The Culture of Death

Mar 04

In the world today there seems to be less and less respect for life. This cuts across political categories. Those on the conservative side may advocate capital punishment at home and the use of war to solve problems abroad. Those on the liberal side may oppose these forms of killing, but are likely to support euthanasia, for example, and to regard abortion on demand as a fundamental right. In all these cases, a being's life is given a lower value than some other perceived good, whether it be security, justice or even convenience.

This low valuation of life is very evident at the international level. We are witnessing an epidemic of global lawlessness. This applies equally to terrorism, which is war waged by non-state actors, and to conventional warfare, which is terrorism waged by the state. In both versions, people are maimed and killed for political purposes.

On the imaginative level, popular culture is full of images of violent death. Hundreds of movies are made where the message seems to be that it is good to kill the bad guys. The carnage in video games is even worse. These images and themes inevitably desensitize people to violence, and validate killing as a solution to conflict. This cultural milieu no doubt contributes to the problem, but I would argue it is more a symptom than a cause. After all, people do seek out this stuff.

I would suggest that a more basic root of the culture of death is the lack of a genuine spiritual vision. I am not referring to religion per se. Religion narrowly defined can itself be a cause of conflict. (Although it should be remembered that of the three biggest mass murderers of all time, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, two were dogmatic atheists and one was at best a sort of cranky pagan.)

The spiritual vision I am referring to is one that underlies all genuine religious feeling. In this context it would have two relevant components; an abiding faith that a human being has an intrinsic spiritual aspect and a belief that there are future consequences for moral actions. In the Buddhist tradition to which I adhere, the former would be defined as the intrinsic purity of consciousness, which has the potential for enlightenment, and the latter as the law of karma which determines our rebirth. Every religious tradition defines these principles in a unique way. A Christian, for example, would speak in terms of a soul and of judgment after death.

The alternative to this spiritual view is the mechanistic materialism that is so prevalent, especially among the educated classes who set the trend and make the rules. In this view, human beings are considered basically as very complex machines. In the calculus of decision making they have no inherent value. If one or many are to be killed for the greater good, it is considered a valid transaction.

This philosophic materialism as a validation of killing is particularly obvious in the case of abortion. The only way to justify abortion is to believe that the fetus is not a being of spiritual worth in it's own right. At present, this seems to be the officially sanctioned hypothesis.

Likewise in the case of war. Anyone who drops a bomb from an airplane, or straps one under his clothes to detonate in a crowded market is making a judgment that some abstract political value is worth more than human life. How could this be believed if human beings were seen as have a sacred aspect? Even if those who perpetrate such actions claim a religious sanction, they are devoid of a really spiritual vision.

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