Religion and the Denial of Death


Recently, it was revealed that in 2009 in the United States, 55 billion dollars were spent on patients during the last 60 days of their life, much of it in hospital intensive care units which cost about $10,000 a day to run per patient. The studies have also shown that a lot of this money was spent on running useless tests or performing procedures that at best prolong life only a few days or weeks, or at worst, only prolong the suffering. And while a good part of this cost is covered by private health care insurers, a major part is also charged to the public via our Medicare system, which is not allowed to deny any patient any procedure or test on the basis of cost alone, and which, considering our aging population, will before very long completely bankrupt our country. Yet, when this particular problem of end-of-life care, and the looming financial disaster it threatens became part of the debate over health care reforms last year, it almost immediately sparked a hysterical outbreak of rumors and outright accusations of plans for government mandated “death panels,” with the result that the final bill as passed by Congress in March of this year completely ignored this looming financial disaster.


I must say that I am puzzled by all this, especially in the face of the fact that time and time again, of all the modern industrialized nations on the earth, the United States is said to be the most religious. If this is really true, then why this big hang-up or this irrational fear of dying? Is not religion supposed to be, at least according to the psychologists and psychiatrists (as well as the atheists who gleefully use these opinions to bolster their thesis), an evasion or an escape from the reality of death and dying? If so, then logic would tell us that for those who are religious, death should cause no big problem. But apparently this is not so, or at least not for American religion.


All this makes me wonder, could it be that religion, at least as we have come to understand it, is simply a disguised form of egotism? Not that it has always been so, but that somehow religion, especially Christianity, with its emphasis on saving our individual souls, has ended up this way. In fact I have often wondered if this slow shift from God-centeredness to self-centeredness was not inevitable as humanity slowly evolved from a stage of tribal group-think toward modern individualism. And as this happened, do we not find the explanation as to why Christianity, with its promise of personal salvation, eventually took much of the world by storm, taking the place of so many other cults for which individual survival in the face of death remained highly problematic?


If my thesis is correct, then I can only conclude that the paradox I’ve described — the irrational fear of death among those who claim to be religious — is either the result of too much of a good thing (self-consciousness become self-centeredness) or else of a religion that has completely lost its bearings.  Religion, in the original sense of word, is supposed to be what takes us back or binds us (re-ligare) to our origins or (as theologian Paul Tillich put it) to “the Ground of [all] Being.”  Now, if that were really true, religious faith would make us ready or even anxious, at least when the time has come, to return to the source of our existence. Instead, what we seem to have ended up with, at least in this country, is a pseudo-religiosity that is more of an escape hatch from reality than anything resembling religion in the true sense of the word.                            


R W Kropf    8/10/2010                                                              Religion&Denial.doc   10-08-10.html