Implications of “Survivalism” and “Annihilationism”

It makes a considerable difference to our outlook on life, whether we believe in any form of survival or not. Those who entirely reject the idea of survival inevitably concentrate all their ambitions and hopes, for themselves and others, on this single life on earth. This life, they feel, is all they have and for them the only reasonable goal can be the achievement of some kind of mundane satisfaction or contentment in this world — all else being meaningless. The precise implications of such an attitude will depend greatly on a person’s character. The idealist may devote himself to all kinds of plans for bettering the human condition. It is claimed, and not without some justice, that this view of things has led to a great many social improvements. Nevertheless, if we look at the whole picture, it may be doubted whether all the social consequences of a purely “this-worldly” view have been beneficial.

And even the idealist must admit that his hopes are strictly limited, not only for himself but for the race itself which will inevitably die out one day, possibly hastened to its end by man’s own wicked folly or even his incompetent attempts to “control nature.” Furthermore, those who are less idealistically inclined may tend to regard this “one-life-only” theory as an excuse for enjoying themselves as selfishly as they like while they have the chance, with no fear of any post-mortem retribution.

In addition, there are very many people who are more or less (in some cases greatly) tormented by the fear of utter extinction at death. To point out that this is illogical is useless. For many such, fear of cancer or other fatal diseases, or war and other disasters, is not made any easier to bear because they see no future for themselves beyond the grave. Those who preach the “we have only one life” gospel too enthusiastically may forget in their zeal for good causes the serious psychological harm such talk can do.

Fear of death is not, of course, confined to those who do not believe in an after-life. It is in fact universal. “In that sleep of death what dreams may come” is a thought that has given pause to many besides Hamlet, and in the past many have gone terrified of hell-fire — and some still do. Probably, however, most believers or would-be believers in survival today settle in fact for something vaguely comforting, a trifle wishful, and with few clearly envisaged details.

It should be noted that lack of belief in survival is not entirely incompatible with a religious attitude, though probably most sincere believers in all religions have some such faith, however vague. The Jewish religion, for instance, has little to say on an after-life (though this is not denied), and probably many orthodox Jews have little or no faith in one. This is partly due to the reticence of most of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) on the subject, and in this connection the well-known concern of Jews with their race and its continuance is significant — as in the case of the secularists noted above. The relation, of course, is an inverse one: the Jew, concerned with racial survival, thinks little about personal survival. The secularist, rejecting personal survival, pins his hopes on that of the race. The concern of many Christian churchmen with social problems today often goes together with a marked reticence on the subject of survival, and occasionally even with a degree of open skepticism. In some cases this looks like a scarcely-veiled capitulation to the dominant materialistic outlook of the present age.

Of course there are many who believe — rightly or wrongly — that they can get in touch with the departed. Mediums who claim to be able to do this are numerous, and while some (it is impossible to say how many) are fraudulent, and some others are self-deluded, it would be unwise in the extreme to suppose that this is always the case. Genuine clairvoyants, spiritual healers and other such specially gifted people unquestionably exist, as anyone who is prepared to undertake an impartial investigation can readily discover. But in the public mind such people tend still (though perhaps rather less than formerly) to be dismissed en masse as fraudulent or at best cranky. Those who consult them often do so surreptitiously, guarding the fact from their friends as a guilty secret they would be ashamed to divulge. While excessive concern with such matters is not necessarily a good thing, the loudly voiced scornful skepticism of many materialistic-minded people is simply an inadequate response to something of which they are woefully — sometimes even culpably — ignorant.


Since in fact a fear of death is deep-rooted in everybody, the propagation of an attitude of total skepticism can do much harm. Even a great psychologist like the late Dr. Ernest Jones, the biographer of Freud, considered it necessary to declare that it was important to eliminate from one’s mind all belief in an after-life. Now if, in fact, it could somehow be finally proved (which it cannot) that there is no such thing, and if further it were possible through psycho-analysis or some such methods to get rid of all fear of extinction, this might be a good thing. But since these premises cannot be substantiated, the claim falls to the ground. The fact is that orthodox psycho-analysis was able to find out a great deal about the problem of sex, with which it was largely (though not entirely) able to cope. But it had not and has not the equipment to adequately deal with the problem of death. What Dr. Jones (Freudian though he was) failed to see is that the only result of such an attempt can be repression!

Repression may be briefly defined as “the active process of keeping out and ejecting, banishing from consciousness, the ideas and impulses that are unacceptable to it.”[1] We can call it successful self-deception. Its deleterious effects on the psyche are well-known, thanks above all to the work of Sigmund Freud and his followers. In this case it means that we deceive ourselves into believing that we are not afraid of death — and in fact very many people do this.

Buddhism is actually an even better and more radical method of dealing with one’s repressions than psycho-analysis, and it is often a hard task to convince people that they have in fact not “transcended,” but merely repressed their fear of death! The reader is earnestly advised at this point to consider seriously the possibility that he or she has done just this, bearing in mind that in the nature of things an immediate negative reaction proves nothing! If in fact there is any instinctive tendency to shy away from the whole subject, the answer is actually obvious, though it may be hard to accept. This is due not only to the fear itself but to conceit — the belief that one is “advanced.”