Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.


*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.


This post is about suicide, a subject that has not been studied very extensively since Emile Durkheim published his seminal book SUICIDE in 1897. It’s also about morality and community or the density of connections we have or feel with other people.

For Durkheim, sociology is the science of morality. Morality, for him, is not just an abstract set of ideas disembodied from our lives as we live them. Morality, for Durkheim, is all about how closely we are integrated into our ‘societies’. Societies can be anything from a family to a nation, but are not equivalent to nations or nation-states. Societies organize rules for themselves around who belongs and who doesn’t. These rules may be firm enough in theory, but in practice not so much. And they are based on those things in our lives that matter the most, things that shift constantly over time and space.

Durkheim uses his study of suicide as a way of measuring the density of our connections with others and the ideas/values that dominate our lives whether we agree with them or not. The reason poor people are shunned in our society and considered moral degenerates is because their lives are a testament to their failure to live up to one of our most cherished values: wealth. Our talk of equality is just that, talk. We judge people by their lives and how closely they are connected to social and moral values. Nobody has any value outside of our moral and existential categories. Of course, moral values involve many aspects of our lives like who is allowed to have sex and when, who has a job and who doesn’t, who has an education, takes vacations, has children, votes, etc..

A graphic showing Durkheim’s typology is organized around Durkheim’s concerns with the glue that holds us together in society. He refers to regulation and integration as two key notions or ‘agglutinating’ factors in our lives. He identified (see the graphic) two major types of suicide: anomic and egoistic. These types of suicide do not refer to individual characteristics, but to the quality of social organization. For example, egoism, for Durkheim, refers to a social condition where individuals are not integrated into the social fabric. I would characterize suicide in many Canadian aboriginal communities as egoistic suicides because the individuals concerned are not connected to the broader moral community, not because of any fault of their own, but because they have been systematically and legally excluded by colonialism and marginalization. Anomie, for Durkheim, is a social condition whereby the moral rules people have come to rely upon to conduct their lives are weakened or disappear. Moral confusion leads to anomic suicide.

Durkheim’s research revolved around studies of religion, family, sex, time of year, education, wealth and poverty, etc. Durkheim had a friend who took a job teaching in a provincial school in the south of France leaving Paris and all his family and friends. He eventually committed suicide. Although Durkheim doesn’t mention this case in his book, he was definitely absorbed by it and determined to explain why his friend would do such a thing.

We often think of suicides as people who are mentally ill. Durkheim resisted this theory, pointing out that in many cases, there is no indication at all that a person who commits suicide is mentally ill. Suicide, for Durkheim, is all about the weaknesses of our social and moral rules. Individuals who commit suicide are responding to a lack of their integration into society. People who are ‘schizophrenic’ (a highly contested diagnosis, by the way) may be exhibiting the symptoms of disengagement from a society that doesn’t have a clue about how to communicate with them and often presents them with completely contradictory messages about their importance to others and to society as a whole.

People with the best of intentions, parents, educators, medical personnel and others, may believe they are doing the best for the schizophrenic ‘patient’, but are instead pushing him or her away by their inability to communicate with them on their terms.

This is a touchy subject in our world. Most people can’t understand why a person would take their own life, distancing themselves permanently from the society most people value so highly. We say of suicides that ‘they passed away at home suddenly.’ When have you seen in an obituary that the deceased has committed suicide? Over 3000 people commit suicide in Canada every year. You wouldn’t know that from reading obituaries. We are ashamed of even discussing suicide. It’s such a taboo subject.

For me, schizophrenia and suicide are both rational responses to impossible social situations. I’m sure that’s not a popular view, but after 35 years of study of the topic, it’s a view that I find I cannot dispute. I probably should put together a list of publications that back up my views. I will do that if I get enough interest. I’m open to discussing this at any time with anybody. Just ask.



Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?

Ernest Becker 4: Nah, we don’t REALLY die, do we?


Alright, so Becker is keen on telling us that we are animals and our ‘animality’ must be considered in any analysis of what our place is on this planet.  More than that he states that like all animals we want to continue to live.  We crave life but know that it will end.  But that just can’t be!  We are such wonderful creatures, we’ve got these big brains and bodies that can give us such pleasure.  Why we must be the most intelligent things in the universe!  We can’t possibly die… Well, maybe, just maybe we don’t die.  Yeah, that’s the ticket.  Maybe our flesh and blood dies, but WE don’t.  Yes, disease and death are the twin evils that we face, but maybe, just maybe, that’s just a part of what we are.  Well…let’s let Becker speak now as gets to the point of his Introduction and of his book:


The reader has surely already seen the rub, and objected in his own mind that the symbolic denial of mortality is a figment of the imagination for flesh-and-blood organisms, that if man seeks to avoid evil and assure his eternal prosperity he is living a fantasy for which there is no scientific evidence so far.  To which I would add that this would be all right if the fantasy were a harmless one.  The fact is that self-transcendence via culture does not give man s simple and staightforward solution to the problem of death; the terror of death still rumbles underneath the cultural repression…What men have done is to shift the fear of death onto the higher level of cultural perpetuity; and this very triumph ushers in an ominous new problem. Since men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meaning of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarantee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety is created. And this anxiety is precisely what spills over into the affairs of men.  In seeking to avoid evil [in the form of death and disease] man is responsible for bringing more evil in to the world than organisms could ever do merely be exercising their digestive tracts.  It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.  This is the main argument of my book…how man’s impossible hopes and desires have heaped evil in the world.


So there you have it.  Some of you might consider this a little hyperbolic, but it’s nothing of the sort.  Any casual student of history or anthropology will tell you that attempts by people to destroy others who threaten their immortality are the hallmark of our time on this planet.  Just a hint to where we’re going with this from page 125 of EFE:  Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death.

Ernest Becker 3: Not my tummy, no, not that!



I’m going to start right off with this quotation from Becker’s EFE, pages 3 and 4.


And this brings me to the unique paradox of the human condition: that man wants to persevere as does any animal or primitive organism; he is driven by the same craving to consume…to enjoy continued experience.  But man is cursed with a burden no animal has to bear: he is conscious that his own end is inevitable, that his stomach will die. [Oh no, not my tummy!]


…As I argued in The Denial of Death, man erected cultural symbols which do not age or decay to quiet his fear of his ultimate end – and more immediate concern, to provide the promise of indefinite duration.  His culture gives man an alter-organism which is more durable and powerful than the one nature endowed him with…


What I am saying is that man transcends death via culture not only in simple (or simple-minded) visions of gorging himself with lamb in a perfumed heaven full of dancing girls, but in much more complex and symbolic ways.  Man transcends death not only by continuing to feed his appetites, but especially by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits: he may believe he has fulfilled God’s purpose, or done his duty to his ancestors or family, or achieved something which has enriched mankind…It is an expression of his will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has lived, has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died…


This is man’s age-old dilemma in the face of death…what man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance.  Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning.  And in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way…


We can see that the self-perpetuation of organisms is the basic motive for what is most distinctive about man – namely, religion.  As Otto Rank put it, all religion springs, in the last analysis, ‘not so much from…fear of natural death as of final destruction.’  But it is culture itself that embodies the transcendence of death in some form or other, whether it appears purely religious or not…[it operates] to raise men above nature, to assure them that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than purely physical things count.


So, culture is the mechanism by which we convince ourselves that we are immortal.  That has some pretty important consequences for us, and devastating ones at that as we’ll see tomorrow. 


These quotations may get shorter as we go along.  Right now it’s important to set the stage for what’s to come…


By the way, ellipses are used in the quotations to indicate that I’ve left some text out.  Square brackets include my interjections. 


Another ‘by the way’, you might be annoyed by Becker’s use of masculine pronouns everywhere and references to mankind and such.  Just remember that he wrote this in the early 70s, when I was getting married.  It was common to do this in those days and people still use masculine forms of speech to refer to all of us.  Be forgiving.  Exercise tolerance.  There’s not enough compassion in the world. 

Frank Mahovlich and the Hidden Failure of Our Churches

I’ll get to the title of this post in the next paragraph but for now let me just say that in my library I have copies of a number of magazines from the 1960s and 1970s.  I have several copies of Maclean’s dating from the early 60s. I also have several copies of a magazine called Soviet Union and I have a copy of Fortune Magazine, a much more substantial publication than the first two I mention above.  Soviet Union  is a publication founded by Maxim Gorky in 1930 originally called USSR in Construction, it was renamed in 1950.  Maclean’s was, in the early 60s, a domestic weekly current affairs magazine with fairly innocuous content, much as today. All the publications I address here are large format, about 34 X 26 centimeters.  The current Maclean’s is 27 X 20 centimeters.

In this post I write about the Maclean’s of February 25th, 1961. In the next post I write about Soviet Union and I’ll follow that with a post on Fortune.  All of these publications are essentially propagandistic although there would be vehement denials of this on the part of the publishers although I doubt if they care an iota about what I have to say about them.  For a current affairs magazine, Maclean’s addresses a range of topics as can be noted from a photograph of the front page:

Sports, religion and police work dominate this edition of the magazine.  Peter Gzowski writes an article called Viva Mahovlich!  In it he waxes poetic about the “Maple Leafs’ young star.”  I was 14 years old at the time and Frank Mahovlich was a young star on the Maple Leafs. He played against the best, such as Henri Richard and Bobby Hull.  I played very poorly  at a boarding school in Edmonton, one of a number of boys from  the west coast of British Columbia with very little experience with ice.  I would never qualify for Junior ‘B’, never mind the NHL.  Frank Mahovlich was a star before he joined the Maple Leafs.  The names in the NHL have changed, but I still can’t play hockey worth a shit.  But I’m not dead yet, which is more than I can say for lots of hockey players who played with Frank Mahovlich.

The religion part of this edition features a report by Ralph Allen who writes this about Christianity: “Against such other gigantic forces as communism, materialism and a thinly sheathed militarism, the Christian church is widely held to be the most hopeful protector of the human race, physically as well as spiritually.”  How’s that for objective journalism.  Whatever, this is just a year after the heady days of the defeat in Quebec of the Duplessis government by the Lesage Liberals with René Lévesque in the Cabinet.  This year marks the beginning of a huge transformation in Quebec politics and religion.  Bring on secular religion and bring on a much expanded French speaking provincial government bureaucracy and the beginnings of the CEGEP movement in higher education.

So, 1961 was the year I was 14 years old, the year Diefenbaker would march side by side with John Kennedy and the year Quebec turned church buildings  into gift shops.  The ads in the 1961 Maclean’s include ones for booze, big American cars and insurance…and there’s a Pepsi ad appealing to the young.  Nothing’s changed except the youth of then are the old farts of now.

God is Society or The Collectivity that is ‘I’ Part 2.

Emile Durkheim was the first European to actually hold a ‘chair’ in sociology.  Actually it was in education and sociology because there were no ‘pure’ sociology departments back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was born in 1857 and died in 1917 just before the end of World War I.  There is much in Durkheim that I disagree with but much that I consider brilliant.  I disagree with his reification of society and his notion that a society can either be healthy or ill.  He refers to sociology as social pathology, or the study of what makes society ill.  That’s a bit of a stretch for me.  I’ve been a sociologist for a long time but I’m not sure that ‘society’ exists.  Social relations exist in a myriad of interweavings and interdependencies, but society as a thing?  No, I’m not convinced.  But does that negate his whole ‘oeuvre?’  Not at all.  His Elementary Forms of the Religious Life is quite brilliant and for two important reasons.  First, he argues, based on his studies of Australian aboriginal clans (from his office in France), that religion and society are one and the same thing.  Clan and totemic organization are so intertwined as to be singly incomprehensible.  In a more general sense, he argues that gods are personifications and projections of the society itself.   Projections (which are a complex of moral and behavioural precepts) are then used to judge individuals in the society itself. This makes perfect sense to me.  He’s not the only one who argues similar things, but his argument is prototypical. The second reason is his emphasis on ritual as the application of ‘glue’ that holds us together in our social bonds.  Ritual brings people together in an attempt to strengthen social connections and interdependencies, even when these are built on a foundation of power imbalances and sometimes extreme inequalities.

So, what is the upshot of all of this?  Well, a most important one is that God (or gods)  and all of religious belief and ritual are socially-constructed.   So, as a Christian, when you pray to God you are praying to your society.  In our case, Christianity is fully compatible with the notion of individual responsibility and private property rights.  Christianity has been able over the centuries to adapt to the political and economic engines of the ages and it has served those political and economic interests well.  In saying this I disagree in a sense with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in their intractable denial of the existence of God.  I agree with them that there is no God ‘out there’ somewhere looking after each and every one of us.  But God does exist, in the minds, institutions and habits of people all over the world.  In a future blog I address the issue of self-esteem and complete surrender to God which is a driving idea for many Christians.  That notion makes complete sense from the perspective of Durkheim’s work.

Another important lesson arising from engagement with Durkheim’s work is his focus on ritual as a binding force.  As humans we are driven by ritual in our relations with others.  Durkheim argues that the less we are integrated into society by engaging in ritual which must always involve others(fully bound by its morality) the more we are susceptible to suicide.  These are critical concepts for sociology, at least my sociology.