We are gods with anuses: another look at “terror management theory.”

December 14, 2008 | By | 30 Replies More

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,
Signifying nothing.

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.


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Category: Culture, Evolution, Human animals, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (30)

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  1. AnonaMiss says:

    I'm getting a little fed up with your evolutionary psychology and terror management theory. These theories are in no way scientific (no falsifiability), and don't take into account the sheer breadth of human experience. Like many pseudoscientific claims before them, they reduce complex human behavior to a set of simple motives and then claim their opponents' disagreement in fact proves that they're right. "The Devil himself has deluded them into thinking he doesn't exist!"

    Now I'm not sure if terror management theory is just supposed to apply to Western society, but if it's intended to extend to more than that, then I think it's got a pretty narrow and even demonstrably wrong view of the world. Many religions, such as most Native American ones, explicitly view humans as one among many kinds of animal; the Mormons believe you keep your physical body in the afterlife, with all its bodily functions intact; the Epic of Gilgamesh describes the afterlife as a dark place where people eat dust; and if my Sunday school teacher was correct, the ancient Jews didn't believe in an afterlife at all – thus their fixation on punishing or rewarding people eternally through their ancestors rather than in anything resembling modern concepts of heaven or hell. (I had the good fortune of being raised in a liberal church that taught us about Christianity's history. I have left nonetheless, but with no ill will.)

    If TMT is intended to be specific to Western culture – that seems like a cop-out to me. "Claim!" "Counterexamples!" "It doesn't apply except in those cases when it's right!"

    In a more helpful vein, my world history professor did make an interesting generalization about different cultures' views of the afterlife: the better real life was for a culture, the better its afterlife was claimed to be. This doesn't appear to be related to class differences a la "the meek will inherit the earth" – often you were locked in your class in the afterlife as well. It could be related to raised expectations, or to needing greater comfort cause you've got more to lose when you die, or to some other reason, or it could be a complete coincidence. Again, we have a lack of falsifiability.

    Also, I think it's quite possible humans have an aversion to bodily fluids for disease reasons. Hygiene is one of the human cultural universals, and whether its origins are in genetic or memetic evolution, there's no denying that a culture without hygiene taboos would have a lot more disease problems. There are lots of species with hygiene taboos.

    There's just too many claims I disagree with in here and in all of your writing about TMT and evolutionary psychology to address, but it mostly comes down to lack of falsifiability, oversimplification of human behavior, and a lack of consideration of other possible explanations.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    I have to agree with AnonaMiss. I think the response of the majority of humans through time to this rant (excellent and insightful as it is in many ways) would be: "speak for yourself, modern Western man. You have professionalized and sanitized birth and death and waste disposal so that you almost never dirty your hands, for us they are every day hands-on projects. " When you are talking about Christianity here, you are talking about cultural traits that suffuse modern Western culture, religious and secular. I

    If you want to see someone in full flight from their emotional, animal nature, look closely at the modern nerd. Now there's an approach to life that drains away the juice in order to make it manageable.

    Besides extrapolating modern western views to the rest of the world through time, TMT also seems to share the ev psych tactic of by dressing up common insights in pseudo-scientific language, and then acting like some great new insight has been achieved. Many religious practices are explicitly about dealing with the fear of death – it's not a secret that only scientific methodology could discover and explain to the deluded practitioners. Also, quite a few religions have practices designed to confront and consciously deal with the idea of death. From ancient Rome to early modern Europe, the practice of carrying a "memento mori" to stimulate meditation on death was common. Public clocks were engraved with the saying "vulnerant omnes, ultima necat" ("they all wound, and the last kills") In fact, it was the influence of the Enlightenment that led to a purge of the more "morbid" tendencies in Christianity.

    Meditation on death is also very important in the Buddhist tradition, and there are many techniques, even a multi-day meditation contemplating a decaying corpse.

    The Buddhist Monk: How do you meditate on death?

    Also compare:

    "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going." Ecclesiastes

    "In the midst of life we are in death" – Book of Common Prayer.

    I think there is something in you that still wants to be a Nietzschean superman, Erich. What's wrong with wanting to imbue ordinary animal life with a sense of meaning and sacredness?

    I'm also curious about what your wife thinks about your views on romantic love. 🙂

  3. Erika Price says:

    My social psychology leanings push me to jump up and defend my worldview as it is under attack (and therefore is invoking existential terror, ha ha): TMT is evidence-based. Anona, I can understand your quibbles with evolutionary psychology full well- I share the same concerns- that evolutionary psych provides explanaitions that cannot be falsified, or tested in a controlled setting. This is a huge drawback, and prevents evolutionary psych from ever being much more than an intellectual exercise.

    However, TMT can make sound conclusions that can be tested in an experimental setting, therefore making it worthy of scientific rigor. TMT predicts that when a cultural worldview is threatened, a person will become more ardent in their cultural beliefs, and more willing to severely punish a cultural wrongdoer. This has been demonstrated in a whole long slew of psychological experiments, among a wide range of populations (including some nonwesterners).

    And TMT does apply to nonwesterners, because it does not presume that everyone clings to Christianity, or any religion per se, in order to stave off fears of death. TMT claims that in order to protect ourselves from fear of death, we create forms of "symbolic immortality" that convinces us that part of us will live on after we die. Symbolic immortality includes personal achievements- triumpths and books and blogs and medals that will live beyond ourselves, children who will carry on our name, religions that promise that our souls will prevail, and cultural traditions and beliefs that let us think we are a meaningful player in a world of value.

    Every culture creates cultural tenets that are precious, and the violation of which invokes great wrath. TMT would claim that cultural tenets play the same role that religion does, or the desire to have children for that matter. Therefore the theory should apply to any group of humans that has crafted a culture.

  4. Erich Vieth says:


    Meaning and sacredness are fine and dandy as long as they are commensurate with and proportionate to real life experiences. When they become unanchored they can be anything at all, at which point something can mean anything, even the opposite of itself.

    When we lose track of our animalness, our symbolic abilities and our imagination can create anything out of anything, and then power is all there is. That is my fear, that we are in an era of rampant relativism, and we need to find our roots in order to understand what kind of beasts we are.

    Nietzschean superman? Sure, those are my tendencies. But for those who are not familiar with the concept, see Wikipedia:

    Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth.[2][3] The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life, a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented. The Übermensch is not driven into other worlds away from this one.

    The Christian escape from this world also required the invention of an eternal soul which would be separate from the body and survive the body's death. Part of other-worldliness, then, was the denigration and mortification of the body, or asceticism. Zarathustra further links the Übermensch to the body and to interpreting the soul as simply an aspect of the body.

    As the drama of Thus Spoke Zarathustra progresses, the turn to metaphysics in philosophy and Platonism in general come to light as manifestations of other-worldiness, as well. Truth and nature are inventions by means of which men escape from this world. The Übermensch is also free from these failings.


    What does my wife think about my views about romantic love? I don't know that I've expressed those views, certainly not in this post. I don't drag her around by her hair, like the cartoonish caveman. I do occasionally (not often enough) give her flowers. Am I being Machiavellian? That's for her to decide.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm not ignoring the main criticisms of this post. I trying to set aside some time to write a coherent response . . .

  6. Vicki Baker says:

    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!

    Maddona Lactans

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: Good catch on the lactating virgin. I must say, though, that I have never seen a breast feeding depiction of Jesus in any church I've attended. I suspect that those images were acceptable back before we made baby bottles the preferred method of providing nutrition to a baby.

    I suspect that modern western cultures would rather not deal with lactating breast images. Let me know whether you've seen any of those artistic depictions in a present day church.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I have seen one painting depicting Mary nursing Jesus. Posters are available from many sources.


  9. Erich Vieth says:

    I don’t see any basis for claims that I am engaging in “evolutionary psychology” in this post. I admit that I have defended EV in the past, with the asterisk that it can be practiced well or poorly (like most everything else). Consider, though, whether (to take James Alcock’s definition) this post is concerned with whether I’m trying to point to “genetic differences help explain why people develop differences in at least some aspects of their behavior.”

    I didn’t offer any suggestion that there were any particular genetic differences that gave rise to the attitudes studied by TMT. I made no claim in this post that the behaviors studied by TMT are tied to a specific genetic legacy.

    TMT is an approach used by those who have noticed unusual cultural overlays corresponding to what appears to be an enhanced anxiety regarding death and mortality. That correlation has been teased out (and is continuing to be studied) by many dozens of experiments.

    Death anxiety does appear to be widespread in our modern U.S. culture. I’ve pointed out considerable evidence for this widespread attitude in the post. Consider also this anecdote: I visited with my brother-in-law last week (a scientist who specializes in computerized imaging technologies) and I described what I was learning about TMT. His reaction was “Of course we are animals!” That was such a rare moment for me. I rarely hear this from anyone. I almost always hear resistance and concern that I would dare call humans “animals,” even though it’s obviously true and even though I make it clear that we are magnificent and fascinating animals.

    TMT researchers have suggested in their writings (I haven’t reported on everything they’ve studied) some cultures live closer to the earth and seem to be more comfortable with death—it might turn out that those cultures don’t need to compensate for death-related anxieties as we do in western cultures. Again, I am not suggesting that all people equally demonstrate the cultural reactions described by TMT or that there is a specific genetic component to it where it is noticed.

    I delayed writing this comment because I also wanted to gather some arguments for why it makes a big difference to come to grips with the idea that humans are animals. I’m still gathering that additional information, but I did want to mention an extraordinary book I am in the process or reading that comments on many of these same concerns. The book is The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (2007) by Mark Johnson. Substitute “human animal” for “body” and you’ll find a host of reasons offered by Johnson. The bottom line is that when one doesn’t accept the socially-situated human animal as the sole anchor point for all meaning, all kinds of mischief abounds. That mischief includes philosophers caught up with the “objectivist theory of meaning,” a direct result of people failing to come to grips with the idea that the mind and the body are not two things. There is a lot more to come (in a future post).

    I will offer one quote from the beginning of Johnson’s book (p.1):

    Coming to grips with your embodiment is one of the most profound philosophical tasks you will ever face. Acknowledging that every aspect of human being is grounded in specific forms of bodily engagement with an environment requires a far-reaching rethinking of who and what we are, in a way that is largely at odds with many of our inherited Western philosophical and religious traditions.

  10. Eunoia says:

    In the original Ancient Greek it reads "young woman"; methinks "virgin" is merely a mistranslation by someone who thinks the words are interchangeable (it ain't so ;-).

    Apropos "Was Jesus breast-fed? Oh, pleeaasee, don’t go there!" I also ask

    "Was the afterbirth holy?" :evilgrin:

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Listen to Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh explain why you don't find bonobo chimpanzees in most American zoos: because people find their easily-expressed human-like sexuality too disturbing.

  12. Erik Brewer says:


    If I were you I would read the original once again and then see how the word for virgin is used in other locations before saying such things. The word is "parthenos" – one who has never had intercourse. It is "alma" in the Hebrew which takes the same meaning.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Erik Brewer's comment oversimplifies the issue. For a much more detailed account of the meaning of "parthenos," consider this post: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_ca

  14. Eunoia,

    See here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_ca

    Unless you are very, very good at translating essentially "dead" languages, going back to "read the original" (which isn't really possible anyway, according to Bart Ehrman, since there are not originals), you have to find reliable sources. Many of which are cited in the Carrier piece.

    On top of all that, you have to add the fact that people in the grip of prophetic bullshit will trim, modify, and otherwise cut to suit the facts to fit the story they want told.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Those who object to the idea that they are animals are essentially, those who believe in the "ghost in the machine." In Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker brought the wrecking ball to the idea of the ghost in the machine, writing that educated people

    "know that perception, cognition, language and emotion are rooted in the brain. But it is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons, as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user — the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the 'me.' But cognitive neuroscience is showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems."


  16. Erich Vieth says:

    According to Richard Dawkins, the thing that "would change everything" is a practical demonstration, such as one of the following:

    1. The discovery of relict populations of extinct hominins such Homo erectus and Australopithecus. Yeti enthusiasts notwithstanding, I don't think this is going to happen. The world is now too well explored for us to have overlooked a large, savannah-dwelling primate. Even Homo floresiensis has been extinct 17,000 years. But if it did happen, it would change everything.

    2. A successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee. Even if the hybrid were infertile like a mule, the shock waves that would be sent through society would be salutary. This is why a distinguished biologist described this possibility as the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine: it would change everything! It cannot be ruled out as impossible, but it would be surprising.


  17. Erich Vieth says:

    For another good example of how inhibited we are about our anal-animalness, go to this anatomy lecture and listen to Professor Marian Diamond tell the story about the Little Yellow School Bus. http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=owner%3Aucb

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    Don't ignore this unwritten rule: Don't sexualize the Virgin Mary. See this Reuters article.

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Charlotte Roche recently published a review of Nina Powers' "Dirty Girl" in Salon. The book (and review) raise many of these same issues:

    Women are supposed to always look fit and healthy and pretty. But everything that is sick and tired is all very human — and I think that being human is a big taboo. When people say that the book is about taboos, I ask them, what do you mean? Shit? Piss? Menstruation?

    Menstruation is in many ways extremely annoying and quite disturbing, for all its normalcy. But it isn't really spoken about that much, is it?

    The problem with taboos is that you think you're the only one. And Helen always wants to know: Does it smell the same with other women? How do other women's vaginas look? We're all completely isolated. It's not a group of women that menstruate; we're on our own. But where does that come from? Mothers still don't think it's a good thing to be a woman.

  20. NL says:

    For a critique of terror management theory, see "Anxiety and Intergroup Bias: Terror Management or Coalitional Psychology?"

  21. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a discussion of why we don't want to look at images of people who are dying and dead, but I think it's wrong. I think the better explanation is terror management theory.


  22. Erich Vieth says:

    “A performance artist who said giving birth is the “highest form of art” has delivered a baby boy — inside a New York City art gallery. . . . In combining the birth of her child with artistic expression, Kotak said she wanted to show “this amazing life performance that … is essentially hidden from public view” and that addresses social taboos regarding the human body.”


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