Thanatology focuses on life extension, but what role would religion play in our lives if we no longer feared death?
The human brain isn’t built to think about death. We often remain detached from thoughts of our own mortality, even when thinking about necessary basics, such as end-of-life legal documents and funeral plans. Some even argue that the human brain simply isn’t built to think about a time when we no longer exist—that a primal mechanism shields us from fully processing the end of our consciousness.
Now, it appears that we are so incapable of processing our deaths that we’ll go to great lengths to extend our lives indefinitely.
Thanatology & Immortality
Thanatology is the study of death and dying—one that aims to help us comprehend the role of death in our lives and the rituals we put in place to help us cope. And as our lifespans have increased and we’ve become more preoccupied with life extension, the interdisciplinary field has also touched on our attempt to use technology to postpone death as long as possible.
Immortality was once confined to the legacy you left behind through your life’s accomplishments. Then, there’s the belief in a spiritual afterlife where your soul resides for eternity. Now, some people are not just trying to postpone death as long as possible, but are actively looking for ways to keep themselves alive forever.
Of course, even the faint possibility of physical immortality raises myriad ethical questions, especially considering the potential costs. What the world would look like if, say, only the super-rich could live forever?
There are important spiritual and religious questions to be answered as well. Would the soul even be important anymore if you didn’t have to worry about where it might reside in the afterlife? Will people still be driven to do good if they aren’t worried about some final judgment after death? What role would religion play in our lives if we no longer feared death?
Philosophically inclined thanatologists are going to have a lot more to think about in light of immortality research.
A Billionaire’s Benefit
Futurists and billionaires have teamed up across the world to look for ways to defeat death. Some think downloading our consciousness into a computer system is the best way to live forever without worrying about a decaying body. Others spend a great deal of money on cryonics in the hopes that their heads or whole bodies can be preserved until we find the elixir of life.
The science of radical life extension is already a field in full swing, with multiple projects underway and backed by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Russian Internet tycoon Dmitry Itskov believes human immortality will be a reality by the year 2045 thanks to robot avatars with artificial brains that will hold our entire personalities and stores of memories.
[Read: “The Lost Art of Dying.”]
Most of us stop short of assuming we can live well forever or be technologically resurrected, yet we still try to take care of our bodies and minds in a way that staves off death. But even these modest efforts put extra stress on the finite resources of our planet and exacerbate economic inequalities. Having a group of elite immortals would have untold consequences on civilization as we know it.
What Does This Mean for Spirituality?
Many religions are predicated on immortality in that they promise the survival of our souls (and sometimes even bodily resurrection). But that privilege is generally doled out to those who lived good lives on earth. So, who judges the billionaires that may be able to afford not to die and be judged (should that even be possible)? Have they nothing to fear from their misdeeds if they have no judgment day? Is this what we want for them or even for ourselves?
This is what our quest for eternal life has come to. Our brains’ inability to make sense of a world in which our consciousness no longer exists has led us to assume some part of us will live on forever. This mind-body dualism is interesting considering how hard some of us try to meld the two together through practices like yoga and meditation. In other words, we’re not very consistent when it comes to thinking about whether our minds and/or souls are separate things.
One wonders how our lives would change if someone did find a way to keep themselves alive indefinitely. You’d never have to live each moment like it was your last. You might not even have a reason to appreciate the present moment—sure, it will never come again, but you also won’t ever run out of present moments. How long might we give ourselves for personal growth if we knew we were going to live even an extra 50 to 100 years?
[Read: “Return to the Present Moment.”]
In a sense, immortality research might not just pose a threat to religion, but be considered a sort of religion itself. Candida Moss, the Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, says that not only will it be “fascinating to see religions fight back against immortality tech,” but we must also keep in mind that the proponents of this technology are “just as faith-based as religion.”
While researchers and their billionaire funders are confident they’ll be successful, Moss points out that these beliefs—which are about the power of “human ingenuity” rather than the power or benevolence of a divine creator—are still “based in exaggerated and unproven claims.”
Life Extension: Where Does It End?
Even if our physical bodies must die, immortality researchers are also looking for ways to preserve some essential quality of the individual human that would live on forever. One wonders how we would think of our bodies if we knew our minds would live on forever. Would we take better care of them, or would we treat them with less respect knowing that they were just imperfect, temporary vessels?
Much of the current immortality research seems far-fetched. It’s likely that the most we’ll get out of it is a further extension of healthy human life by a decade or two (which, to be fair, would be very impressive!). But since we’ve been fixated on immortality for thousands of years and it’s unlikely that people will ever give up that quest, humans may need to continue to ask themselves these questions. And as the conversation becomes more mainstream, we can probably expect more crises of faith.
If the Age of Enlightenment (in which scientific rationality began to trump sacred revelations about how the world works) caused Nietzsche to proclaim “God is dead,” imagine what he would think of the roles of religion and spirituality now.
Go farther with “Particles from Heaven: Losing the Fear of Death.”