Religion course focuses on death and the afterlife


A Central Michigan University religion department professor is teaching students how to live by having them study what it means to die.

Religion 334: Death and Dying is taught by Merlyn Mowrey, a professor in the philosophy and religion department. The course sets its focus discussing the afterlife by using ideas and theories.

“We talk about what it means that human beings, who are called ‘mortals,’ are influenced by the fact of our own finitude, that is, the fact that we die,” Mowrey said.

The class discusses what life and death actually mean and how people handle the anxiety that can come when thinking of deathly concepts.

People connect parts of their lives to their own personal identity to set themselves apart from death, Mowrey said. For example, people think that attacks on their religion or even their favorite sports teams can be perceived as matters of life and death. The reaction to these challenges can help explain why people take the attacks so personal.

Mowrey calls this phenomenon “death anxiety,” which can stretch past the subject of death itself. Death anxiety can also play a part in what people give value to in their lives.

“We use a psychological theory about death anxiety that suggests that death plays a powerful role in life,” Mowrey said. “Death anxiety is aroused, not just by our fear or dread of death, but by experiences.”

This theory can also explain why people hold their religions and similar beliefs so close to their personal identity, Mowrey said. It also makes the connection that people’s identity and the things that make up their identity are vital in helping people cope with death.

“This theory links our death anxiety to racism and sexism, to the vehemence with which some religious people argue for the superiority of their religion over others and other kinds of easily evoked hostility toward others,” she said.

The second part of the class involves the ways people use religion to cope with death and dying and ways people around death can be helped, Mowrey said.

This part of the class also dissects ways other people deal with the subject in a variety of different ways, Mowrey said. These different ways include readings on grief and what it’s like to experience death.

“We start with the religious problem of theodicy, which is the problem of explaining how an all good, all powerful and all-knowing God could permit evil and suffering in the world,” Mowrey said.