Does Belief in God Mask the Fear of Death?

by Melissa Karnaze

According to Michael A. Persinger, if a person experiences God, their brain might just be playing a trick on them, for good reason.

In the episode “Is There a Creator?” of Science Channel’s Through the Wormwhole, Persinger explains how the sense of self must be tied to language and left-hemispheric processes.

The prototypical God experience

He goes on to say that the right hemisphere equivalent is what’s termed as the sense presence, or the sensation that someone or some thing is present (even though they cannot be physically seen). Persinger suggests that the sense presence is the “prototype of the God experience.”

Persinger draws from his research on inducing the “experience” of some spiritual entity or God using magnetic fields on the right hemisphere of the brain.

Is belief in God a pain killer?

Persinger describes why he thinks that God is just an illusion created by the brain:

“We hypothesize that as the human beings developed the ability to forecast their own self-dissolution, their own death, which is tremendously anxiety-generating, that another concept emerged which allowed that anxiety to be reduced.

And whatever that concept was it had certain parameters. It had to be infinite, and forever and everywhere, otherwise it would have an end — if you have an end, then you have anxiety.

So there had to be a concept inculcated within the brain itself that there is something out there that goes on forever and if you somehow relate to it and can be a part of it, the idea of anxiety becomes, a non-event.”

Connection or distraction?

This evolutionary account flips the God construct on its side.

The typical God construct entails that when you perceive God you receive connection, spiritual union — something good — that enhances life.

According to the evolutionary take, “perceiving” God is simply a panacea for the uncertainty of living. Or is it?

Soothing fears can be good, but attempting to soothe fears for the sake of not ever having to experience them can easily become dysfunctional. The long-term use of pain-killers isn’t necessarily a healthy or adaptive practice across all situations.

When “positive” endeavors are actually harmful

Just as searching for your perfect soul mate can be codependent, seeking enlightenment can be escapist, striving to make it to Heaven can distract you from Earth, and misguidedly seeking technological enhancement or trying to unify with God, Source, or Spirit, can distract you from your human form.

What do you think?

Technically, science can’t tell us whether God exists — or is just an illusion in the brain.

Whether or not God exists, do you think belief in God somehow masks, soothes, or relieves the fear of death? (Again can you answer this question without referencing your view on whether God exists? And if so, whether you can directly encounter s/he or it?)

How can believing that we’ll “be okay” once we die help us lead more fulfilling lives? How can it hinder us from living?

What about faith? How does faith — that we’ll go on after death — help or harm us in leading healthy, happy lives, right now?

Your constructs

Make your God construct more transparent. Take it out and take a look at it. What are its pros and cons, how does it serve you?

And if you don’t believe in God, make your constructs about “life after death,” mortality, and spirituality more transparent.

Without being mindful of your constructs, they can lead you astray from how you really want to live your life.

There’s an upside to fearing death

Death is a universally frightening topic. Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom cannot, we humans have to face existential questions like, “What happens after I die?” and “If I’m going to die, what meaning does my life have?”

But there is an upside to our predicament.

While you cannot know with certainty what happens after death, and while it’s easy to find this terrifying, you can choose to see it as a blessing.

Up next

Later this week, Mindful Construct will release a free guide that shows you how to view your mortality as a blessing, and how doing so creates the starting point for true emotional resilience.

To stay tuned for how to download that guide as soon as it’s available, click here to sign up for the Mindful Construct newsletter.

In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts below.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cory October 26, 2011 at 4:21 pm

All I have to say about this article is OMG.

Yes I believe that death is a blessing as are so many negative, anxiety-producing things in this universe. If we didn’t have things nipping at our heels or looming ominously in the future, we would all be soft, pudgy and worthless.

Death is where spirituality begins, whether you’re looking at prehistory (we buried the dead from the outset of our evolution) or whether you lose someone close to you and begin to have a spiritual experience as a result.

I put my faith in that spirituality is not part of the brain at all. It is more than our material existence. It is incomprehensible by our human relativistic perceptions.

I don’t believe there is a way to philosophize your way to freedom or optimism or a higher plane of consciousness or… whatever else. All answer-seeking activities simply lead to more and more questions because the universe is infinite. Or it may as well be.

That’s not to say that truth seeking is worthless; it’s everything. The journey is what it’s all about. Questions are the answers we seek.

I think the most important takeaway from this article is that we need to take the God construct out and look at it, the same as we would to any other shadow-dwelling construct. I think this is what is happening now on a collective level: we are projecting all our stuffs onto the material world (via Internet, or Occupy Wall Street, or other actions) so that we can examine it. But we can’t stop there. We need to go back and search within to sort of rebuild from the ashes of the old ways of thinking.

There’s way too much to say on this topic, Melissa. When are you going to write a book?

Melissa Karnaze October 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

I’m glad it got you thinking Cory!

“I put my faith in that spirituality is not part of the brain at all. It is more than our material existence. It is incomprehensible by our human relativistic perceptions.”

It was fun to do my undergrad in a field where “mind is what brain does” — in that I could make my own constructs about mind and brain much more transparent.

“There’s way too much to say on this topic, Melissa. When are you going to write a book?”"

I have projects in the works, but Mindful Emotions and my thesis currently take precedence. :)

Count Sneaky November 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Excellent introduction to this emotion-laden topic. The attrition of the species and it’s notions of softening the ignorance that accompanies it are fascinating. Since we don’t understand the illusion of self or the fey nature of reality, we are forced to rely generally on myths or negation. Thus we may freely ask, “Where the hell am I and what am doing here?”

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