I’ve been having some really good conversations lately with a friend of mine who grew up a devout Catholic and is now a functional atheist. He brought up a topic today that I haven’t thought about in a while – how the fear of the realities of the human body stem from a fear of death. I’ve blogged on the topic of “getting out of life alive” before, and this is an extension of it. I first started thinking about how negative reactions toward the profane stem from a fear of death when I read an essay posted on Experimental Theology a few years ago:
[…] many profanities appear to be associated with the psychology of disgust and contamination. Urine, feces, blood, and other bodily effluvia are routinely referenced in obscene speech as well as being reliable disgust elicitors. But the profanity/disgust link is incomplete as it fails to capture facets of religious cursing (e.g., damn, hell), references to sexual intercourse (e.g., the f-word), or references to body parts (e.g., breasts, genitalia).
[…] One facet of [Terror Management Theory] research has been to examine how various facets of everyday existence can become existentially problematic, particularly when functioning as death reminders. We are unsettled upon being reminded of our death and, thus, tend to repress or avoid aspects of life that make death salient. Much of this research has focused on how the body functions as a mortality reminder. The vulnerability of our bodies highlights the existential predicament that we will one day die and decay. Further, the gritty physicality of the body (e.g., blood, sweat, odors, waste) highlights our animal nature which functions as an existential affront to our aspirations of being transcendent spiritual creatures. Based upon these insights, an impressive body of empirical work has strongly linked body ambivalence to death concerns. Much of this research is summarized by Goldenberg, Pyszcynski, Greenberg, & Solomon (2000) who conclude: “[T]he body is a problem because it makes evident our similarity to other animals; this similarity is a threat because it reminds us that we are eventually going to die.”
We are so scared of the human body – farts, female body hair, menstrual blood, semen, pooping, etc, etc, etc. These things are not to be talked about in a respectable setting, they are, to quote George Carlin, “bad, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, coarse, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene…” Of course, they are also natural parts of human anatomy and physiology. These things remind us that we have mortal human bodies, and that reminds us of death.
Anyways, if you have the time, go and read the whole essay, it’s quite fascinating.