Ernest Becker’s 'The Denial of Death'

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Ernest Becker’s 'The Denial of Death'

Post07 May 2018

Ernest Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his book 'The Denial of Death'. Perhaps it offers some insights into what motivates us to join the Brahma Kumaris, and to be swept up and live out Lekhraj Kirpalani's "Immortality Project".

But why his rather than our own, our own family members', our own community's, our own culture's?
The book’s premise is that human civilization is a defense mechanism against The Knowledge that we will die.

Becker argues that humans live in both a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of meaning. The symbolic part of human life engages in what Becker calls an “immortality project.” People try to create or become part of something which they believe will last forever—art, music, literature, religion, nation-states, social and political movements, etc. Such connections, they believe, give their lives meaning.

Becker went on to suggest that mental illness, especially depression, resulted when we are not connected to some meaningful project. That in lacking such a project, we are reminded of our own mortality.

He also argued that schizophrenia results from not having defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality and that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, is the main cause of wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism.

Becker goes on to say that, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves.

He suggests that our "immortality projects" are so important to us, that we can’t tolerate others suggesting that our beliefs are misguided. He also noted that while religion no longer offers convincing arguments, for most people science and rationalism doesn’t fill the void - because they are unable to provide agreeable, absolute meanings to human life - leading individuals to need new comforting “illusions” to give meaning to their lives. A symbolic belief-system that ensures oneself is believed superior to physical reality.
By successfully living within the realms of the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die as compared to their physical body. This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.

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