Consider two phenomena in the history of humanity: the Stanford Prison Experiment and the nearly inexplicable behavior of the German people during the 1930's and early 1940's. Low points like these demonstrate even better than the high points that the individual is an expression of a larger gestalt and that individuality is over-rated.
Perhaps, for balance, I should mention a high point, too. Okay, consider the global tide of enthusiasm for love during the 1960's. It swept people along while it lasted, though its lack of staying power rather shows that it was not based on a coherent message. Nonetheless, those years also demonstrated that the individual will tend to reflect the gestalt — my highly conservative stepmother actually bought me a groovy Nehru jacket! — and that the uniqueness of individuality is over-estimated. To put it another way: we're not as separate as we might imagine we are.
I wrote about these matters during the 1980's in an article entitled Death Ain't So Bad. Since then I have been scanning scientific literature and the internet looking for scholarly treatment of this perspective. There are bits and pieces of it here and there. I see echoes of it in the writings on James Lovelock's Gaia perspective. There are writings that approach the idea on web sites dealing with memetics. But Gaia is a meme, and even the notion of “memes” is a meme. As a result, it seems to me, individuals who are enthralled with those memes tend to miss the bigger picture as it applies to them specifically.
And why would we expect anything different? Our culture (that is, our current collection of favoured memes) is predicated on the idea that we are stand-alone individuals. Yes, even Japan during the 1940's. In addition, our entire system of law is construed by some to depend on the assumption that we are individuals in this sense. You can't punish society for creating a monster, can you? Even if it did. (America, I'm looking at you. You too, Iraq. And so on, planet.)
Is this such a big deal? Does it matter? Well, one could argue that understanding how things work is always a good thing. But I have a different argument.
Mainstream religion has long dominated humanity by offering people a way out of death. Whether it deals with heaven or reincarnation, death is not presented as the final act. Science has not been so gentle with our feelings.
On the other hand, if we see ourselves as expressions of that which is larger (human culture at one level, the universe at another) then we see that only part of the system is ceasing to move forward. That which created you continues, even if your consciousness does not. And as I've previously suggested in this blog, consciousness may be nothing but a transcription process that evolution bestowed upon us because it helped us survive. We make it very personal, of course, but our conceptions can be tweaked by seeing a larger context. (Okay, now you can consider Japan in the 1940's.)
In other words, I am suggesting that we have an alternative, comforting, non-religious way to look at death.
Alas, such a suggestion is an idea. And ideas mutate. What starts as a non-religious idea can acquire fanatical adherents who want it to dominate its natural subtrate of replication (i.e. human minds). In other words, even a non-religious idea can spawn zealotry. Consider the American anti-communism fervor of the 1950's if you want an example of this!
Still, we're getting to know memes better and better. Maybe one day we'll find ourselves using them intelligently instead of having them use us. That's a self-referential feedback loop my mind cannot encompass; I spot at least one category error. But for a topic like this it's best to end of a positive note. I have a sense there's an uncodified writing meme about that.
(Man, this is badly written. Too bad I have to write all this out in a hurry.)