By Neil Dhingra

Can religion help us think about evil, even in these apparently post-religious (if not post-evil) days?

If religion shows its face in public, it often does so in the context of evil in horror films, wielding crucifixes and holy water and strangely conversant in ecclesiastical Latin. Cathryn van Kessel’s fascinating recent book An Education in ‘Evil’ features a chapter in which the education professor asks a diverse group of Canadian high school students about evil, and they speak of “Satan and all that religious stuff” and “a devil with horns on his head, doing bad things to innocent people, getting others to do selfish things.” The high schoolers even imagine the old women who were once victimized by witch hunts and more recently have been cast and animated as Disney villains.

However, it’s possible that, when we speak of evil, religion can play a more constructive role. It does so when we consider our anxieties about death, or, in biblical language, our “slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).


Cathryn van Kessel, drawing on the work of Ernest Becker, suggests that we have an existential fear of death and find ourselves compensating for this unwelcome awareness of our mortality. We look for symbolic immortality. One form of this desperate pursuit is in teaching, where teachers act as “quasi-parents” passing down a legacy to “my kids” in a pedagogical act of reproduction.

This immortality project can place an extraordinary and unsustainable amount of pressure on teachers, who are already often seen as entering a “sacrificial” profession with a “tortured nature” akin to martyrdom. Further, we can imagine the dangers of overinvestment in students by teachers with savior complexes. Thus, van Kessel has suggested a different, less grandiose set of theological or philosophical images for the teachee, such as the beautifully resigned “musicians who played music for the Titanic passengers in an attempt to calm them as the ship sank.”

Van Kessel claims that we also look to our cultural worldviews — perhaps a church, an ideology, or even being “Canadian” or a “jock” — for symbolic immortality. Therefore, once again mindful of our incipient deaths, we react defensively to threats against our worldviews; we may look for assimilation or accommodation, but we may then turn to derogation or even annihilation. In a classroom, this can lead to predictably and destructively abrasive behavior. Van Kessel suggests teaching tolerance. But given that the underlying problem in the search for immortality is death anxiety, she also suggests that we try to embrace death. “Instead of harming ourselves, each other, and the planet in the vain attempt to deny our death, we might rather pluck up the courage to accept our eventual doom.” Like, presumably, those musicians on the Titanic.

Besides van Kessel’s suggestions, the question is whether a traditional theology has any sort of response to our destructive immortality projects, especially the potential evils of worldview defense. I think that an answer may have to do with the surprising resilience of belief — at least implicit faith — in the face of death.

Jonathan Jong and Jamin Halberstadt have written that, while much of the evidence suggests that death anxiety does indeed lead to increased explicit support for one’s worldview (whatever it is), implicit association tests suggest that confronting mortality can lead to increased religiosity, at least as measured by the quick categorization of stimuli, in both believers and non-believers. “Thus, it appears from this series of studies that nonreligious people become both more skeptical and more religious at the same time.”

From another study, Jong and Halberstadt note that, if one is a nonbeliever and then completes a difficult task that challenges skepticism, making religious belief at least more plausible, one will likely draw stronger implicit associations between death and serenity. That is, there may be a tension between the drive for symbolic immortality through a reinforced atheistic or agnostic worldview and a more tacit, strangely persisting hope in literal immortality.

This isn’t an apologetic argument since the implicit religiosity may be rooted in “universal properties of mind” like a hard-wired need to belong, rather than the actual existence of God. Nor is it necessarily surprising. Another study suggests that those who explicitly deny the existence of a soul after death will respond to fictional vignettes by, say, asserting that a dead man “knew that he was dead.” They will take longer to indicate that epistemic processes terminate at death than they will take regarding merely biological processes. In fact, surveys suggest that a decline in the belief in God is not matched by a similar decline in belief in an afterlife.

Besides being a scientist, Jonathan Jong is also an Anglican priest and has written about how some of this work has shown him the spiritual value of contemplating death — the first line of compline, “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end,” the last line of the Hail Mary, “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” and so on. The contemplation of death may be a way of recognizing a deep and unconscious religiosity that remains strangely there, even and perhaps especially in the midst of our doubts. It might also be a way of easing our frantic need to look for immortality through other means, whether through teaching (or cryogenics or transhumanism) or harsh worldview defense.

Jong notes that his contemplating death is not imagining a desperate escape from death but reminding himself that we have already died in Christ through our baptism and remain dead to the world, “unencumbered by the trappings of life in an often cruel and vicious world” marked by “self-protective self-destruction.” (There is some evidence that highly religious people are not motivated to engage in worldview defense by death anxiety.) The traditional memento mori, then, may act against our fascination with immortality projects and the evils therein.

Furthermore, the recognition of an implicit (if ever-ambiguous) religiosity in believer and nonbeliever alike can result in an unlikely community. In Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, the future pope recounts a story from Martin Buber in which a learned man visits the Rabbi of Berditchev to argue him out of faith. The learned man came upon the Rabbi in his room, who paid no attention to him at all. Then the Rabbi stopped, “looked at him fleetingly and said, ‘But perhaps it is true after all.’” The Rabbi explains that he could not “lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you.” “But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The learned man was badly shaken.

For Ratzinger, this “terrible ‘perhaps’” shows the “dilemma” of humanity, that “both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief.” To be sure, for the believer, faith is present “against doubt,” and the nonbeliever will see this faith as nothing more than a mere lingering property of mind, but, in facing death, in place of simply conflicting worldviews, the two of them can find something in common in the presence of both faith and doubt within them. There is always a “perhaps.” If this becomes evident in death, our contemplation of death may result in less defensiveness and more dialogue about our shared “dilemma.”

Thus, when we speak about evil, religion presents us with more than a lurid cast of villains, Satanic or Disney-like. Faith strangely exists amidst explicit doubts when we contemplate our death. If death anxiety can tempt us towards delusional immortality projects, that faith may remind us to instead consider a “quiet night and a perfect end,” or at least to meditate on a “terrible ‘perhaps.’”

Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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