For much of history, religion has been the avenue through which people have sought eternity. Today's secular West tries to think about death outside of the language of spirituality. Paul Bickley raises the question of what it is we are prepared to believe about death, the body and the ‘soul’, in a society where religious affiliation is in rapid decline. Do transhumanism and technological development really offer us a non-spiritual concept of immortality? Or are we just rehashing religious ideas for a secular age?
Jang Ji-sung lost her seven-year-old daughter Nayeon to cancer in 2016. Four years later she met Nayeon again – or at least she met a virtual reality avatar of Nayeon. The Munwha Broadcasting corporation had invited Jang and her family to be part of a documentary, Meeting You, the central moment of which saw Jang don a VR headset and interact with her ‘daughter’. The result was simultaneously creepy and gut-wrenchingly sad. Jang weeps, and reaches out to touch Nayeon’s face. She asks how Nayeon has been, and says how much she has missed her. The avatar’s scripted sentences don’t seem to diminish Jang’s sense that her daughter is really there, and that they are really reunited.
Technological developments, even those in the last three years, will have brought us that much closer to real time interaction with virtual simulacra of lost loved ones. But why would anyone even consider such a process?
As Nietzsche said, “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit” (all lust wants eternity). Or, less cynically, all love wants eternity. A death is an end not just of a creature’s biological existence, but to the world of meaning that an individual has built with others. No matter how long a life has been, it is hard to say that it has been enough. Finitude sometimes seems right, but rarely. Most of us do want at least a little more, even if our lives have given us a lot, when they are longer, richer and more pleasant than at any time in history.
A death is an end not just of a creature’s biological existence, but to the world of meaning that an individual has built with others. No matter how long a life has been, it is hard to say that it has been enough
For much of humanity and much of history, religion and spirituality has been the avenue through which we have sought eternity. But the unbelieving west is perhaps unique in trying to think about the meaning and nature of death outside of the frameworks and language of spirituality.
According to a YouGov poll in 2021, a third of UK adults (33%) believe in an afterlife, but 42% do not. Three in ten Britons (30%) believe that heaven exists, with 18% saying they think hell exists too. Over half of the population (54%) don’t believe in either. Similar conclusions were found in Theos’ own poll through YouGov indicating only 29% of UK adults believed that there was life after death.[i]
What is happening? Given the pressing nature of the question of death (we are all going to die), most people will have reflected, even if superficially, on what will happen to them or to loved ones after death. If not eternal life or some kind, then what? Eternal oblivion is the obvious answer. It is perhaps one of the clearest indications of our overwhelming unbelief that when it comes to an issue in which every single human being has skin in the game, we opt against the frameworks of faith and embrace a fundamental reductionism on the question of what a human being is. If consciousness, and if my personhood, is dependent on a functioning brain, then once the brain has ceased to function there is no ‘me’ to exist anywhere.
But what is it that we are no longer prepared to believe? In our context, the most familiar script has been the one that has been offered by Christianity’s folk children. Here, the idea of the afterlife rests on the notion that perishable bodies are occupied by eternal souls, and that when these two part ways, the soul must go somewhere else: heaven (good) or hell (bad). Arguably, this view drew more on the Platonism of the ancient world than the first century Jewish imaginary that held out the possibility of physical resurrection which, in turn, shaped the earliest Christian thinkers (more of this later). Reincarnation is pleasant and popular alternative, though one which still rests that you only temporarily reside in your body, and will find yourselves in others in the future. In popular and non-institutional spirituality are picked up, discarded, mixed and riffed on in a way that seems most satisfying at the time (remember England manager Glenn Hoddle’s comments that disabled people were being punished for the sins of a past life – made all the more bizarre that it was mixed with the statement that he was a ‘born-again’ or ‘evangelical’ Christian).
In the last 300 years, these ideas have died a death of many cuts. Descartes on the soul (and his pesky Pineal gland). Hume on miracles. Biblical criticism, which slowly eroded the authority of these ancient texts. Darwin’s evolution and its impact on the doctrine of the Fall. Throughout history, plenty of Christian theologians had recognised that the biblical creation narratives were more mythical and lyrical than ‘literal’, but all these things could be believed at the same time as holding on to the specialness of humanity. With Darwin, the possibility emerged that humans, for all the wonder of the self-aware intelligence, came to be through the same creative process as the rest of the animal kingdom. As he put it in The Descent of Man (1871), “man with all his noble qualities… with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated in the movements and constitution of the solar system… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”.
Alongside all this, it becomes much harder to hold to a single account of the human soul and its future when exposed to the bewildering variety of religious pluralism. It is not as if there is a way to adjudicate these claims. Except in the highly dubious arena of near-death experience, death is a realm we can’t explore, there is only one way through the barrier, and no way back. No wonder if people conclude that we must reject the childish belief that in death it’s just that the party has just moved next door. A largely unobserved ‘tell’ has been a dizzyingly rapid change in our memorialisation practices – funerals are now almost exclusively a rearward glance, ‘a celebration of life’, there to help the grieving ‘move on’, rather than a committal of the deceased to some other place or power, let alone to eternal communion with them.
while institutional religious practice seems to be increasingly unattractive, there is more than a residual interest in our post-mortem future.
Except we haven’t really rejected these beliefs. They have just been transmuted.
First, a kind of secularisation does not equal the reductionist materialism which equates consciousness and personhood with brain activity. It is true that there is a correlation between religious affiliation and belief in life after death, bit it is not a perfect or total correlation. Amongst the non-religious – the fastest growing group in the UK with 53% of Britons now identifying as non-religious[ii] – a 2022 Theos report found that a fifth (20%) stated they definitely/ probably believe in life after death, and 27% of Nones believe in ghosts, 11% believe in Heaven.[iii] This is an indication that, while institutional religious practice seems to be increasingly unattractive, there is more than a residual interest in our post-mortem future.
Second, and more importantly, from the ashes of the idea of a disembodied future in an alternative state rises the phoenix of technological immortality. If ‘I’ am a sophisticated pattern of data and data processes in that spongy computer we call the brain, then there is nothing in principle that should prevent that ‘me’ from existing somewhere other than it’s current, all too impermanent, platform.
In aid of this, large amounts of money (including from some of tech’s biggest names) are pouring into new technologies aimed at extending or digitising life. Artificial neural networks, inspired by biological ones, already exist, though they are vastly simpler than anything in the natural world. A complete ‘connectome’, the system of neural pathways in a brain, for the Caenorhabditis elegans – otherwise known as the roundworm – has already been mapped, although the little creature does only have 302 neurons. Somewhat more ambitiously, the Blue Brain project has, since 2005, been working to build “the world’s first biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the mouse brain.”[iv] Such successes have made some people inordinately enthusiastic about the possibilities allegedly on offer here, envisaging that some combination of brain scanning, artificial intelligence, digital uploading, and human augmentation might one day “save” and “resurrect” or “reincarnate” humans, thereby securing for us the immortality we apparently crave.
The religious language is not inappropriate. Indeed, it is an intricate part of transhumanism, the title under which such efforts are known. Transhumanists talk openly about transcending earthly humanity and achieving eternal life. Articles breathlessly wonder “whether transhumanism can save our species?”[v] or whether it is “saviour of humanity or false prophecy?”[vi] Some new religious movements enthusiastically embrace transhumanist ambitions, whereas (corners of) other more traditional ones have appropriated its ideas. The Christian Transhumanist Association, for example, believes, among other things, that “the intentional use of technology, coupled with following Christ, can empower us to grow into our identity as humans made in the image of God.”[vii]
The actual feasibility of such proposals should be met with some scepticism. The Blue Brain project has now managed to map fully one cubic millimetre of mouse brain. They found that it contained more than 100,000 neurons with more than a billion connections between them, and that it required two petabytes of data to store (i.e. two million gigabytes). The average human brain is around 1400 cubic centimetres, contains approximately 100 million neurons (of around 1,000 different types), and probably around 100 trillion synapses (contact points between neurons).
But that’s not the point. The point is that, in spite of the seeming rejection a sort-of-Christian account of the afterlife, these transhumanist visions seem eerily familiar. The language has changed, but the conceptual picture is the same. There is some essential you inside of you, that could exist outside of you, if only you can find the right kind of place. Instead of your soul leaving your body, the data that constitute your consciousness will be mapped, transferred and recreated. It looks as if the questions we thought we had rejected have merely been sublimated, and the answers which we are shifting towards are in essence no different to those which we think we have found wanting. And we haven’t even cited the myriad questions about whether the mind or consciousness is reducible to the brain and the information contained therein. To say so seems more like a claim of ideology than science. We are indeed in the borderlands of science, philosophy and religion.
In spite of the seeming rejection a sort-of-Christian account of the afterlife, these transhumanist visions seem eerily familiar. The language has changed, but the conceptual picture is the same.
A thought experiment: imagine that Nayeon’s personality, memories, character, and the rest had been mapped prior to her death, and that through a sophisticated language engine and deep-fake VR technology Jang had interacted with those data, and indeed could do so at will? Would Jang and her family have no reason to grieve? Would her daughter be living on? No, of course not. Intuitively we know that Nayeon was so much more than data and processes in wet wear. A human life is the opportunity to learn, love, forgive and seek forgiveness, imagine, hurt, care and so much more. To be human is also to operate within a physical world, such that a disembodied mind would not be human in the same way that a Nayeon was a human.
It is worth reflecting that the orthodox Christian account of the afterlife was and is not that our bodies are inhabited by a soul which will go one way or another at the point of death. Rather, it is the resurrection of the body. So much so that the apostle Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith”. That is quite the hill to die on, so to speak.
Of course, there are endless amounts to say about religious conceptions of post mortem existence, but this has value at least in that it reflects what is a more compelling and intuitive sense of what we are than the body-soul dualism of popular religion and transhumanists. Even if we did manage to upload ourselves into the cloud, we would at that point have ceased to be ourselves, robbed of the physical contingencies and storied nature of our bodies which, in the end, we are.
[i] YG-Archive-11082020-TheosSpirituality.pdf (yougov.com)
[ii] 1_bsa36_religion.pdf (natcen.ac.uk)
[iii] The-Nones---Who-are-they-and-what-do-they-believe.pdf (theosthinktank.co.uk)
[v] Beyond our ‘ape-brained meat sacks’: can transhumanism save our species? | Australian books | The Guardian
[vi] Transhumanism: Savior of humanity or false prophecy? - Big Think
What is the point of life without God? ›
Solomon opined that life without God has no purpose or hope; man's worth comes only from the Lord. People apart from God unsuccessfully search for fulfillment and enjoyment to calm their restlessness and compensate for their spiritual emptiness.What is the belief in the afterlife? ›
Belief in an afterlife is in contrast to the belief in oblivion after death. In some views, this continued existence takes place in a spiritual realm, while in others, the individual may be reborn into this world and begin the life cycle over again, likely with no memory of what they have done in the past.How life without God is meaningless? ›
1. Life Without God is Meaningless: William Lane Craig argues that, if there is no God, then life itself lacks meaning, value, and purpose. The primary motive of this conclusion is the idea that, without God, there is no immortality. And, without immortality, then each and every one of us is doomed to die.Where in the Bible does it say everything is meaningless without God? ›
This too is meaningless. for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.What are the three types of afterlife? ›
resurrection. rebirth. immortality as a legacy. immortality as a memory of others.What are two beliefs about the afterlife? ›
Christians believe that if they were good in life they will be rewarded in heaven and let through the gates. If you were bad you will be sent to hell and punished for your sins. Christians believe that in the afterlife you are chosen to either go to heaven or hell depending on how you lived life on Earth.What happens after death according to Bible? ›
In its essence, however, it is life according to God's kind of eternity—i.e., perfect, sharing in his glory and bliss (Romans 2:7, 10). “Eternal life” in the Christian sense is thus not identical with “immortality of the soul”; rather, it is only to be understood in connection with the expectation of the resurrection.What will happen to our life without God? ›
Without God, even if human life could be meaningful within the frame of the universe, it would be ultimately meaningless because the universe itself would be pointless. It would be like playing a part in a pointless play. Problem: It is true that without God there is no point to the universe.What would happen to the world without God? ›
Without God, there would be no world! No universe with beautiful sky and sun and clouds in the day, and no moon or stars at night! God did create the universe in all its vast array of beauty and precision. He especially created the earth as an environment to sustain life, our life and all life!How to live a good life without God? ›
- You don't have to believe in God to raise good kids. Religiosity per se is no indicator of a child's moral development. ...
- Experiencing awe makes us kinder. ...
- Rituals give meaning. ...
- We all need to belong. ...
- Volunteering gives us a sense of purpose.
What is the faith that there is no God? ›
Generally atheism is a denial of God or of the gods, and if religion is defined in terms of belief in spiritual beings, then atheism is the rejection of all religious belief.Where in the Bible does it say there is no God? ›
Of course, having said that, a well-known verse immediately comes to mind: “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'.” The verse in fact occurs in two passages in the book of Psalms (at 14:1 and 53:1, verses in this article are from the RSV translation).Does the Bible say there is no other God? ›
And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.What are the 4 stages of afterlife? ›
- 2.1 Death.
- 2.2 The Last Judgment.
- 2.3 Heaven.
- 2.4 Hell.
When we die, our spirit and body separate. Even though our body dies, our spirit—which is the essence of who we are—lives on. Our spirit goes to the spirit world. The spirit world is a waiting period until we receive the gift of resurrection, when our spirits will reunite with our bodies.What are the three stages of heaven? ›
According to this vision, all people will be resurrected and, at the Final Judgment, will be assigned to one of three degrees of glory, called the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms.What do Christians teach about the afterlife? ›
The Christian faith teaches that the death of the physical body is not the end and that after their time on Earth, humans will have eternal life in the afterlife. The belief is that all humans have a soul which is a non-physical part of humans that lives on after the death of the physical body.Why do Christians believe in an afterlife? ›
Christians find many reasons in the Bible to believe in life after death. They include the following. Eternal life - Jesus promised that his followers would have eternal life. Jesus' life as an example - God sent Jesus to Earth in order that humans could overcome death and have eternal life.What do Christians believe about afterlife and judgment? ›
The Christian faith teaches that after death, individuals will be taken into the presence of God and they will be judged for the deeds they have done or failed to do during their lifetime. Some Christians believe that this judgement will happen when they die.Will we know each other in heaven? ›
In fact, the Bible indicates we will know each other more fully than we do now. The Apostle Paul declared, "Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12). It's true that our appearance will change, because God will give us new bodies, similar to Jesus' resurrection body.
What does the Bible say about seeing loved ones in heaven? ›
The reunion of believing loved ones
When Paul writes to believers who grieve the loss of a loved one, he offers them this comfort: “We who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17, emphasis mine).
He accepted that God will rule over his life and death. Even if he dies, he will be with God, although the resurrection has not yet taken place. He will receive a place in heaven, full of glory.What is the belief without God? ›
An atheist doesn't believe in the existence of a god or divine being. The word atheist originates with the Greek atheos, which is built from the roots a- (“without”) and theos (“a god”). Atheism is the doctrine or belief that there is no god.What is it called when you have no God? ›
2 The literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods,” according to Merriam-Webster. And the vast majority of U.S. atheists fit this description: 81% say they do not believe in God or a higher power or in a spiritual force of any kind.Why is God necessary? ›
This is because God's understanding is the realm of eternal truths, or that of the ideas on which they depend; without him there would be nothing real in possibles, and not only would nothing exist, but also nothing would be possible.What does the Bible say about being in the world not of the world? ›
“I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” (John 17:11, 14–15.)Will we live with God forever? ›
God loves us so much and wants us to be with Him forever and to receive all the blessings He has for us in this lifetime and in the next lifetime after our physical death. John 3: 16-17 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.Can I be happy without God? ›
Oftentimes people think that happiness and atheism/agnosticism are mutually exclusive, but this is simply an inaccurate idea that has been promulgated within society. You can be completely happy without a belief in God or the supernatural.Does God want us to live a simple life? ›
God wants us to Live a Simple Life
God wants what is best for us, and He doesn't want us to live a life tied to our stuff or our schedule. He wants us to be fully devoted to Him. Whether God has financially blessed us or not, we are to use what He gives us for His glory.
Can you have faith but not believe in God? There are a growing number of atheists who declare themselves "faithful," but not all religious leaders think their belief system makes sense.
What religion believes in god but doesn t? ›
Agnostic theism, agnostotheism, or agnostitheism is the philosophical view that encompasses both theism and agnosticism. An agnostic theist believes in the existence of one or more gods, but regards the basis of this proposition as unknown or inherently unknowable.Which country is the most atheist? ›
According to sociologists Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera's review of numerous global studies on atheism, there are 450 to 500 million positive atheists and agnostics worldwide (7% of the world's population) with China alone accounting for 200 million of that demographic.