By, Adam K. Fetterman
In my previous post, I focused on how people are reacting to Hitchens’ illness (i.e. prayer for his health and prayer for his suffering). In the current post, I discuss symbolic immortality and how it is manifested in different ways. As noted in the previous post, long time atheist writer and leader Christopher Hitchens has unfortunately been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. While many are praying for him to find a god(s), he maintains steadfast in his atheistic viewpoints. In noting on this topic he told Associated Press that “It’s humanity’s oldest argument. If I played a small part in keeping it going that would be enough for me”. It is apparent that Hitchens is proud to be part of something important. Being part of something important, and being remembered for it, could be considered symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality has been theorized to be a way to buffer oneself from their fears of death, by making sure one lives on, at least symbolically. Efforts to secure symbolic immortality and manage death concerns can lead to a number of behaviors.
For example, Routledge and Arndt (2007) found that increasing death-thoughts led to increased willingness to self-sacrifice for one’s nation. They conclude that this can be seen as an effort to manage existential anxieties by creating “symbolic identity”. They use these findings to explain why terrorists may commit suicide. Indeed, North Dakota State University graduate student and researcher, Jacob Juhl has found preliminary evidence that “compared to literal immortality [e.g., heaven], symbolic immortality seems to be a stronger means in which religion helps manage concerns about death”. That is, being part of something significant may be more important than living consciously after death. However, symbolic immortality is not remotely religious, as evidenced by Christopher Hitchens’ quote. Therefore, it would seem likely that symbolic immortality is something that all humans strive for, in ways such as keeping a dialogue alive, like Hitchens, or being an amazing musical artist, like Michael Jackson. Additionally, if it is indeed the case that individuals, such as atheists, strive to be remembered and thus should be motivated to do good things, then it is likely that one can indeed be “good without god”.
Special thanks to Jacob Juhl for his input.
Routledge, C. & Arndt, .J (2007). Self-sacrifice as self-defence: Mortality salience increases efforts to affirm a symbolic immortal self at the expense of the physical self. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 531-541