RELI 2732 March 22nd
Lecture # 11:
What people really believe:
- What different religions teach about death
- Find out teachings from official representatives of traditions or from sacred texts
- Beliefs of individuals may or may not relate to the view held by their tradition
- Not necessarily a relation between a person’s belief about afterlife and the rest of
their belief system
- Ex: Atheist may wonder rationally about other planes of existence. Don’t believe in
God but may believe in afterlife.
- Religions not necessarily stable in a person. Ex: What you believe in church may
not be the same as what you believe when you’re stuck in traffic.
- What you say in the context of a group may not be what you would say on an
- Hard to figure out what people actually believe.
- Polls in western countries ran into the above problems. How do you know people
are being honest? How to measure if people believe what they say they believe.
- US rank high on religious belief polls.
- 77% of people in a traditionally religious country like Ireland believe in life after
death compared to 23% in a secular country like Denmark. US= 71%
- High percentages of Americans say they go to church but compared to an actual
count of people, poll overstated attendance by double.
- Is US a religious culture in which the acceptable social behavior is to say you go to
- Polls not measuring religious behaviour but showing cultural values of Americans.
Whether or not go to church, values say it is a good thing.
2 views of dying:
1) Sociological account
2) A dying man’s account
Walter’s Secularization and the terror of death:
- Secularization= becoming worldly, the turning away from religion. Turning
towards the practical world of our senses.
RELI 2732 March 22nd
- Religious perspective presupposes reality beyond world of our senses. Secular only
takes into account what we take in through our senses.
- Last 30 years, increasing flood of literature written by religious authorities, doctors,
psychologists, lay people, etc.
The chapter by Tony Walter in your manual is called ‘Secularization and the Terror of
Tony Walter examines 3 prominent theses surrounding death and dying that can be found
in recent literature on the subject.
1. Death in the modern world is an alienating and terrifying experience.
According to this view, our society isolates old, ill and dying people in special hospital
wards and homes and grieving people are also not so welcome in society.
According to this view too, because of secularization, modern society has lost the religious
rituals and symbols that comforted past generations and helped them in dealing with death
and grief. Without the meaning that religion gives to death then social isolation and social
discomfort surround dying and bereaved people.
Many authors who support this view contrast the experience of dying in the modern age
with previous centuries and they claim that the loss of religion has left people without the
strategies that once helped.
This view led to what has been called the ‘happy death movement’ or ‘the natural death
movement’. It is supported by the thesis that dying and grieving were easier when people
could rely on religion and ritual. Another aspect of this argument is that our modern way of
living and dying has been thoroughly medicalised – in a secular society we turn to nurses
and doctors for comfort not to priests and we are denied a more natural way of dying and
grieving that was experienced in the past.
RELI 2732 March 22nd
Walter asks is this true? Is dying and grieving in modern life so much more difficult and
lonely than in previous times? He asks, What evidence do we have that people of past
generations were comforted on their deathbeds by the thought of heaven? Did belief in an
afterlife make dying easier? Did public mourning ease grief?
Here are some of his conclusions—first and foremost Walter points out that it is difficult if
not impossible to come to any proven conclusion about what the overall effect of Christian
belief was on dying or grieving people.
He argues that the thought of heaven might comfort a dying person but fear of eternal
damnation could just as easily create extreme anxiety. How could a person be sure of
dying in a state of grace - unexpected death could rob you of the chance of a last confession
Walter then concludes that for past generations it could be said that religion created both
comfort and anxiety for the believer.
The happy death movement argues that modern death is perceived as unnatural to life.
Walter refutes this view by pointing out that in fact it is a Biblical view that death is the
consequence of sin – whereas it was the doctors of the 18th century who supported the idea
that death is nothing to fear, that it is a natural part of being physical.
In other words, Walter says the facts point to the opposite - religion implies that death is
fearsome and unnatural, whereas the doctors and romantics of the 18th century regarded
death as natural to life.
What about Beliefs in heaven and hell: do they help?
Beliefs are very peculiar things—you can study what people do, but it is very difficult to
study or determine what people believe because what people say they believe cannot be
taken as an accurate measure of what they actually do believe.
Again Walter shows that it is very difficult to know how seriously people in the past took
church teaching on heaven and hell—there have always been those who were publicly