Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Debased by this soulless culture

On Sunday, Pope Benedict launched a powerful attack on what he called a culture of death. Although he did not define what he meant by the term, his statement denounced the 'thingification of mankind' - a process through which human beings are increasingly regarded and treated as things to be traded or disposed of when no longer needed.

Anyone who is disturbed by the way that television and popular culture causally turns every aspect of life into a pornographic spectacle will have an inkling of what Pope Benedict is on about. As a non-religious sociologist it is not often that I find myself in agreement with the Pope. But there is little doubt that his diagnosis regarding the flourishing of a culture of death captures an important dimension of contemporary reality.

Human degradation has always been part of our existence. In his sermon on Sunday the Pope compared the grotesque excesses of the ancient Roman Empire with those of 21st-century society.

Yes, Rome knew a thing or two about the culture of death but possibly the comparison may be unfair to the Romans. Roman depravity coexisted with a cultural celebration for human life and spirit. In contrast, Western society today finds it difficult to give meaning to life. The Romans may have had slaves but at least they regarded those who were 'free' as genuine human beings worthy of respect. Respect and belief in the uniqueness of humanity plays only a feeble influence over our affairs.

A couple of days before Pope Benedict's sermon I read a report written by Professor Chris Rapley that claimed the way to solve Earth's environmental problems is to reduce the size of its human population. Using the language of thing-ification, Rapley demanded that the 'issue of population management' must be addressed.

Population management - a euphemism for population control - has as its premise the belief that human life, or at any rate too much human life, is the defining threat to global existence. A growing number of environmentalists believe that population control is a sensible way of protecting nature. According to this perspective, human activity is the principal threat to global survival.

The depiction of human activity as itself a threat to the world tends to endow our species with an overwhelmingly negative status. From such a grim depiction of the human experience it is very difficult to derive any meaning from human life.

Instead of regarding every human being as having the potential to create, produce, imagine, invent and solve problems, the population lobby sees people as a burden on the environment. From this standpoint, human life need to be controlled and reduced. That is why the population lobby devotes more energy to curbing life than celebrating it.

Regarding people as things to be managed and controlled represents an almost casual celebration of the culture of death. In a world where lecturing people not to have children is promoted by a variety of institutions, life itself may become deprived of any special meaning.

Contemporary culture loves to represent humans as destructive and a threat to the planet. The perception that it is humanity that bears responsibility for the perils we face assigns an undistinguished, if not low status, to the human species.

At times this sentiment expresses a sense of loathing for humankind. Such sentiments are vividly expressed in the Orwellian slogan 'Four legs good, two legs bad!' This denigration of human life is the defining feature of the 21st century's culture of death.

At first sight, it is paradoxical that a culture that finds it so difficult to give meaning to life has become so obsessed with sex. However, the sex that permeates our cultural horizon is a caricature of the real thing. It is rarely a life-affirming experience. Indeed, according to some, sex is all right only if it does not lead to life.

Thousands of books are published with the explicit intention of reducing it to a skill. But this is all formulaic banal stuff. It even lacks the sense of occasion provided by an old-fashioned Roman spectacle.

I really hate the culture of death. Which is why I'll take the pain, joy and intensity of a culture of life. And instead of being afraid of the size of the world's population I think that we should celebrate human life.

First published in the Daily Express, 10 January 2006