Amanda Marcotte has some interesting speculations on the fear of death and lays the blame on human ego. She points out that many people cannot quite come to terms with the fact that after they die, they will cease to exist. More than that, they fear that their lives will not have even mattered and will not be remembered, and this can be a shattering blow to their egos.
When a person dies, their immediate family and friends grieve and feel a sense of loss, but even that dissipates with time. A few years after your death, people will cease to remember you except on rare occasions, and after a generation or two, no one will have a personal recollection of the dead person. How many people can recall their great-grandparents or even know their names? For many people, the gravestone or a mention in some archival document is the only indication that they existed at all.
This may be why people fear death so much. We want to feel that our lives matter. While we are alive, we can sustain that belief because we work, have friends and families, and other people depend on us for various things. But lurking behind is the fear: what if we die and no one really cares or even notices? After all, as has been famously said, the graveyards are full of people who were thought to be indispensable.
The times when I feel most strongly the insignificance of any one person’s life is when I am flying in a plane on a clear day and can see houses and moving cars below as distant specks. It makes me wonder what kind of lives those unseen people live. No doubt they feel they are living rich and full lives but almost the entire world is oblivious to their existence, just as they are oblivious to mine. While the people living those lives undoubtedly feel their lives matter, the truth is that they affect just a tiny part of the world for a tiny instant of time, and the rest of the world goes on happily ignorant of their existence. Nearly all the people who ever lived are now completely forgotten and it seems as if their lives did not matter in the least. Our lives are like ripples in a lake caused by a small stone, quickly dying away, leaving no visible trace they ever existed.
It seems as if it does not matter whether we had ever lived. The fact that our individual lives do not matter to almost everyone is so obvious that it is hard to understand why the idea that the world will still go on without us should be so disturbing to some. After all, the world existed just fine without us for billions of years before we were born. As Mark Twin is reported to have said as to why he did not fear death “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” And yet, many people cannot seem to come to terms with the long view that equates their non-existence before birth with their non-existence after death. But once we have been born and are conscious of the fact that we exist, the thought of the world returning to a state of our own nonexistence seems somehow frightening.
This fear that our lives will cease to matter once we die is probably the driving force behind the popularity of religious ideas of the afterlife and heaven and all the other superstitions. This way people can still imagine themselves as active participants in events, still doing things, continuing to be relevant after their physical deaths. As writer Gore Vidal said, “You need a religion if you are terrified of death.” Of course, it helps to believe in heaven and a good life after death, but it seems to be more important to believe in any life at all.
One can see in this context why the idea of an eternal omniscient god is also appealing. A god who has existed and will exist for all time and knows everything is a god who knows about you personally. That means you will never be forgotten, at least by god. And since your soul also exists forever, you never really die. And since you matter to god, your life will always matter.
This is where religions have had their most pernicious influence. Religions have seized upon this vague unease with the idea of nonexistence and transformed it into actual fear and dread of death by inventing rewards and punishments, heaven and hell. They have replaced the certainty that after we die we cease to exist and instead created an unknown, uncertain, and thus frightening future. Then once that fear has been created, god is introduced to manipulate people into supporting the financial racket known as organized religion by pretending to allay those fears with soothing stories of an afterlife. So the ideas of god, the soul, and the afterlife can be thought of as inventions to manipulate people into accepting religion by first creating a fear of death (building upon a natural instinctive desire to avoid death) and then inventing ways to allay those fears.
As long as people fear death, it will be hard to get rid of religion and god. As Christopher Hitchens points out in his book God Is Not Great (2007, p. 247): “Sigmund Freud was quite correct to describe the religious impulse, in The Future of an Illusion, as essentially ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death and its tendency to wish-thinking. Neither contingency seems very probable.”