Grosso on Fear of Life After Death – Review

Written by:  Wendell Krossa

Another take on the human fear of death

Michael Grosso starts his article on Fear of life after death with a comment about a friend who resisted the very thought of even reading about the possibility of ongoing life after death.  Grosso found this resistance an interesting phenomenon among materialists.  He says some people are motivated to disbelieve in life after death as others are motivated to believe.

He then moves into anthropology (Sir James Frazer), noting the early people spontaneously believed in life after death.  Scientific materialists explain this as wishful thinking, Freud’s infantile wish fulfillment, a  neurotic rebellion against the harsh tyranny of the reality principle.  Others say the fear of death inspires people to invent survival myths in denial of personal extinction.  But Grosso says these explanations do not tally with the evidence of anthropology.  To the contrary, the facts show that the first people feared not extinction, but life after death.  They feared not death itself, but the dead.

Tribal peoples all over the Earth believed that the spirits of the dead were capable of inflicting all sorts of mischief on the living, especially on close relatives . So tribal peoples viewed the dead with fear and apprehension as a source of harm.  Psychologists argue that this claim that belief in life after death is just wish fulfillment (survival wish) doesn’t ring true.  If the unconscious were just forging a dream world to placate narcissistic ego, why not forge a more agreeable myth?

He goes on to note that all across the world tribal people believe that immediately after death spirits hover about their former earthly abodes and do their greatest harm.  They “stick” to their former possessions.  So one strategy is to destroy the dead person’s house and belongings.  I watched Manobo do this to perfectly good houses and wondered at the waste.  I also saw the very sick, leave lowland hospitals because hospitals were places where people died.

The effects of this belief are economically ruinous.  Therefore, to say that this belief in life after death relieves the personal survival anxiety, seems facile, says Grosso.  It would be a great more consoling to survival anxiety to not believe in an afterlife.  It would be less economically ruinous, something that threatens survival.  There would be far less to worry about, and people could settle down and enjoy life.

Grosso argues that this primordial fear of death is probably part of the heritage of our collective psyche.  Each of us carries the psychic archeology of our species.

Grosso then says that the invention of scientific materialism was a powerful fetish for banishing the primordial fear of hostile spirits.  The primal mind is hemmed in by a superstitious fear of the other. This is seen in beliefs like the age-old fear of the “evil eye”.  We project dark impulses onto other agents of consciousness. We have this innate fear of the other.

Therefore, Grosso argues that we can understand the appeal of scientific materialism. It de-animates nature, it wipes our mind, soul, and consciousness by reducing them to mere by-products of biochemical processes, doomed to annihilation with the death of the body.  Materialist science makes our fear of the other go away. There’s nothing in the dark to frighten us, science reassures us. Nothing at all.

Grosso continues, stating again that the pagan conception of life after death was rooted in the primal fear of the dead.  Then in Greek thinking there was a shift from fear of the dead to fear of an unappetizing form of life after death. This is seen, for example, in the Odyssey with its descent into a realm of bodyless phantoms. The frightening depths of Hades. The Greeks were at home in the daylight, night-time made them sad and uneasy. Hades was a gloomy state of consciousness, a prolonged nightmare of aimless out of body wandering.

Plato later presented a more positive conception of the afterlife but Hades continued to dominate the popular Greek mind.

Grosso notes that the Greek philosopher Epicurus then used the materialism of Democritus to argue the case for the dissolution of the soul at death.  Epicurus was motivated to disbelieve in life after death and was seen as a benefactor of mankind, a healer offering an expressly therapeutic philosophy. He  healed the fear of life after death. According to Lucretius, Epicurus delivered the human race from the dread of Acheron (the river of death), that had troubled mankind from its innermost depths.

Materialism and the denial of life after death in Epicurean philosophy freed people from a peculiar form of anxiety- the anxiety that comes from the thought of having to face our worst fears in the innermost depths of human life. The dark side of consciousness, intuitively felt by the ancients to be what awaits us in the afterlife.

Grosso says that Epicureanism sheds light on the motives behind the rise of classic materialism. Two main motives rise in this worldview and they seem to involve a contradiction. On the one hand, ancient materialism was a weapon for avoiding contact with the dark side of the afterlife, which Grosso takes as Jung’s Shadow. Hades being the preeminent domain of shades and shadow.

On the other hand, ancient materialism was the attempt to found a new religion which it did by focusing on the sacred and eternal character of matter, says Grosso. The religiosity of classical materialism is clear from its origins in Greek natural philosophy. Starting with Thales, early Greek thinkers concentrated on discovering the Arche- the source, origin, or principle of all things in the material realm.  Greek natural philosophy which gave birth to modern physics, renounced personal immortality in hope of capturing the timeless principles of nature.

The origins of scientific materialism were thus rooted in a quest for the sacred. The arche of the physicists is a sublimation of theos- the divine and the godlike- and the transfer of this ultimate reality to the material realm, says Grosso.

Thus the progress of natural science has been identified with eliminating anything that hints of the shadowy ‘inner depths’  that so frightened Lucretius.  It would now be a sacrilege to destroy the unity of science by validating alien forces like mind or soul for one would then expose oneself to the Lucretian fear of the inner depths, says Grosso.

Grosso continues to explain that our fears are historically conditioned by past thought and mythology. The Christian news of resurrection opened the possibility of death’s higher possibilities. But it also raised the spectre of hell, guilt, and damnation. So there are good historical reasons why educated people in the West associate belief in life after death with oppressive institutions and cruel practices, says Grosso.

Similar Eastern ideas of karma, caste, and reincarnation raise similar misgivings and open a can of worms- hell, devils, witchcraft, hags, incubi, elves, demons, and much more that people regard as superstitious and irrational.

Life after death then opens a universe filled with unknown and possibly frightening entities and forces. Grosso says that he does not doubt that fear of harmful supernatural forces is alive and well in the unconscious minds of many superficially rational human beings. The study of dreams and behavior of psychotics show how close the ‘shades’ of the unconscious are to our normal mental life. The possibility of life after death could stir up fear of the harmful in timid rationalists, hence the appeal of the materialism paradigm that can be used as a rationalist shield against such fears.

People invest themselves emotionally as well as intellectually in scientific materialism. Any hint of psychic anomaly (spiritual reality) might awaken in some of us the Lucretian dread of Acheron.

He continues, fear of judgment, guilt, and karmic retribution are other reasons for fearing life after death. We feel the fear of God, of hell, of judgment. The prospect awakens ideas of sin, guilt, pollution, defilement, punishment, purification, and other unsavory and disturbing things. Scientific rationalists are anxious to rid the world of these unpleasant ideas, especially the ideas of guilt and hell. It thus serves their purpose to disbelieve in the afterlife.

Plato says in Phaedo that a bad man would welcome death if it were extinction, for then he would not have to worry about the consequences of his deeds. Nor, if there is no reincarnation, would he have to worry about striving for self-perfection from life to life. Not many of us relish forever struggling with our weaknesses.

And other reasons- fear of enlightenment.  Fear of helplessness in a strange environment. Pessimism, where evil might be as powerful as ever.