Religion & Philosophy


Biospirituality as a Path to Fulfillment

by Steve Kaufman, MD

Most Americans dedicate a large portion of their time and effort to the pursuit of material gain. Although America has one of the world's highest standards of living, many feel anxious, alienated, and unhappy. Why do many people find material rewards unfulfilling? Are there other life goals that offer a greater sense of meaning and direction? To attempt answers, I will borrow heavily from Ernest Becker's book The Denial of Death.(1) This book, which won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize, owes much to Otto Rank, a student of Freud, who sought to understand human motivation. Becker elaborates on Rank's observation that human psychology and human behavior largely reflect anxieties stemming from our fear of death.

Becker on Fear of Death
Humans are in a unique predicament. Like all "higher" animals, we instinctively fear being killed. However, unlike other animals, from early childhood we are aware of our vulnerability to sudden death and the inevitability of our eventual mortality. Rather than live in constant anxiety and fear, we recruit psychological defense mechanisms.

Becker acknowledges Freud's insight that we manage our greatest fears by repressing fear-producing thoughts, placing them in our unconsciousness where they do not interfere with daily life. However, since the conscious ego cannot fully repress anxiety-producing thoughts, they emerge, literally or symbolically, in dreams and in daily life. When awake, anxiety-producing thoughts that are difficult to repress may be replaced by behaviors, such as compulsive rituals, or physical feelings, such as abdominal cramps. Communities repress more widespread anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings with symbolic belief systems, which are similar between cultures insofar as they reflect universal fears and unique insofar as they address local concerns. More complex belief systems are sometimes called denial systems.

Immortality through Religion
Becker asserts that religious and cultural institutions serve in large part to deny mortality. For example, most religions claim that, by adopting proper beliefs and/or practices, a person can appease the Divine and be chosen to enjoy some kind of everlasting life. All faiths -- religious and secular -- involve worldviews that help us make sense of our complex world. World- views are attitudes and beliefs that give frameworks for answering general life questions, such as what sort of relationship should one have with family members, community members, strangers, nonhuman animals, and nature; what should one try to accomplish in one's life; what is one's relationship to God (or the Divine). Becker's analysis demonstrates that worldviews are heavily influenced by peoples' innate fear of death.

Repression is a psychologically adaptive response needed to manage our fears. A serious problem, however, is that some denial systems may prompt people to harm others. For example, because religious doctrines have little empirical evidence and because they play such a critical role in fending off fears of mortality, people frequently find equally defensible competing religious doctrines very threatening. Rather than face the possibility that their own religious beliefs may be faulty, people often try to belittle, avoid, or even destroy competing doctrines. Indeed, much human misery has resulted from conflicts between adherents of different death-denying religions. While "non-believers" abhor persecution as narrow-minded and cruel, defenders of the faith generally see their actions as heroic.

Immortality through Culture
Another death-denying worldview is that one may gain immortality through one's culture if one is "successful" in the sense defined by that culture. Different cultures have different criteria of "success," such as accumulated wealth, number of wives, or prominence in sports. "Success" need not be grand -- one may succeed by conforming to the culture's expectations of a "good citizen," such as growing up, getting a job, having children, and being respected by one's neighbors.

Becker argues that a principle reason that people crave "success" is to gain a sense of immortality, which may occur in at least three ways. One may hope to achieve a kind of immortality by being remembered as a "valuable person" by one's family and community. Also, one may feel that "success" indicates that one is, or at least should be, favored by the Divine, leading to the death-denying conclusion that "surely someone as important as I will never permanently die." Finally, many cultures appear timeless and permanent, transcending time and the deaths of individuals. Living according to traditions gives one a sense that one's own life is part of an external process. Of course, finding death-defying transcendence through culture may breed the same kind of intolerance and cruelty that religions may spawn. Those within or outside the community who challenge traditions are fervently rejected, sometimes even violently.

Related to immortality through culture, people can derive a sense of immortality through their children, who often look like their parents, are shaped by their parents' beliefs and values, and remember their parents after their parents die. Most death-denying worldviews have some desirable attributes, and immortality through progeny promotes care and concern for one's dependents. But, any tradition, if taken to an extreme, can be harmful. The community may suffer when parents excessively favor the interests of their offspring over the interests of others.

Vulnerability to Sudden Death
While our mortality's inevitability haunts us psychologically, our vulnerability to sudden death also provokes anxiety. Again, repression is usually adaptive and desirable, but some denial systems may be harmful. For example, the belief that all Japanese people threatened America during World War II led to the unjust internment of many Japanese-American citizens. Similarly, the terrible witch hunts of the Middle Ages were largely motivated by a desire to protect communities from perceived threats.

Experimental Support
Until recently, Becker's critics argued that his thesis, while perhaps intuitively appealing, was untestable. However, Sheldon Solomon and colleagues have performed a range of ingenious experiments that have lent considerable empirical support for the theory that fear of death is a pervasive motivation for human attitudes, beliefs, and actions. For example, in one experiment, researchers hypothesized that thinking about one's death would encourage one to more vigorously support (death-defying) cultural standards. Half of 22 judges were given a bogus "personality test" that included two questions prompting them to think about their own deaths, while the "personality test" for the other 11 judges did not have these questions. The judges were then asked to set bail for a hypothetical case of a woman charged with prostitution, an activity that violates cultural standards. Those judges who had been thinking about their mortality set an average bail of $455, while the other group averaged only $50.(2)

Death-Denying Worldviews
Becker does not deride denial. He recognizes that we need denial systems to deal with the anxieties inherent in human existence. These denial systems form the frameworks for our worldviews. Not all worldviews (religious and secular faiths) are equal, however. Some may be more creative and productive, while others are more dangerous and destructive.

As discussed above, the belief that one's religion is the only means to eternal salvation may breed intolerance. Furthermore, rigid "fundamentalist" faiths tend to forbid exceptions to their rules, and harm may result. For example, a religion that sanctifies marital vows (generally a laudable stance) may forbid divorce between two people involved in a physically or emotionally violent relationship. Similar to religious fundamentalism, cultural fundamentalism promotes the attitude that only the practices and values of a given culture are "correct." At the least, this breeds arrogance. More ominously, it can engender fervent nationalism or other forms of tribalism that may lead to war.

Biospirituality as a Worldview
I agree with Becker that the "best" worldview is one that promotes freedom, dignity, and hope (1, p. 202). As elaborated more fully on the web site (3),
biospirituality (as I understand it) is a worldview that involves developing compassion and a sense of connection with other humans, other animals, and nature. Given this understanding, I suggest that biospirituality is a worldview that offers freedom, dignity, and hope. It promotes the freedom of individual expression by challenging each person to find new, creative ways to relate to the world. Biospirituality dignifies people by allowing them to live by the principles in which most claim to believe -- that we should not be cruel, that we should not murder, that we should be kind and compassionate, etc.

Finally, biospirituality and other, related principles of living are perhaps our world's best hope for sustainability and happiness. Humans and nonhumans will always experience tragedies, but trying to live simply, in harmony with nature, and with compassion are principles that seem to offer the best hope for the future. Yet, many people continue to believe in a contrary worldview, that science and technology will ensure our culture's permanence by continuously stimulating the steady economic growth that capitalist economies require. However, as raw materials are depleted and wildlife habitats destroyed, this worldview seems unrealistic. And, while no worldview can be proved true, we should reject as fanciful those that contradict reliable information. For example, worldviews that rely on the hypothesis that the earth is flat are not reasonable. Similarly, worldviews that see humans as a special divine creation seem unwarranted in light of Darwinian evolutionary insights. Yet, such worldviews are often used to excuse mistreatment of animals and the environment.(4)

One might conclude that biospirituality is just another human-constructed worldview created to calm our fear of death by giving our lives a sense of cosmic importance. Why should one choose biospirituality, particularly since it often encourages us to reject the sometimes pleasurable excesses of unfettered materialism (such as using a gas-guzzling yacht) and to refrain from the sensual pleasures that involve harming others (such as eating meat).

I cannot provide compelling evidence that biospirituality is divine revelation, that it is more than a human-constructed worldview. Nevertheless, I can offer both practical and cosmological reasons to adopt a biospiritual worldview. Practically, as previously discussed, it appears that we need worldviews to make sense of our existence and to enjoin us to actively engage in the struggles and triumphs of life. Therefore, we need a worldview that suggests that our efforts are worthwhile. If people lived only for the sake of material accumulations and/or brief sensual pleasures, few would find life worth the effort. Indeed, it appears that many people feel unfulfilled, perhaps because they have dedicated their lives to pursuing materialistic, egocentric goals they find spiritually unsatisfying. In contrast, people tend to find creative, compassionate, life-enhancing actions meaningful. As social animals, there is a part of us that does not want to cause harm and wishes to help others.(5) Because biospirituality is consonant with this nearly universal human sentiment, living biospiritually allows us to see each action that improves the lives of others as a creative, positive, worthwhile effort. It therefore appears that, for many people, biospirituality can help fill our lives with meaning and direction.

Cosmologically, the hypothesis that our lives have meaning helps answer some of the great questions of life. How did we get here? How do we exist as unique individuals with a sense that our unique individuality is constant throughout life? Why are we here? One reasonable hypothesis is that we are part of a divine plan, even if we have little notion of what that plan might be. If we are part of a divine, cosmic plan, then our lives do have purpose and meaning that, presumably, extends beyond the mere gratification of our own desires.

Confronting Our Fear of Death
Living according to a faith that our brief lives contribute to a great cosmic plan helps us confront our potentially overwhelming fear of death. When denial systems that promise immortality guide our lives, we are prone to harmful actions and ideologies. In contrast, biospirituality is a nonviolent worldview that permits us to acknowledge and confront our fear of death with greater confidence. We cannot make our fears go away, but we can direct them toward positive, life-enhancing actions. Belief in a cosmic plan is a religious faith that, like all religious beliefs, cannot be proven or even tested. However, if we erred in this faith, if we led productive, creative, nonviolent lives in a meaningless universe, we would do no harm. Believing that we are contributing to a great, eternal, cosmic plan helps us confront our innate fear of death.(6) Those living by the principles of biospirituality, similar to most religious adherents, see their actions as consonant with a great cosmic plan that transcends time and, therefore, death. But, unlike many worldviews, biospirituality consistently affirms life, finds no fault with other nonviolent death-defying worldviews, and never promotes harming others.

1. Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York, Free Press, 1973.

2. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski. Tales from the crypt: On the role of death in life. Zygon 1998;33:9-43.

3. http://www.vegsource.com/biospirituality/

4. Livingston, John A. Rogue Primate. Toronto, Key Porter Books, 1994.

5. Midgley, Mary. The Ethical Primate. New York, Routledge, 1994.

6. Keen, Sam. Hymns To An Unknown God. New York, Bantam, 1994.