threatening because it makes apparent our vulnerability to death.”
The article’s abstract defines the wide scope of application of TMT:
From the perspective of terror management theory, the human body is problematic because it serves as a perpetual reminder of the inevitability of death. Human beings confront this problem through the development of cultural worldviews that imbue reality-and the body as part of that reality-with abstract symbolic meaning. This fanciful flight from death is in turn a psychological impetus for distancing from other animals and the need to regulate behaviors that remind us of our physical nature. This analysis is applied to questions concerning why people are embarrassed and disgusted by their bodies’ functions; why sex is such a common source of problems, difficulties, regulations, and ritual as it is; why sex tends to be associated with romantic love; and why cultures value physical attractiveness and objective by women. This article then briefly considers implications of this analysis for understanding psychological problems related to the physical body and cultural variations in the need to separate oneself from the natural world.
The authors of this article developed TMT in response to a simple set of questions that have long puzzled me: “Why is the human body so often a source of shame, anxiety, disgust and other difficulties?” Here is another way the authors focused their inquiry:
“Although it is eminently reasonable for a concern with death to lead people to engage in behavior aimed at preserving their bodies physical health, and people certainly do often strive to maintain their health, they typically seem more preoccupied with concerns about how their bodies look, smell, or form and compare with cultural standards.
Why do we work so hard to transform our bodies into something other than what they are? You might think that because we are all facing certain death, we’d devote a lot of energy to trying to live healthy lives. You’d think that we’d have little trouble motivating ourselves to eat good food, exercise and otherwise take good care of ourselves. The authors noted, however, that rather than be obsessed with taken steps to lengthen our lives, most of us are obsessed with distancing ourselves from our own bodies.
TMT is based upon the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. His work has been synthesized with the writings of many notable scholars, including Soren Kierkegaard and Otto Rank.
According to the authors (Goldenberg, et al), humans have “sophisticated cognitive abilities” that created a big problem but then cobbled together a creative solution. The problem is that the evolution of our powerful ability to be conscious made us aware that we are mortal beings and that all of us are heading toward inevitable death. The “solution” is also offered by our highly developed cognitive abilities: we have developed the ability to wall off our cognitively toxic fear of death by “objectifying” our existences and living idealized lives free from fear of death. This is a powerful technique that allows us to worry about little things like paying utility bills and painting the weathered front door, even when we are in failing health in our 90’s and death looms large.
This effort to run away from our own bodies makes me suspect that there is considerable overlap between TMT and an earlier post I wrote about dissociative states in general and, in particular, about our strategic ability to not deal with toxic thoughts.
TMT starts from an obvious and unpleasant foundation:
Not only is death certain; it can come at any time and it can result from any number of unpleasant causes; at any moment we may crash our car, fall victim to violence, or discover that fatal tumor. Thus, we humans are aware that our most basic desire for continued life inevitably will be thwarted.
The human concern with mortality was beautifully noted by Shakespeare’s MacBeth:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
What do we do about our appointment with dusty death? We design our culture to “assuage the terror associated with the fear of death.” Our culture provides answers to such fundamental questions as: “How did I get here?” “How should I live my life?” and “What happens after I die?” In the answers that culture provides to these questions, culture offers us an idealized plane of existence. Instead of considering life to be about breathing and walking on Earth for a few decades, then being dead, culture allows us to concoct, through the use of symbols, the option of being part of something bigger and more meaningful.
Individuals are rewarded for meeting cultural standards of value and a sense of symbolic immortality, that is, the feeling that they are valuable members of something meaningful, important and longer-lasting than their individual lives.
To the extent that we are successful in living up to our culture’s standards, we are rewarded with a feeling of “self-esteem.” Our idealized culture stops working well, however unless we are assisted in our efforts to maintain faith in our cultural worldview. That is best accomplished by associating with like-minded folks, people who see eye-to-eye with us. For an example, consider how frustrating it is for a person who is an avid sports fan to be in the company of people who view sports fans as idly wasting time watching rich adults play children’s games. Or consider the friction generated when isolated Muslims claim that their religion is superior to Christianity in the company of many Christians (and vice versa). None of us like it when others burst our cultural bubbles.
The authors of the TMT article have proposed a mechanism that explains how it is that we develop the ability to use culture to buffer ourselves from the real-world fears. These ideas are planted in us when we are young:
Self-esteem and cultural worldviews serve their anxiety-buffering function by virtue of experiential linkages established very early in life between meaning and value on the one hand and safety and security on the other. In short, as children, we learn to control our distress and anxieties by embedding ourselves in the symbolic reality conveyed by our parents and other cultural agents and by meeting the standards of value that garner love, support and protection from them.
TMT research shows that the effects of mortality salience are specific to thoughts about death. In other words, death is different than other disturbing things (such as intense physical pain, social exclusion, meaninglessness, feeling an important exam, giving a speech, paralysis, death of a loved one, actual failure). The reviewed studies give strong support that worries about one’s death “influence a wide range of behaviors directed toward sustaining faith in one’s world view and belief in one’s worth in the context of that worldview.”
The authors have proposed two central hypotheses:
The first central hypothesis, the Mortality Salience Hypothesis suggests that “if a psychological structure (i.e., worldview or self-esteem) provides protection from mortality concerns, then reminding people of death should increase their need for that structure.” The authors reviewed dozens of experimental studies that have shown that reminding people of their own death leads them to cling more tenaciously to their cultural worldviews. When reminded of their death, people cling more to those with whom they share cultural standards and they criticize and ostracize those who disagree with them.
The second hypothesis is the “anxiety buffer”: If a worldview or self-esteem protects us from our worries about dying, then strengthening the structure should “reduce anxiety in response to stress and specific reminders of death.”
Therefore, A) fear of death makes us cling to our cultural ideals and B) having a strong set of cultural ideals calms our existential anxiety.
The TMT hypothesis bifurcates into “proximal” and “distal” situations: We engage in “proximal defenses” (we suppress these thoughts and try to rationally deny our vulnerability) when death is the current focus. When death is not in the immediate focus (when it is “distal”), we strive for self-esteem by trying to living up to the ideals of our worldview
This article suggests that TMT explains a wide range of puzzling social phenomena. For instance, TMT offers an explanation of why so many people intensely dislike the work of Charles Darwin.
Darwin’s (1859) theory of evolution by natural selection was his plausible explanation for how humans evolved as a species of animals from primate ancestors. The devastating implications of Darwin’s theory is fathomed readily even by those with little or no understanding of the theory itself: if we are animals, with an origin similar to the origins of all other animals, then there is no more reason to posit a soul, spirit, or divine origin or destiny for us than there is to posit such things for the barnacles so assiduously studied by Darwin, or for the single-celled organism that presumably was the ancient ancestor of all life.
For many folks, Darwin has turned us all into freakish beasts heading toward the abyss in a life that cannot possibly have any meaning. Ernest Becker puts it another way: “We are ‘gods with anuses.” According to the authors, “it is this paradox that makes the body such a problem.”
As I suggested at the top of this article, religion often seeks to remedy the Darwin “problem” by trying to de-animalize human beings and churches have many rules for this. To the extent that we are forced to admit we are animals (and we often must admit this in the real world, since we pee, poop, belch, bleed, breathe and pick our noses), we then insist that to the extent that we must be compared to animals, well at least we are at the top of the chain of being!
TMT recognizes that people like to be left alone to revel in their own world views. Many of us don’t like iconoclasts and skeptics. This point is supported by a broad range of research: “[H]umans need to maintain faith that their cultural worldview is the one correct and valid worldview; therefore, others who disagree with that view pose a psychological threat.” We saw this attitude running rampant following 9/11. Those who supported the Iraq invasion were infuriated by those of us who dared to ask obvious questions.
For the converse situation, consider this. If we want to mistreat or kill others, we portray them to be animals (sub-human, rats, dogs, cockroaches, monkeys). It’s ironic that Creationists try to insult scientists by urging that the scientists are trying to make monkeys out of us! This attempted insult is technically wrong (no scientist claims that humans evolved from monkeys) and evolution is not threatening to anyone who takes the scientific method seriously. BTY, I don’t know why some of us (skeptics and scientists) seem to be less willing to feel death anxiety or to generate elaborate schemes to bring it under control–sometimes I wonder whether they (I include myself as one of them) are born less sensitive to social concerns than others. But back to the topic of TMT . . .
The authors devote much of their article to the topic of sexuality, which merits an especially bizarre place in our culture: “Sex poses a unique set of problems that contributed substantially to the development of particular cultural regulations and attitudes about sex.” The problem, of course, is that sex, which offers unparalleled pleasure, is so damned animalistic. The solution to this “problem” is that we imbue sex “with meaning and significance that elevates it from the world of the creaturely and animalistic into the realm of the sacred and the sublime.” Hence, our unrelenting efforts to characterize lust as “romantic love or other strong emotional connection between two people.”
This point reminded me of Freud’s observations that people often don’t react strongly (in a sexual way) to close-up views of human genitals. He concluded that people often find other sorts of images (e.g., even clothed people) much more sexual (I’m paraphrasing, and no, I can’t remember where Freud wrote this). Many people have independently come to this same conclusion, that people wearing clothes can be much sexier than naked people. To many people “sex” includes many things that distract them from human bodies. It’s about satin sheets, mood lighting, the right kind of music, artificial smells and conspicuous consumption of flowers and other gifts.
While considering that so many people work so incredibly hard to make sex proper, I was also reminded of Freud’s concept of sublimation. The authors consider this point too: “People use sexual relationships to affirm their attractiveness, sex appeal, and virility, all of which can be central components of one’s self-esteem.” We have concocted romantic love to “elevate us beyond our animal nature to an abstract spiritual plane of existence; we become soul mates with our beloved.”
When you combine religion with sex, it gets all the more interesting. We end up with an untold number of regulations about “who can do what with whom, where, and when.” Further, consider that “most religions condemn the pleasure of the flesh in favor of spiritual pursuits.” This makes sex for-the-mere-pleasure-of-it an especially big target for those who are anxious about death. Thus, we find many religious leaders condemning sodomy, sex toys, homosexuals, unwed marriage and, of course, masturbation. A large body of psychological research exploring these attitudes is described in this article.
The authors further suggest that TMT can also shed some light on sexist attitudes. Why are we much more worried about standards for the physical attractiveness of women? TMT offers two reasons. A) men have traditionally had more power “and so they have had more control over the focus, creation and enforcement of beauty standards,” but also consider B) there are more rigorous standards regarding female bodies “because of the more obvious association of the female body with a very creaturely process of childbirth. Women bear children, lactate, and menstruate. Although men certainly play a role in reproduction, it is a less obvious one.”
Also in this article, the authors consider feminist literature, elaborating the many ways in which women are required to deemphasize their animal nature. Simone De Beauvoir wrote of these methods of hiding the animal nature of women, above and beyond the obvious make-up and jewelry: “feathers, silk, pearls, and perfumes serve to hide the animal crudity of her flesh.” They cited further research establishing the common-sense observation that people are “squeamish” about childbirth, menstruation and lactation. They also cite a 2002 study demonstrating that when women accidentally display their creature-aspect (by dropping a tampon) others evaluate that woman to be less competent and physically distance themselves from that women.
There is much more to consider in this fine article, but I’m merely summarizing the main themes. If you are intrigued by what you read here, go get the article. In their conclusions, the authors consider the price we’re paying by using culture to escape from our animal natures. Here’s what they suggest: “[O]ur flight from our physical nature causes us to lose a bit of what it means to be human. According to Becker, “we may be robbing ourselves of half of our identity.” We are stuck in a Catch-22: we must control anxiety to embrace the pleasures our bodies offer, “but we must largely forsake our bodies and cling to the world of cultural symbols and standards to control that anxiety.”
I would suggest that we are paying a much bigger price than the authors suggest. In my opinion, it’s always better to learn how to deal with difficult topics than to avoid dealing with them, no matter how tempting it seems that we should avoid the topic at any given moment. By not dealing with reality, it sets us up for needless misunderstandings, inefficiencies and even violence. It leaves us existentially mismatched because we end up living in a world other than the physical world we occupy. Those who don’t fully recognize their animal natures can never actually experience how to live in the moment. When we fail to deal with the fact that we are animals, our idea of what is proper or moral is misaligned because the world we believe in is not the world we live in.
What else do we miss when we fail to become comfortable with our animal bodies? Consider that we almost universally consider the moment of child birth to be extraordinarily beautiful and significant. Indeed, we celebrate a person’s “birth-day” for the rest of his or her life. Yet how many people have ever seen a live birth? I never have, even though there have been billions of births since I was born—I have never been invited to observe one. I hadn’t even seen a video of a baby entering the world through a woman’s vagina until about six years ago when I viewed a NOVA documentary called Life’s Greatest Miracle. The video lived up to its title and provided some compelling graphic footage that would, I’m certain, make millions of Americans squirm. I’d bet that relatively few children or young adults have ever seen a baby being born, either alive or in a video. Why not share opportunities to witness this common miracle? I suspect that it’s because we consider it impudent to see a partially naked woman giving birth—there really isn’t any way to meaningfully view a live vaginal birth without seeing some female animal-like nakedness. I suspect that this nakedness makes it difficult to watch such videos because we are reminded of that humans are animals, which causes us to become disgusted for the reasons described by TMT.
Though religion is considered in this article, the authors don’t argue that TMT “explains” religion. TMT can be said to set the stage, however. Certainly, the aversion to one’s body, combined with symbolic escape invites a wide variety of idealized religious-based community-bonding. This approach complements my own understanding of religion, which is that religion due to a complex causal cocktail, of which aversion to body is an extremely important ingredient.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us – John 1:14
To tie the bottom of this article in with the opening paragraphs, consider the way that many Believers substantiate the love Jesus felt for us: he dared to degrade his Divine Holiness by willingly sentencing himself to inhabit a human carcass for several decades. “He became human,” the congregations shout and sing, convinced that Jesus paid a big price by living as a human animal. Growing up Catholic, “becoming human” didn’t sound like such a bad thing to me. To many religious folks, though, the willingness of Jesus to live as a human animal was a great sign of love because it was so degrading to Jesus. The choice to degrade one’s self is clearly a big part of what Christians celebrate, and it can be seen to make sense for a reason eloquently described by Amotz Zahavi, who recognized that reliable signals are expensive ones: The transubstantiation was Jesus’ version of the peacock’s tail. The willingness of Jesus to assume a degrading human body can be seen as a “gift” in much the same way that “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). In a previous post, I discussed this process of giving a gift by harming one’s self.
Much of this religious celebration can be accounted for by TMT. Christians wouldn’t celebrate a God’s choice to live “in” a human body unless it were demeaning to do so—unless it were beneath God to do so. For many Believers, a willing choice to become human is demeaning because human bodies are such creepy water-bags. When God Himself choose to sully himself by taking on a life that necessarily involved scatology, earwax and boogers, this could only mean that he deeply cares about us, right? If human bodies weren’t such a bad thing, God’s choice to live in a human body couldn’t be celebrated.
Christian admiration for Jesus is thus largely based upon the anxiety and disgust we feel for our own bodies; it’s not only about their Savior’s willingness to allow his human body to be slaughtered in the crucifixion. TMT has thus helped me to better see how Christians are buoyed by their belief that their God allegedly sent his Son to live on earth as a flesh and blood human.
With fear of death as the backdrop, Christianity has worked hard to idealize the discomfort/disgust we feel at our bodies, inviting us to participate in a pre-made anxiety-buffer that gives our lives meaning; Christianity (and other religions too) thus offer Christians an invitation to experience self-esteem by participating in an idealized and permanent other-world that is purportedly far, far away from our human animal existences.