living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Secular

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

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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.

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Written by Alex

November 21, 2014 at 11:52 am