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)
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.Can religion exist without God or supernatural being? ›
Nontheism has been applied and plays significant roles in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. While many approaches to religion exclude nontheism by definition, some inclusive definitions of religion show how religious practice and belief do not depend on the presence of a god or gods.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 to find purpose in life without religion? ›
Volunteering gives us a sense of purpose.
Those groups are on to something: Volunteering even just one day a month gives people a greater sense of purpose and helps them feel more connected. Many nonreligious people I met find meaning by participating in meal-packing events, park cleanups, and blood drives.
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.What does the Bible say about life without God? ›
“I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Ecclesiastes, Solomon's written sermon, analyzes life's experiences with a theme that all of life is meaningless, hollow and fruitless if it isn't rightly related to God.Did humans always believe in God? ›
People in the ancient world did not always believe in the gods, a new study suggests – casting doubt on the idea that religious belief is a 'default setting' for humans.Can human survive without religion? ›
Humans can live without religion but they can't live without spirituality. These are two different entities yet get intertwined due to the lack of awareness among the people. It is a matter of fact that we humans are trivial in this universe.What is it called when you believe in god but don t have a religion? ›
An agnostic theist believes in the existence of one or more gods, but regards the basis of this proposition as unknown or inherently unknowable. The agnostic theist may also or alternatively be agnostic regarding the properties of the god or gods that they believe in.What are the three types of afterlife? ›
resurrection. rebirth. immortality as a legacy. immortality as a memory of others.
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.When a person dies what happens to the soul? ›
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 does it mean if there is no God? ›
Atheism, in the broadest sense, is an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.What is the point of being an atheist? ›
Many people are atheists because they think there is no evidence for God's existence - or at least no reliable evidence. They argue that a person should only believe in things for which they have good evidence. A philosopher might say that they start from the presumption of atheism.Where in the Bible does it say I don t want nothing to do with religious meetings? ›
Amos 5:21-24-21-24 The Message (MSG)
“I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.
The belief that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" is central to Islam. This phrase, written in Arabic, is often prominently featured in architecture and a range of objects, including the Qur'an, Islam's holy book of divine revelations.Who believes there is no God but God? ›
There is no god but God may refer to: The beginning of the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. Tawhid, the Muslim concept of the oneness and uniqueness of God.Why do we need a God? ›
You need His love, mercy, compassion, peace of mind, forgiveness. The best part about having God for your best friend is knowing that no matter what, He loves you and wants the world for you. He supports you in hard times, forgives your weaknesses and flaws and is right by your side celebrating your successes.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.Where in the Bible does it say no one will live forever? ›
Psalms 89:48 - NLT Bible - No one can live forever; all will die.
God gave this life to us, therefore, and only God has the right to take it from us. To put it another way, life is a sacred gift from God, and we must not defile that gift by destroying it. Life is not to be ended casually or for our own convenience. As the Psalmist said, "My times are in your hands" (Psalm 31:15).Who was the first person to believe in God? ›
They acknowledge that Abraham was the first person to recognise and worship the one God. And so, monotheism was born. At the beginning of Genesis chapter 12, God asked Abram to leave his home and country and he makes Abram three promises: the promise of a relationship with God, numerous descendents and land.When did humans first start believing in God? ›
Prehistoric evidence of religion. The exact time when humans first became religious remains unknown, however research in evolutionary archaeology shows credible evidence of religious-cum-ritualistic behavior from around the Middle Paleolithic era (45–200 thousand years ago).When did humans start believing in one God? ›
monotheism , Belief in the existence of one god. It is distinguished from polytheism. The earliest known instance of monotheism dates to the reign of Akhenaton of Egypt in the 14th century bc.What do you say to an atheist when someone dies? ›
I say: "I'm so sorry you are having to deal with this loss. If there is anything I can do to help, you need to let me know. I'm here for you, even if you just need someone to listen." They know I really will help in anyway I can.Why did humans create religion? ›
One idea is that, as humans evolved from small hunter-gatherer tribes into large agrarian cultures, our ancestors needed to encourage cooperation and tolerance among relative strangers. Religion then—along with the belief in a moralizing God—was a cultural adaptation to these challenges.Do atheists have morals? ›
“Disbelievers do have a moral compass. However, it is calibrated somewhat differently than that of religious believers in some respects, but not in others,” Ståhl said.What is it called when you are not atheist but don t believe in god? ›
Nonbelief comes in many varieties. Technically, an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in a god, while an agnostic is someone who doesn't believe it's possible to know for sure that a god exists.Can you believe in God and not go to church? ›
Most people who stop attending church services still believe in God, according to new research commissioned by the Church of Scotland. Many who no longer attend church choose to express their faith in new ways, said Scotland's national Church.Can you be spiritual and not believe in God? ›
People who say they are religious or spiritual (or both) generally believe in God or a higher power, while those who are neither religious nor spiritual tend to reject belief in God or a higher power altogether.
The observation of the 40th day after death occurs in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The ritual represents spiritual intercession on the part of the dead, who are believed to collectively await the Day of Judgment.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 are the 4 stages of afterlife? ›
- 2.1 Death.
- 2.2 The Last Judgment.
- 2.3 Heaven.
- 2.4 Hell.
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 rules do you have to follow to get into heaven? ›
You enter heaven by forgiveness and through the righteousness that Jesus gives you. You do not enter into heaven by the Christian life. It's always true that where faith is birthed, works will follow, but salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.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.Can you attend your own funeral? ›
However, it truly is possible to attend your own funeral / memorial service / celebration of life. What Next Avenue calls a “living funeral,” perhaps better called a “living tribute,” is becoming more common every day.Where does the soul reside in the human body? ›
The soul or atman, credited with the ability to enliven the body, was located by ancient anatomists and philosophers in the lungs or heart, in the pineal gland (Descartes), and generally in the brain.How is it painful when the soul leaves the body? ›
He said, “When the soul leaves the body, it can take a long time or it can happen very quickly. No matter how, it is painful. It is painful for the one who is dying, and it is painful for those who are left behind. The separation of the soul from the body, that is the ending of life.Can you have a good life without God? ›
Yes, people can be “good” without believing in God.
First, we need to make sure we are simply talking about someone demonstrating good moral behaviors. Scripture is clear that none of us is good enough to merit salvation or earn our way into heaven (Psalm 14:1-3, Romans 3:10-12, Ephesians 2:8-9).
Without God, we would have no Bible! There would be no teaching of how the world came into being or how human beings came to life. There would be no Ten Commandments to guide our thinking and behavior, no morals or ethics to guide our relations with our fellow man.Why God is necessary in our life? ›
You need His love, mercy, compassion, peace of mind, forgiveness. The best part about having God for your best friend is knowing that no matter what, He loves you and wants the world for you. He supports you in hard times, forgives your weaknesses and flaws and is right by your side celebrating your successes.Is God a necessary existence? ›
God is either a necessary being or a contingent being. So, it is possible that god exists as a necessary being. So if it is possible that God is a necessary being then God exists. Because God is not a contingent being.Is God always there for us? ›
He will always be there for us and will never forsake us. He knows our abilities and our limits. He loved us so much that He was willing to come and die for our sins. On that cross He looked down through the ages and saw us and all humanity.What if a person does not believe in God? ›
Technically, an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in a god, while an agnostic is someone who doesn't believe it's possible to know for sure that a god exists. It's possible to be both—an agnostic atheist doesn't believe but also doesn't think we can ever know whether a god exists.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.What Scripture says without God in the world? ›
Ephesians 2:12-13 American Standard Version (ASV)
that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Instead, Micah listed out the three principles of what God asks of His people: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him.Why did God create us? ›
He created people out of love for the purpose of sharing love. People were created to love God and each other. Additionally, when God created people, he gave them good work to do so that they might experience God's goodness and reflect his image in the way they care for the world and for each other.What does God say is the most important thing in life? ›
Loving God and loving people, that's definitely the most important. They are so closely tied to each other that in Matthew 25:40, Jesus points out that the act of love you do to someone else, you are actually doing that to Him. So part of how I love God is wrapped up in how I love you. (Conversely, in Matt.