living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Losing Your Religion: Ernest Becker & the Questionable Idea of the Maturity of Secularity

with 6 comments

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.

Since it’s a central theme of my study is to explore the concepts of growth and maturity, it’s important to see how Becker’s work makes conventional notions of growth and maturity problematic as they pertain to religion and culture. It is commonly assumed that “outgrowing one’s religion” and entering into the maturity of a secular frame of mind constitutes growth. However, Becker places the issue in such a way that this assumption becomes highly questionable. From what we’ve explored so far, it should be obvious enough to see the ways that the terror of death and the reflexive urge towards heroism allows one to easily view society as communal enactments of the ways that people earn their sense of cosmic significance within the relative safety of a mutually agreed upon structure. Becker puts the matter bluntly: Society is and always has been, he says, “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

This raises the question of whether society facilitates or limits human growth. To begin addressing this question, I propose three different ways that the idea of growth can be understood in this context. First there is growth within a mutually agreed upon hero system. Here one follows the “roles that society provides for their heroics and tr[ies] to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms.” But all is not mere conformity. As Becker points out, heroism is achieved by “allowing [oneself] to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.” Secondly, there is growth understood as moving from one hero system to another without recognizing the new system as yet another immortality program. Many conversion and deconversion experiences take on this character. Finally, there is the more radical form of growth that, for the first time, recognizes the nature of their own commitments and strivings as themselves elements of their own hero system. It should be noticed, however, that when this last step is taken, growth has moved beyond the threshold of what Becker calls “earthly heroism.” The matter is now religious in the deepest possible sense.

Loss of Focus

This reference to religion “in the deepest sense” requires unpacking. In a recent article by Jonathan Jong, it is helpfully shown that Becker has essentially three definitions of religion in play throughout his work. Jong uses the clever shorthand of “religion,” religion, and Religion (with a capital R) to denote the following: “The first is an analysis of culture and civilization as immortality projects, means by which to deny death. The second, which overlaps with the first, is a characterization of religion-as-practiced (e.g., by adherents of the world religions) as a particularly effective immortality project vis-a`-vis death anxiety. The third is less social scientific and more theological; Becker argues for a view of God that is in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich (and, arguably, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas).” It is this latter sense I have in mind. In rough terms, the common thread that joins these thinkers that Jong mentions is the nature of their God as transcendent in the sense that God is considered to be beyond the frame of reference by which human reason operates. To mature to the point that all heroics, especially one’s own, are unmasked is to approach this threshold. This is to recognize one’s own creatureliness as it stands at the brink of an eternal void. To be off the map of earthly reason is to be exposed to the awesome terror of the Unconditioned, the highest possible heroism.

This, Becker thinks, is religion “not as practiced but as an ideal.” Save but for a few religious geniuses, the rest of us tend to earn our immortality within a system, or trading between them. This remains true here in the modern West where, in many ways, traditional religion has undergone a crisis of heroism. In our time we have witnessed the rise of Neo-Atheism and a general trend of increasing secularity. But secularity is no guarantee of a growing awareness of what one is doing to earn one’s self-esteem. In fact, secular heroics, while not subscribing to the second sense of religion that Jong identifies, seldom transcends the first. As Becker says:

It doesn’t matter if the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. . . . When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as ‘religious’ as any other, this is what he meant: ‘civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic…

In view of this, movement between religion to “religion” is no guarantee of growth (though growth may be present). The only guaranteed measure of growth consists in the ever-increasing capacity to move from either of these two religiosities to the third. A person who merely moves from the religion to “religion” without making much progress at Religion risks (if they are reflective enough) becoming “the victim of [their] own disillusionment.” They become “disinherited by [their] own analytic strength.” By way of this strength they “put the accent on the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. [They] know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies.” Such a person thus

has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion disappear forever not only in this world, but in all possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have even been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.

In an highly refined and tortured way such an individual is heroically committed to to a rational framework in which everything has its place, even if they themselves do not. Their myopic god may have lost its name, but not its constricting hold on their soul. Is this growth? Potentially, for, in the willingness to accept a view of the world in which the self they had always known themselves to be has no real place, there begins to emerge a deeper unknown self from which the familiar self is looked at rather than through. This deeper self is not yet recognized, for it is now serving the role of being a window to the world, as the familiar self once did. From here it is not a long step from the “religious” to the Religious.

To sum up this section, we have seen how Becker’s framing of the idea (or ideas) of religion casts doubt on the generally accepted contemporary narrative that growing up somehow consists in casting off one’s childhood religion. Of course, for some, it may, but in such cases the reasons have more to do with individual contextual issues than any structural necessity. Becker helps us see that, whether explicitly religious or secular, growing into maturity has more to do with how honest we are about the ways we manage our death anxiety and seek after our self-esteem than it does with whether we frequent the synagogue or wherever it is that secular people go to ritualize their existence.

In my final post on Ernest Becker, we will play this same tune again, but in a different key. We will be exploring what Becker refers to as “the vital lie” of human character. Just as culture is a communal death denial structure, character is the personal manifestation of the same reality. In addressing this topic our goal will be to understand the tremendous costs involved in the process of growth. If the question is “in what sense must we die in order to attain new life?” Becker will be shown to provide a compelling answer.

Written by Alex

November 21, 2014 at 11:52 am

6 Responses

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  1. Alex, I thought I’d check in to see whether you’d shared anything on your blog lately, and was certainly not disappointed! This is a tremendously useful direction you’re moving in, so thank you for your work. As you move forward there’s much to take an interest in, but here’s what I’ll be most interested in:

    Once cultural hero systems are dismantled, what–if anything–defines a well lived life? In other words, is there a value system that transcends the outgrown culturally determined value systems? Or, in other other words, what does a person experiencing spiritual growth grow into? (As in “Is there space at the end of the Cosmos?” so “Is there value after the demise of the cultural hero system?”)

    Tracy Witham

    November 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm

  2. This relates to Tracy’s point, but in a much more antagonistic way, ha:

    Aren’t you just recommending another hero system? Doesn’t your language of growing and maturing and transcending suggest that you’re seeing a sort of value in Religion that makes it into essentially the same thing it was trying to escape? In other words, what’s the real difference between feeling good about your religion, feeling good about your “religion,” and feeling good about your Religion?

    In the same vein, it seems to me that ideals of growth or maturity might be a bit more pliable or resilient than many other ideals, but they’re no less reliant on a standard. You’re still talking, at least implicitly, about growing toward something or maturing toward something, even if you can be a bit more vague or open-ended about what that something is.


    November 23, 2014 at 9:32 pm

  3. Tracy and Ivan,
    Thank you both for your questions. You raise a crucial, but difficult issue. I’ll begin straightforwardly: The Christian answer (which I am working to elaborate) to the question of what defines a life well-lived is the love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But is this not simply another cultural immortality program? My big answer to this question is that no, it is not. This is the Christian paradox in which “the definition” emerges in the complete sacrifice of all human definitions. This is why the spiritual movement that was birthed in the early church so persistently transcended cultural boundary markers. The great danger, of course, is that this paradoxical “definition” is appropriated as a non-paradoxical (rationalized) definition, in which case we are once again dealing with simply another cultural immortality program.

    “Is there value after the demise of the cultural hero system?” The answer to this question has emerged for me from my engagement with contemplative practices. Is there value in a tree after you cease to look at it as something you could cut down and turn into a tool, or as something you could climb, that you must clean up after in the fall, or that you must paint? Is there value in a tree when you case to even name it, to call it a tree. Is there value in its own ungraspable mystery? The same line of questioning could be asked of ourselves.

    Ivan, I think the only way out of our striving for heroism (that mixture of narcissism and self-esteem) is death. The work that I am doing therefore remains a hero system. There are low heroics (crude forms of thinly-veiled earthly heroism: the accumulation of cash, quests for political power, the esteem of others, etc) and there are high heroics of Jesus, Buddha, Mohamed. The goal is help demonstrate how Christianity has resources to move our earthly hero quests (Isn’t that the name of a video game?) onto a footing more appropriate to our true nature.


    November 24, 2014 at 6:49 am

  4. Hi Ivan and Alex,

    The whole sweep of Alex’s project has great importance for the Church, per se, going forward (IMO). So I applaud the entire effort. But it is when the Church comes to terms with the questions centered around how toxic hero/value systems get rehabilitated in the Church that the Church can be a blessing to the nations. To me that’s key.So,Ivan, I appreciate your pushing back on Alex here, whatever your motivations…

    Now, Alex, let’s say that you’re making a short seminar in which you introduce and outline your dissertation for the benefit of serious students in church settings. You’ve put the wrecking ball to the shams inherent in “religion,” and religion, and want to move onto Religion as the right psycho-spiritual value plane. How do you, at that point produce an “Ah ha!” moment? To my way of thinking, the value of everything up to the point of producing that hoped for moment hangs in the balance. To the extent that a vague, “negative theology” answer is trotted out, the hoped-for climax will be an anticlimax (IMO).

    I don’t have a firm answer, but I have a hope. The hope is that the Gospel According to Mark holds the straightforward picture needed to portray a “religion”-transcending approach to value formation. I say this for several obvious reasons–which accordingly will not be mentioned. The perspicuous reason that’s not entirely obvious is that the narrative in Mark is one of orchestrating the most famous death in history. And what is orchestrated in the founding event of the Christian religion. Therefore, IF your overarching narrative is to have relevance for the Church, there could be no more hopeful place to go looking for the cap stone for your hypothetical seminar…

    How did Jesus sacrifice himself to the Christ? Mark depicts just that. A great many answers depend on how that depiction pertains–or not–to Becker’s work.

    Of course, not just Mark, but the narrative is so concise and powerful there. “…he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem.” Wow!

    Tracy Witham

    November 24, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    • “How do you, at that point produce an ‘Ah ha!’ moment?”

      I can guarantee you I will be thinking more about this. Coffee?


      November 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      • “Coffee” would be a treat on many levels. Would you like to see the living room that was down to bones last time we spoke? If so stop how about Fri. the 5th or Sat. the 6th of December? In the mean time I’m going to reread Mark, with an eye to seeing how many questions can be answered with, “Because the answer points to a way of living not determined by fear of death.”

        Tracy Witham

        November 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm

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