The Illusion of Immortality, Part I

This is a two-part lecture. The first lecture deals with the question of immortality and emphasizes the notion of the immortal soul with respect to Christianity in general. The Christian resurrection of the soul and the body at The Last Judgment will be discussed, along with a brief mention of orthodox Jewish and Islamic beliefs.  The second lecture will glance at the notions of near-death experiences, past life memories, reincarnation, and staying alive as long as possible with computer and medical science. At the end, we shall return to reality with a few ideas about living productively and meaningfully in the shadow of the death that awaits all of us.

Carl Zimmer, a well-respected and popular science writer, wrote a volume in 2005 titled: The Soul Made Flesh, about Thomas Willis.  Thomas Willis (1621-1675) was the first scientist to actually map the human brain, to see how its different parts worked and how the human soul might be embodied in it.  I would like to quote what one reviewer has said about Zimmer’s book. “Willis was part of a distinguished group of scholars who were trapped by the difficulties of the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651 in Oxford.  Some of these men were William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, Christopher Wren, the famous architect and others.  Suddenly the soul was located within the human body, more specifically in the human brain.” 

Willis was a member of the informal “Oxford Club,” whose members discussed scientific and philosophic questions. The scientists among the group conducted experiments and research.  Willis’s study of the brain, Cerebri Anatomie, 1664, was very elaborate and detailed at the same time.  Earlier efforts had been very vague.  Christopher Wren did the illustrations, which helped make the mapping of the brain very clear.

Why am I beginning our lecture on the Illusion of Immortality with the story of Willis?  Interesting though it is, you might wonder what relevance it has to our topic.  The story of the mapping of the human brain is central to our concerns in this lecture.  Most atheists believe that the soul does not exist, that neither the fictional soul nor the human body is immortal and that the mind is part of, and dependent on the human brain, including the mind’s thoughts and consciousness itself.  Most atheists, on the intellectual level, believe that there is no immortality of any kind, and that the self, the personality dies when the human body does.  We are still studying the brain, and many scientists and philosophers believe we are in the infancy of our research.

But now we come to what Stephen Cave, in his 2012 volume, Immortality, calls the mortality paradox.  Many poets, philosophers and psychologists have written very eloquently on this human difficulty.  George Santayana, the philosopher, wrote of our sad struggle to reconcile “… the observed fact of mortality and the natural inconceivability of death.” The brain that Willis mapped so long ago has tripled in size over the last two and a half million years.  

Our human brain makes us aware of ourselves as individual entities, with memories, ideas of the future and the ability to make plans.

We also have the ability to imagine different scenarios, calculate possibilities and make generalizations that enable us to learn, reason and extrapolate.  And yet, this enormously talented and versatile brain, with its complex circuitry, is unable to grasp the reality of our own individual death.  We know we face complete extinction.  We can observe on a personal level, parents, friends and colleagues dying; on the general level, we know that all people die. We know, too, that there is no exception to this fate.

Yet our brains do not really believe in our personal death.  I once attended a workshop on death, conducted by a well-known analyst.  As part of the session, the analyst had all the members lie down and imagine our deaths.  Well, the philosophers and scientists are correct.  We could imagine our dying and observed ourselves dead.  But we merely observed ourselves as dead.  We, of course, did not experience death.  We were living observers and did not take part in the least of the process of dying.  As so many thinkers have pointed out, it is impossible to get beyond seeing your own funeral. How can one think of oneself dead, with no thoughts, no movement, a vast nullity?  You are alive; your brain is functioning, picturing your funeral, thinking about who is coming to bid you goodbye, who is crying and so on. Here is an excellent quotation from Sigmund Freud on the issue: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact, still present as spectators.

At bottom, no one believes in his own death, for in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”

We humans have devised many strategies to cope with this condition, the mortality paradox.  I will be going into them in a moment, but let us keep in mind as we discuss the coping mechanisms of the human mind that it is this same human mind that has become aware that it is dependent on the brain.  It understands as well as it can that when the brain stops, so will the mind and its thoughts. Of course, I am talking about the modern, monist mind, aware of the discoveries that contemporary neuroscience has made about the brain.

In the present day, we can observe that all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, promise their members some form of immortality, the continuation of life beyond death. Most of the Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have some belief in the notion of reincarnation.  Many contemporary people, while abandoning belief in god and established religion, have embraced various forms of spiritualism or New Age beliefs, and frequently place credence in some form of personal continuation beyond death.

We are at the point where I must define what I mean by immortality, at least for this first lecture.  I like the definition given by the late Corliss Lamont, the humanist and atheist, whose The Illusion of Immortality, 1925, was in its fifth printing as late as 1990.  Lamont’s volume is still one of the most important books to read on the topic of belief in life after death.

In Illusion, he emphasizes that “immortality may be defined as the literal survival of the individual human personality or consciousness for an indefinite period after death, with its memory and awareness of self-identity intact.”  His definition also includes the concept of a so-called awakening that will contain activities with family and friends and the immortal self having a definite sense of identity and continuity. 

Lamont’s definition is excellent for the purposes of this first lecture, but is limited mainly to the West, and it does not include the Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation. We shall be mentioning reincarnation from time to time in this lecture, but only briefly.

We need to keep in mind the limitations of such a definition, even when we describe the personality, or the notion of the soul, as a pure force, spirit, atomic force, energy and so on. Its perimeters do not encompass the many beliefs concerning survival beyond death. But for now, Lamont’s definition is a good working one and will serve us well during the course of this first lecture.

The task of trying to classify the different categories of immortality beyond the working definition I quoted above remains. The Christian notion of an immortal soul and its resurrection into heaven, along with its body, will be my main topic this evening. But there are other kinds of immortality. There is the loose and baggy concept of attaining a sort of immortality in the here and now, a vague Platonic or ideal immortality, an eternal meaning independent of time and existence.  Spinoza gave the idea credence in his writings.  There is the notion of a sort of impersonal, psychic entity which is absorbed into a kind of All, Absolute, or perhaps, god.

Many secular people embrace an immortality based on the material or chemical, when Nature reabsorbs the elements of the body and redistributes them.

There is the historical idea of immortality, another category congenial to secular thinkers, which maintains that the past is not reversible and emphasizes the place we all have in the procession of human existence.  Biological immortality is the concept of the individual living on through one’s children, and social immortality is the idea of living on in the works we have left behind or the influence we have had on the minds and acts of future generations. 

Biological and social afterlives are quite compatible with a naturalistic outlook on death and immortality.

A very significant form of immorality is the idea of reincarnation, which as I have mentioned, is very prevalent in the East.  It is also called metempsychosis, or transmigration, and postulates a pre-existence, as well as an afterlife.  The notion was popular in ancient Egypt, as well as in some ancient Greek schools of thought, such as Orphism and Platonism. It is one of the core beliefs of most Buddhist and Hindu religions. In recent years, Theosophy, and then eastern religions which embraced reincarnation, became popular in the West; the concept of transmigration of souls has achieved a great deal of interest and credence.  Some citizens of the United States have taken to the notion with enthusiasm.

I will conclude this list of categories of immortality with a neglected, and of late, pretty much unknown theory- the one concerning eternal recurrence, the belief that life and indeed, the entire universe, repeats itself over and over.  The Stoics accepted a version of eternal recurrence, but they believed there was no personal immortality.  Eternal recurrence’s most famous proponent was the philosopher, Nietzsche, 1844-1900.  There is a continuing discussion between scholars whether Nietzsche literally believed in eternal recurrence or was using it as a metaphor. One school of thought believes Nietzsche was trying to inspire people to make their lives courageous and joyous enough to be able to embrace living the same life again and again in every detail.

Dividing types of immortality into categories is very useful. They make one aware how many different theories about afterlife people embrace. There is not an abundance of books that discuss the idea that immortality is an illusion, but those that do frequently categorize the types of immortality. My favorites are those enumerated by Corliss Lamont and Stephen Cave, both secular writers. From the theists, there is a plethora of volumes that insist on the opposite conclusion- that eternal life is real and within everyone’s reach.  Such books usually sell much better than hard, realistic, truth-telling volumes and their authors do not seem to feel the necessity of being well organized. They focus, instead, on upbeat anecdotes and repetitive reassurances.

I like Stephen Cave’s volume on Immortality, 2012, in which he separates the human desire for life to continue indefinitely into four basic categories. One is staying alive as long as you can. That is interesting because it is a secular approach.

Staying alive is subject to illusions that are different from the religious ones, but are no more true, just the same.  The second is resurrection.  The third is reincarnation.  The fourth is legacy.  We shall look at resurrection in this lecture, and next month, as I mentioned, we shall be scrutinizing the last three of Cave’s categories.  I cannot recommend Cave’s book and the Lamont volume enough.  Lamont’s Illusion of Immortality is a brilliant exposition on the topic of man’s desire for continuation beyond death. Cave’s categories are very salient and bring the issue of desire for immortality up to date.

I know that there are cultural anthropologists, such as Pierre Boyer, who have found a few primitive people who have no clear, worked out idea as to what happens to people after they die. These tribes, furthermore, are not troubled by the question of life after death. Boyer mentions them in his excellent, Religion Explained, 2001. In Society without God, 2005, the sociologist Phil Zuckerman reports his discussions with contemporary people in Sweden and Denmark who have no religious faith and do not believe in a life after death.  They state they have no fear concerning death and seem reasonably content and happy in their daily lives.

But I think that most people experience angst and dread when they confront the fact that they are going to perish, to face obliteration.  In an earlier lecture, I spoke about the revived interest in the ideas of Sigmund Freud. (See Atheist Psychologies.)   Freud thought that one of the primary reasons for the belief in religion was the fear of death.  The cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, contributed a similar idea in Denial of Death, 1973, and Escape from Evil, 1975. 

Becker maintained that we build our personalities around the process of denying our own mortality and such a denial makes self-knowledge impossible.  He believed that whole societies function by means of that denial, that a great deal of cultural innovation and progress is inspired by the fear of death.  

 There are some contemporary researchers who have become interested in Freud and Becker’s ideas and are beginning to revive them: Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski.  These three researchers have so far performed over four hundred experiments to test their theory that civilization protects people psychologically from the fear of death.  They have reached a conclusion which is of interest to secular people.  They maintain, and I quote, “…cultural world views, including our religions, national myths and values are humanly created beliefs about the nature of reality shared by groups of people that serve, at least in part, to manage the terror engendered by the uniquely human fear of death.”

The basic idea is called Terror Management Theory and has been gaining a great deal of acceptance in recent years.  You may find some of their research discussed at, on the links to the YouTube lectures on Atheist Psychologies and Sociologies. Solomon and his colleagues are convinced that we have created cultural institutions, philosophies, and religions that protect us from our terror of death by distracting us or helping us to deny death’s sting.  I agree with them, but I think the idea can be taken too far. 

We surely devise some cultural institutions not just to guarantee immortality, but because they give us things we long for, ease, beauty, entertainment and so on.

Religions may promise us eternal life, but many other cultural institutions offer the hope of a longer, more pleasant life, not necessarily immortality. Terror Management seems to focus on only one aspect of human motivation, the fear of death.  It seems to ignore that we humans are story telling animals and we possess brains that love to figure things out, to come up with the reasons for things. We also like to invent devices that create efficient and more satisfying outcomes, such as weapons for hunting and cooking pots for cooking.  We love jewelry and other adornments, as well as clothing that does not merely keep us warm and dry but is decorative.   So I don’t accept that all our cultural institutions, including philosophy and government, are due to the desire to evade death.  But Terror Management is a strong theory and quite salient.

I would think that Becker and the Terror Management researchers might have been influenced by Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, 1927.  Heidegger, the famous philosopher, was very interested in the process of individuation.  He thought an important hindrance to becoming an individual was evading the thought of death.  He believed that we will do anything to avoid the knowledge of our cessation.  He thought small distractions, such as gossip, served the motive of attempting to evade the thought of our end.

We feel great anxiety concerning the finitude of death, Heidegger maintained. But this awareness of death enables us to become authentic, to become separate from the conformity of the other beings in the world if we choose. We face death alone; no one can accompany us there.

We desire meaning, but all we are aware of is meaninglessness, a void. Since we are “thrown” into the world, Heidegger says we must make choices within a historic, geographic and cultural background. We cannot rid ourselves of these givens. Heidegger maintains that these fixities give our choices more meaning. Living in time is inseparable from being; we are always moving toward the future, which is death. To refuse to face death creates an inauthentic future. When you refuse death, you refuse a part of yourself. For a more elaborate discussion of Heidegger and his philosophy, please see, Atheist Philosophies- Existentialism.

I believe we have established that we become afraid, in fact sometimes terror stricken when we think about, or are reminded of, our individual death.  What are some of the reasons for such terror when we encounter death, or the thought of it? What are the specific motivations that cause us to desire immortality so much that we begin to believe that it exists?

The Epicurean philosophers of ancient Greece believed there was nothing to fear from death because we do not experience death.  Death is the end of all experience.  Around 300 B.C.E., Epicurus stated: “Death is nothing to us, for all good and all evil lies in sensation and death is the end of all sensation.  While we are, death is not; when death is come, we are not.  Death is of no concern, either to the living or the dead.  For it is not with the living, and the dead do not exist.”  These are brilliant words.  Yet, many contemporary people have heard or read them and continue to have a dread of death.  

Thinkers of the present day believe that one of the most important reasons modern men and women fear death is their awareness of their consciousness and their inability to envision it coming to a full stop.  I am in agreement that the fear of the loss of our consciousness is an important reason for our dread of death.  We moderns not only think but are aware of our thinking. With universal education in many parts of the world, one may walk into any classroom on a given day, and you will hear a teacher say: “Think about that.” or “What do you think about that?” From a very young age, contemporary people become aware of the process of their thought.  They become apprised that they are thinking.  In our relatively comfortable life of ease, particularly in the West, we have more free time to think, to value our thoughts and to dread their cessation. And yet, the Greeks who practiced philosophy in the ancient world were aware of their thinking as well as we moderns, so our terror vis-a-vis the Epicurean and Stoic acceptance of death remains an enigma.

We need to keep in mind, when discussing the reasons for the fear of death, that we are genetically programmed to preserve and protect our life.  This motivation is culturally embedded, as well, but the drive to perpetuate our existence is deep in our very physiology. All life forms on this earth have the inborn urge to continue their existence.  A plant will struggle to get a better dose of the sun.  Spiders freeze in place to avoid detection when they sense movement near them.  Humans will, even at 100 years old, fatally ill and nearly unconscious, continue breathing as long and as deep as they can. The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins asserts: “We are survival machines, but “we” does not mean just people. 

It embraces all animals, plants, bacteria and viruses.” Corliss Lamont points out that if we did not have this tendency, this predominating instinct to protect our life that Darwin observed, there would be no struggle for existence, no survival of the fittest, and possibly no humans to meditate on such issues and to fear death.

People do risk their lives mountain climbing, deep sea diving, at war, stock car racing, and other such activities, it is true.  But very few of these risk takers do not take precautions to preserve their lives.  I emphasize the precautions most of us take to secure our lives in this world, and not the putative next one.  However, many people, the vast majority of people in today’s world, continue to believe in some form of a future life.

What are some of the other motivations for believing in immortality?  We just mentioned the genetic thrust toward life. There is the conscious fear of death when the meaning of mortality sinks in as we mature.  Let us examine the fear old people have of death.  Well, as we age, the number of our days dwindles, and our awareness of mortality increases.  We can see the end of our life just over the horizon, and for most of us, it is bitter.  For the young, the extinction of the self is vague and far off, so they fear it less.

There is another factor, too, that causes the dread of death in more mature people.  They become aware of all they have left unaccomplished. 

When we are young, we have unlimited potential: we have hopes that we can complete all our projects and redeem all our mistakes. There are very few people, as they reach old age, without some regrets.  I have heard a successful writer voicing strong regrets about not continuing with the musical aspirations he had in his youth, a wealthy lawyer regretting he had not pursued an academic career instead.

Immortality gives us a chance to continue elsewhere and somehow do better in the next life.  It is, of course, a vain illusion, but many people cling to the fantasy.

Please note that I am not only discussing some of the reasons for the fear of death, but also considering them as motivations for believing in life after death.  The idea of death, with its attendant decay and dissolution, leads us, unconsciously, rather than rationally, to think that we, or the people we once knew, some of whom we loved, will be overwhelmed by the solitude, the cold, the stillness, the darkness of the grave.  Notice the care we take to embalm or cremate the dead. The embalmed bodies either look very similar to the way they did in life, or their cremated remains are placed in a decorative jar or box.  We seldom witness a corpse in its full decay and odor in most Western societies.  A common platitude at many funerals is that the dead have gone to a better place.  That better place is where their souls will await resurrection on the Day of Judgment and they will receive an even better body than the embalmer has provided- heaven. In any case, the evidence of death’s finality is assiduously hidden, by art and by platitudes.

Let us not forget that we humans have, from probably our earliest appearance on earth, dreamt of those who are departed. 

Early man could not always differentiate between dreams and reality.  The appearance of the dead to the living when they were sleeping must have been convincing proof that the deceased lived on somewhere; and that the death of their bodies did not mean they had ceased to exist, but that they survived, if not in a definite place, on some plane. Earlier people were probably sometimes afraid, sometimes filled with joy, at the appearance of the dead while they slept.

To extend that thought a bit, the popularity of psychics on television and in séances, demonstrates how quickly we embrace the notion that our departed are alive somewhere else, and that we can communicate with them again.  The dead person usually speaks of being happy, or at the least, of being in a waiting area, from which he or she will eventually find their way to a happier place. The departed spirit sometimes speaks of dead mutual relatives and friends with whom it is in contact. The deceased spirit almost inevitably sends love and good wishes to the living.  I have never seen any psychic relay to the living relative that the dead person is carrying anger or resentment or disappointment toward them.  It probably happens, but I am sure it is very rare indeed.

Then there are the unreliable anecdotes concerning people’s visions of heaven or some sort of afterlife during episodes of near death.  Such personal testimonies serve to confirm theists’ illusory belief in personal continuation of life after death.  They also help validate theist beliefs in the difference between body and soul. Such weak testimonials, all fictional, are touted as evidence that we humans survive our bodily extinction.   We will be discussing the near-death experience in next month’s lecture.

But now I would like to turn to several of the most urgent reasons for belief in immortality: the death of people of great talent- statesmen, artists, actors, musicians, writers and other distinguished individuals and the death of the people we loved. It is very difficult to believe that such people are gone from the earth that they enriched so plentifully.

Before I take up the thread of the death of those we love, perhaps the greatest reason for desiring immortality, I would like to elaborate just a bit on the death of the talented.  It is hard to imagine such abundance is gone forever.  The same holds true for large numbers of people who die in natural disasters and in war. 

Theist proponents are known for espousing their belief systems in times when there are great numbers of people who have died unnecessarily.  For example, a writer, Winifred Kirkland, actually said of the large, and I might add, completely gratuitous deaths in World War I, and I quote Ms. Kirkland, “If even for a few generations we act on our conjecture of immortality, the larger vision, the profounder basis of purpose, will so advance human existence as to make the war worth its price.”  I am sure that the families of those over 16 million military personnel who died in the war would not have shared Kirkland’s sentiments.  Most of the dead were young men, in their prime, and many with much talent to contribute to their societies.  Advance in belief in immortality makes even the deaths of millions a small price to pay for such theist proponents as Ms. Kirkland.  Notice the implied idea in her statement that life has little meaning without immortality, that belief in an afterlife enriches human existence.  We shall attempt to deal with such a concept later in the lecture.

But stronger than the impact of the death of the talented and the death of large numbers of humans, is the devastation caused us when those we love die.  It is one of the strongest motivations, one of the most powerful reasons to fear death and embrace the fantasy of immortality.  The harsh fact that we are forever separated from those we cherished and often lived for, is very hard to endure.  No wonder we envision being reunited somewhere with them forever.

There is the sad fact, too, that human relations are often fraught with difficulty.  Maybe we did not have a chance to make up to the departed for the disappointment and pain we caused them when they were alive. 

We did not have the opportunity to mend quarrels and estrangements we had with family members whom we loved.  We want to feel and believe that all such problems can be resolved after death somewhere. The fantasy of immortality is very important, no vital, to continuing the existence of those we love.  There is very little compensation for the suffering we undergo when we contemplate our own death or the death of those we care for. When those we care for die, the loss is immense, sometimes devastating. Is there any wonder then, that we thinking and imaginative humans cling to the comfort of being with our loved ones in a better and immortal world, where there is no parting and no regret?

But did humans always believe in some kind of, paradisiacal, edenic afterlife prior to the arrival of Christianity? What was the concept of immortality before Christianity, with its promise of bodily resurrection? The importance of resurrection was promulgated by Paul, one of the principal founders of Christianity. 

We have discussed his philosophy in an earlier lecture.  Please see The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason.  The belief in an afterlife was different for earlier civilizations. The notion has changed and developed since the arrival of religions such as Christianity and orthodox Islam, both of which promise an enjoyable afterlife for non-sinning believers. There is a common thread running through all three Abrahamic religions, Christian, orthodox Judaism and orthodox Islam, a belief in some sort of bodily resurrection. There was also a sense in ancient peoples that the personality needed the body to survive. That is another common thread running through most belief systems of immortality- the dependence of the soul on the body.

The Old Testament is fairly vague and inconsistent concerning the afterlife. Ecclesiastes surely implies that there is no immortality.  It states: “Whatsoever they hand findeth to do, do with thy might, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, where thou goest.”  There are other Old Testament passages which also imply the extinction of the personality at death.  The ancient Hebrew concept of the afterlife was vague and unclear. 

The Pharisee sect believed in immortality, but an important and influential group, the Sadducees, had no belief in any sort of an afterlife.

The term for the Jewish afterlife was Sheol, which originally meant the collective graves of the tribes or the nation.  Lamont states that while the later writers of the Old Testament occasionally mention “the hope of a happy immortality, this is decidedly not the tone of the work as a whole.

And such hints of a future life as do occur postulate what eventually becomes the orthodox position, namely, a resurrection.”

One did not derive much comfort from the ancient Greek religion, either, concerning what awaited the deceased.  The dead were immortal, but they did not possess their original robust bodies.  The dead, in Greek mythology, are sickly phantoms, with weak bodies and faint voices, depressed and futile.  When the famous Ulysses, the hero of the Greek classic work, the Odyssey, encounters the great warrior, Achilles, in Hades, Achilles’ shadow tells him: “Better be the hireling of a stranger and serve a man of mean estate whose living is but small, than to be a ruler over all those dead and gone.” In the other Greek classic, the Iliad, the only way to survive death with an enjoyable immortality was to be carried or transported bodily and alive to Olympus, the home of the gods, and elevated to the status of a minor god.  Ancient Roman and Babylonian beliefs were quite similar to the Greeks.

An unmitigated emphasis on the bodily survival of the dead, along with the soul, was the province of the belief system of the ancient Egyptian civilization.  One wonders, amid all the preparations and precautions for death, if people in that culture had much time for genuine enjoyment of life.

 Surely the time and money expended on ensuring an afterlife was a great burden, and a fearful one, for the middle and working classes.

The rulers, the Pharaohs, poured immense sums and huge labor forces into building their personal tombs.  The body of the dead ruler was carefully embalmed.

The organs were removed and stored.  A mask was frequently placed on the dead ruler’s face with the features he had when alive. There was a reanimation ceremony during which the dead ruler’s eyes, ears and mouth were opened and his limbs stimulated.  The importance of the body with regard to immortal life after death was immense. It seems that the Inca civilization of South America had similar rites, according to Corliss Lamont.

In the current popular fiction and films of our contemporary world, zombies and vampires have a bodily survival after death.  Zombies are a kind of parody of the struggle for existence.  No part of the personality or mind is left after they have been reanimated, but their bodies have the primitive drive to continue the quest for food by devouring living humans they encounter. In some film versions, they seem to want to devour the warm, living flesh of anything that moves, according to one critic. Vampires, too, living on after death in their original bodies, have a sort of new/old personality, most often laced with evil.  The immortal vampire of the present day is often dedicated to consuming. Vampires of today desire both expensive commodities and the vital blood of living organisms, especially human blood.

The reincarnation beliefs of Buddhism and Hinduism are quite different from those held by the Abrahamic religions. Most Eastern religions are based on the concept that a person’s soul, after biological death, begins a new life in a different body, but without the conscious memory of the previous personality.  There are some notable, if fictional, exceptions to the notion that the old body, personality and life are forgotten when the soul enters its new existence. We shall discuss some past life remembrances and their credibility in next month’s lecture.

The thrust of this lecture is the belief in the perpetual continuation of both the body and the soul with its original personality intact. I am spending so much time on the body/personality survival notion of the afterlife because it is markedly important to the Christian concept of resurrection, reassuring believers of life after death. But the promise of bodily survival of some sort has been and continues to be vital for other cultures as well as Christian ones.  We humans seem to need assurance that we will have bodies along with souls after we die. I would like to quote Corliss Lamont on the question of afterlife beliefs with regard to most cultures, both ancient and modern.  He states: “No matter what disposal of the dead, it is highly necessary to furnish bodies in the beyond in order to give that realm both imaginative reality and intellectual acceptance.”

The resurrection of Jesus after being crucified is arguably the most powerful, if mythological, argument for the promise of heaven for those who accept the divinity of Jesus, the Christian religion, and follow the moral precepts of that belief system. Jesus is at the pinnacle of believers’ certainty of their own resurrection. I am merely glancing at Jesus’ resurrection in this lecture because I will be offering a more elaborate discussion in a future talk, which will include a portion on the infamous Shroud of Turin.

But the important point to keep in mind is that Jesus’ putative resurrection was very much a body/personality one. After his death, he appeared to his fearful and doubting apostles and reassured them that he was not a ghost, telling them that spirits do not have flesh and bones.  He was emphasizing that he was alive, not a spirit. He insisted that doubting Thomas “thrust” his hand into his side, where he was wounded. 

He ate, spoke, walked and was able to be touched and seen; yet he could appear in rooms whose doors were locked, and vanish too, once in a while. The myth culminates with Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven, to sit at the right hand of god.

This is the promise of Christianity to its followers- bodily resurrection with the personality and memories intact.  Even though less glorious than Jesus, the human body, too, will be transformed into a more glorified state after the Last Judgment.  Now we can briefly begin to talk about some of the problems involved in such a belief. They are manifold and interesting, sometimes amusing, but always involve circularity and illogic. The concept of immortality, especially resurrection, is contradicted by logic, philosophy and science.

One of the most important difficulties of belief in an afterlife and an immortal soul is that it is repudiated by the modern scientific belief in monism. The idea of the immortal soul separate from the body is a dualistic notion, which is common to most religions but not confined to them.  A similar belief may be encountered in the vague, low salience Spiritual but not religious movement so prevalent in contemporary society.  Most atheists are monists, as I stated at the beginning of this talk, embracing the concept that the mind, including its consciousness and therefore its thought, is dependent on the body, indeed is instantiated in the brain itself.  Many atheists also believe that much, if not all, consciousness is part of the chemical and neural processes of the brain. 

The Christian religion believes that at death, the body and soul separate. 

Official church doctrine states that the soul goes to heaven or hell, and then waits for the last days, the Last Judgment, when all the bodies of all peoples are raised up, reassembled, joined to their souls and judged by god.  The good will be rewarded by eternity in heaven and the wicked with eternal torment in hell.  This is the approximate view of most Christian religions, a particular, and then a general resurrection. 

A soul/body resurrection at the end of time is also the belief of orthodox Judaism and Islam. A few religions that are not strictly Christian, such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a few Christian Evangelical sects believe the soul sleeps or is unconscious before its bodily resurrection at end times, the Last Judgment.

The difficulty for the religious is that the Bible has verses that imply both types of disposition for the soul prior to the end of the world.  Some verses imply a soul sleep and some would seem to guarantee the soul’s immediate passage to heaven or hell.  Such is the vagueness and contradictory nature of the Bible.  The contradictory passages were the source of many accusations of heresies in the past, when some people interpreted the verses in contradiction to official church doctrine.  Becoming entangled in the list of questions, problems and speculations concerning the Christian belief in bodily resurrection is endless and unrewarding, and I don’t want to stay with the topic too long. 

However, I would like to glance at a few of the difficulties the notion of bodily resurrection raises that illustrate its absurdity.

Apparently even people blown apart or burned to death will have their bodies united to their souls intact, complete with sexual organs which will not be used for sexual intercourse but to preserve the body’s integrity.  Will circumcised men and boys have foreskins or not?  This is an interesting question, since we are speaking of the integrity of the body. Will circumcised women and girls have their clitorises and labia restored?

Another problem concerning the resurrected body is the question of what age these somehow glorified, but the same, bodies will be?  If a little child died when its parents were young, will the child, on being reunited with them, be able to recognize its parents who lived to an old age and have the faces and bodies of the elderly? How will friends and lovers and relatives who died many years apart recognize each other?  The problems with bodily resurrection are manifold. 

In the present day many religious people do not concern themselves with bodily resurrection but think of a vague soulful resurrection instead.  There are people in the present day who have eliminated the notion of hell, as well. What is to be done with the wicked is not quite explained.  Perhaps it is not well thought out.  Earlier church theologians were quite clear about hell.  St. Thomas Aquinas stated that hell would not be forgotten in heaven “in order that nothing may be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in heaven, a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned.” Presumably the sight of others’ misery would increase the pleasures of the saintly!

Another church father maintained that the bodies would continue to have teeth, even though there would be no eating or hunger in the afterlife, because the wicked in hell would need teeth to gnash as they suffered their torments!

Aside from the notion of bodily resurrection and its difficulties, there is another serious problem for theists to solve concerning Christian afterlife.  Where is heaven? Since Copernicus, Galileo and the telescope, Newton, and man’s landing on the moon, there is a predicament about heaven’s whereabouts.  It does not seem to be located in the sky any longer.  Dante had no problem mapping it all out in the Divine Comedy, but even he described the final, best heaven as outside of time and space. Believers of the present day have more difficulty with heaven’s address than Christians in earlier times, most of whom thought it was somewhere above the earth.

We can take heart, however.  Pope Benedict XVI has decreed that “Heaven lies neither inside or outside the space of our world…but rather is the new ‘space’ of the body of Christ, the communion of saints.”  We are surely grateful to the Pope for elucidating where heaven might be.  Now that issue is settled, is it not?

In Christian belief, there are now two main conceptions of heaven.  One is the theocentric idea, where adoration of god is the main purpose of the souls that reside there.  Imagine worshipping god all day and all night for all eternity!  Then there is the second, popular vision of the people. Rebecca Price Janney has an interesting historical theory about the upsurge of belief in the later, popular heaven.

The earlier acceptance of the theocentric version of heaven was decisively toppled, in America, by the events of the American Civil War of the 1860’s and then the First World War of 1914-1918.  Industrialized warfare killed millions of men.  The survivors of those soldiers expected religion to somehow give them their lost ones back, and being reunited with them in heaven seemed an excellent solution.  The Spiritualist movement was partly fueled by a similar type of hopeful fantasy.  The Spiritualists described heaven as a place where you could continue the same life, or nearly the same, as you had lived in America or England.

Theologians cling to the outworn, boring heaven, but preachers intent on keeping their members and filling the pews, accede to the anthropocentric heaven.  The American evangelist pastor, James L. Garlow, promises that in heaven: “…your every desire is satisfied more abundantly than you ever dreamed.” He has been forced to expand his description of heaven, however, because Western consumer desires do not, as Stephen Cave states, “stop with a harp and a halo.”  So now Garlow promises heaven as offering: “…buildings, art, culture and music…goods, services, major events, transportation and communications.”

Such fanciful descriptions of paradise, heavenly bodies united with heavenly souls, with a plethora of consumer goods and services for all, in a place of which no one knows the whereabouts, except for Pope Benedict, pose large logical, scientific, and philosophical problems. 

So theologians cleave to the old praise god eternity, while Western consumers long for a commodity and communications paradise as their reward.

But times have changed.  Even though Billy Graham once spoke of driving a yellow Cadillac in heaven and the heroine of Alice Sebold’s popular 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones, eats peppermint ice cream in heaven, Americans are becoming more skeptical about a potential afterlife. A 2010 Harris Poll states that the number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus has dropped ten points since 2003 to 70%.  Only 26% of Americans believe they will have bodies in heaven, reported a 1997 Time/CNN poll.  Belief in reincarnation, one of the topics in the second part of our lecture, was an interesting question that the same Harris Poll of 2003 asked of Americans. Nearly 30% of Americans believe in it and of the self professed Christians, 21%! A 1981 study found that of Catholic churchgoers in Europe 31% of them embraced reincarnation.  Belief in reincarnation was regarded as heresy by the orthodox Christian hierarchy of earlier times.

One third of Americans are cremated at death, not buried.  The Catholic Church once forbade cremation, although since god can raise up the dead who have been burned to death by pagans or in fires, I am not sure why god can’t take the atoms of the cremated and remake their bodies. 

Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, believes that the rise in cremation is linked to a growing disregard for the doctrine of bodily resurrection.

We have glanced at, for atheists, the nonsensical speculation concerning the kind of resurrection, body and soul, or just soul, theists will experience when they die.  But now I will briefly discuss some serious scientific issues and we shall see why contemporary science is making the idea of immortality less and less cogent.

First, let us look at the science of biology.  Most of us in the modern world have accepted the theory of evolution as scientifically sound.  If you will remember, I discussed evolution and creationism in an earlier lecture.  For a review of the topic, a bibliography and a link to the lecture, please go to Atheist Science- Evolution versus Creationism. Science and common sense tell us that we are physical selves, our lives confined to the surface of the earth and a few miles above and below.  The periods during which our bodies can survive when living in space, in space craft or stations, or in the ocean in submarines, are relatively short and dependent on creating an artificial environment to live in. We know that we can exist only in certain conditions, constants, as they are called.  We live in a pretty narrow range of temperature variations.  Without clothes or shelters, we would perish fairly fast.  We can’t do without food or water very long.

 It is not mind or soul that meets to produce a human being, but two material germ cells, the ovum of the mother and the spermatozoon of the father.  We now know the production of a human being results from a unique combination of genes.  But each individual’s genes are dependent on its parents’ genes, which were dependent on their parents’ genes and so on, back for many generations. The creation of humans is a physical process.

Corliss Lamont sums the situation up extremely well.  He states: “…in view of these facts the religious view that a soul bearing the main determinants of personality, is through a specific and separate act of god created to fit each embryo as it enters the realm of existence, becomes the most gratuitous of theories.” Biology is very revealing, is it not?

Richard T. Hull, in “Bioethics and Unbelief,” goes very thoroughly into the issues and dilemmas of twinning and cloning and the existence of a soul.  He explains that a common religious position is that the individual immortal soul is present within the body from the “point” or moment of fertilization until the “point” or moment of death.  There are many difficulties with such a position, but one of the most telling is the issue of twinning. Ad hoc explanations for the soul with regard to twinning must be found by theists.  How can we explain, given the notion that a fertilized ovum is bestowed with a soul at the very instant of that fertilization, what happens to the ovum destined for bifurcation?

  Many conservative religious twist themselves into knots on this question. Hull states that Rose Koch and other opponents of abortion have decided that a fertilized ovum destined by god to become twins has two souls infused into it at fertilization.  They maintain that a fertilized human ovum that is not destined as such by god cannot be made into twins.  They are not discouraged by the ability to fabricate other species’ artificial cleavage into twins.  They presume the soul is purely an endowment of humans.  Theists view that it is the infusion of the soul that completes the individuation of the human embryo into a given person.

The religious also try to ignore chimeras, human chimeras, which occur naturally. 

I am quoting Hull here. “…given two embryos, each with a soul, it ought not to be possible for them to be deliberately fused into a single ball of totipotent cells that can then be implanted and then develop into a human being, albeit with some atypical characteristics, such as both male and female external sex organs, two distinct blood types, or perhaps with differing cells in the same organ or tissues showing XX and XY chromosomes.  That such chimeras occur naturally is beyond dispute.”

Finally, there is the possibility of cloning an individual human from the somatic cells of another human.  This process would bypass fertilization altogether.  The putative soul presumably remains with the original human.  Will there be another soul or souls for the clone or clones?  Will they be considered soulless by theists? One suspects the churches will come up with more ad hoc explanations.  However, it is certain that the immortal soul notion has serious problems, the most important being that because of what we now know about how life begins and evolves, the soul has become an entirely superfluous idea.

Let us look into what science tells us about our bodies a bit more.  We continually add and lose atoms that nature then recycles.  Stephen Cave states that one estimate suggests that we replace 98% of our particles every year.  We have approximately seven billion billion billion atoms, each of us, if we have an average body.  So it becomes obvious that we are now, in part, composed of atoms that once were part of others as they died.

They took that last breath and their immortal souls putatively departed for either heaven or hell, according to most Christian and orthodox Judaic and Islamic theology. So their immortal souls were taken care of. But what about their resurrected bodies at the Last Judgment, and what about ours? All of us will need reassembly. How should the particles be distributed? 

This is an amusing question for atheists, but not for believers.  Theologians have spent a great deal of time and thought on such issues, and have come up with some highly unlikely answers.  Some early theologians asserted that humans cannot digest and assimilate the flesh of another human.  So they tried to deny the entire concept of particle distribution. That particular argument made no sense at all.  There has been the more recent assertion that the matter that was most essential to the person who had it would be allowed to retain it in paradise.  Another solution maintained that whoever had the matter first would own it in heaven.  Whoever might be left short- why, god would fill in the gaps to reassemble the slightly incomplete body- a new twist on the god of the gaps theory.

This scientific fact of replacing our atoms at the rate of 98% a year plays merry hell, excuse my levity, with another fancy of the reassembly view of the resurrection.  Such a rate of replacement makes it entirely possible that we will not, if we die at 60, have a single cell in common with our 5 year old selves. The problem is that our 5 year old selves would have just as much claim to be reassembled as we 60 year olds with different particles. I am using the age of 60 arbitrarily, for the sake of argument. So god could theoretically reassemble both you and me, as say, we would be at 60 years old, and our 5 year old selves.

Theologians cannot escape the realization that there is something seriously wrong with the logic here.  But with god, say the believers, all things are possible.

Let us now look at the human brain, that complex and essential organ.  Most secular people are familiar with the brain’s anatomy; a lengthy discussion of it is outside the purview and time allotment of this lecture.  But consider that, compared to other mammals, we humans have an enormous cerebral cortex.  The human brain has approximately a trillion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

Its operating processes are breathtaking.  The functions of both memory and reason seem linked to the human brain.

The matter is far from settled, but contemporary science moves ever closer to believing that consciousness itself is a product of physical brain function.  Before I go on, if you are interested in important works in the area of consciousness, please see the Bibliography at, Atheist Psychologies, Neuroscience. You will find a very thorough list put together by John Searle, in “The Mystery of Consciousness Continues,” a review of the volume, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. The New York Review of Books. 9 June, 2011. 50-54. It is a very important article, with references to significant books on the problem of consciousness. Searle has been reviewing the best books on the topic since about 1992.  Many thinkers are of the opinion that the question of consciousness is the most important issue for not only contemporary science, but for contemporary philosophy. 

See for a discussion of Free Will and Determinism in the essay of the same name, the link to my lecture and the bibliography.

Many people, particularly theists, believe that when we move our hand, reach for a cup of coffee, or decide to go to the movies, we decide by means of a little ghost in our machine, a spirit or homunculus, a soul, or some sort of agency that is independent of the body. But credence in dualism, the separation of mind and body, is an increasingly untenable position. 

The psychologist, Jesse Bering tells us: “The mind is what the brain does; the brain stops working at death; therefore the subjective feeling that the mind survives death is a psychological illusion operating in the brains of the living.”

In the 1980’s, Benjamin Libet conducted important studies that demonstrated that our brains apparently make many decisions before we are aware of it.  His findings have been confirmed by later research.

Victor Stenger, the well known atheist and physicist, has researched the question of consciousness and its relation to the body.  He cites the neuroscientist, Stanislaus Dehaene, who reports that he and his colleagues have, for twelve years, thoroughly researched how consciousness arises from the physical brain.  Here is Dehaene’s summing up: “In experiment after experiment, we have seen the same signatures of consciousness: physiological markers, that all, simultaneously, show a massive change when a person reports becoming aware of a piece of information (say, a word, a digit, or a sound.)

Furthermore when we render the same information nonconscious, or ‘subliminal,’ all such markers disappear.  We have a theory about why these signatures occur, called the global neuronal workspace theory.  Realistic computer simulations of neurons reproduce our main experimental findings: when the information processed exceeds a threshold for large-scale communication across many brain areas, the network ignites into a large-scale synchronous state, and all our signatures suddenly appear.”

Now we must wait and see if these studies’ results will hold up when other, independent studies try to replicate them.  The concept has been around for nearly twenty years and is called the consciousness access hypothesis, and is presented within a global work space theory. I am holding my objections to it in abeyance.  It is quite interesting, so we shall have to await further research.

Victor Stenger points out that the question of human consciousness is another area that demonstrates how harmful religion can be.  If we relied on religious teachings, we would be weighed down by the insistence on the notion of an immortal, immaterial soul that exists independent of the physical body and is the repository of consciousness. Research into the area of consciousness would be inhibited.

I would like to quote from Sam Harris, the popular atheist author and a neuroscientist: “With respect to our current scientific understanding of the mind, the major religions remain wedded to doctrines that are growing less plausible by the day. While the ultimate relationship between consciousness and matter has not been sealed, any naïve conception of a soul can now be jettisoned on account of the mind’s obvious dependency on the brain. 

The idea that there might be an immortal soul capable of reasoning, feeling love, remembering life’s events, etc., all the while being metaphysically independent of the brain, seems untenable given that damage to the relevant neural circuits obliterates these capacities in a living person.  Does the soul of a person suffering from total aphasia (loss of language ability,) still speak and think fluently? This is rather like asking whether the soul of a diabetic person produces abundant insulin.”

We are getting closer to understanding the material basis of consciousness through brain imaging and other devices. 

Now we can directly test some ideas about consciousness and see where they lead.  Nevertheless, Colin McGinn, the well-respected atheist philosopher, has grave doubts that we shall be able to solve the problem of human consciousness.  The philosopher, Thomas Nagle, believes we may need a paradigm shift of some sort, to begin to think properly concerning the problem of human consciousness. At any rate, we are rapidly moving to close many of the gaps concerning our understanding and knowledge of the relationship between consciousness and the human brain.  The brain is one more place from which god and the immortal soul are being forced out as the lacunae in our knowledge fill in with scientific research and answers.

The same situation can be seen with respect to the theory of evolution.  We have mentioned my essay, lecture link and bibliography on Atheist Scholar, Evolution and Creationism.

But the outcome of evolution and the total lack of necessity for a god to create and/or manage that process are the most important points to consider with regard to our lecture topic. To begin, we see not only life, but also death and enormous waste in the evolutionary process.  Nature is cruel and indifferent to the suffering of all life forms, including Homo sapiens.  All living organisms are engaged in the struggle for existence.  Many thousands of seeds and cells come into the environment and most of them die or are wiped out.  The same process is true, to a lesser extent, for the more complex life forms, such as mammals.  Many of the young coming into the world are wiped out by illness, storms, predators and other natural causes. But a few from each species, due to the large numbers produced, live and thrive and ensure that life goes on.

Death overtakes the oldest organisms, as well, inevitably, and makes way for younger, stronger life forms.  The old bodies die, and the young ones take their place. 

 The process of death and rebirth is of physical bodies.  Our beginnings, our prime years, and our deaths are always based on the body.  It is highly unlikely that life can ever exist outside of the mortal body; what is becoming likely is that any of the kinds of immortality we humans hope to attain, religious or secular, are turning out to be the most egregious of fantasies.  We shall be looking at some contemporary secular theories about longevity, such as cyborgs, supermen, freezing bodies, engineered immortality and so on, in our lecture next month.

Science is filling in and leaving fewer and fewer gaps for god to reside in.  The Christian hope for immortality is primarily based on the tale of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death. 

There is a promise in the notion of his bodily resurrection and bodily ascent into heaven, as I stated earlier, that all humans will share in immortal life, soul and body united, as well.  You can go to Biblical Criticism, The Search for the Historical Jesus, to find my short essay and also a bibliography of volumes on the topic.

I would like to mention a few problems with accepting the notion of Jesus’ resurrection.  Eyewitness accounts are frequently unreliable, copies of the bible have been altered many times, and the absurdity of believing in the statements and ideas of people from earlier, more ignorant times are just a few of the reasons for rejecting the resurrection belief.  There is the fact that stories of resurrected gods were very common at that time in history. Part of the appeal of the mystery cults in Hellenistic times and in the Roman Empire was the promise to their believers that they would, with the correct practices, achieve immortal life. Jesus’ resurrection, if the historical Jesus even existed, seems to be a myth borrowed from other mythologies and other cultures.

I hope and trust that this lecture has cast grave doubts on any notion of an immortal soul and the idea of a heaven and hell for the soul to reside in the afterlife.

Our next lecture will look at the Eastern idea of reincarnation in Buddhist beliefs and among spiritualists and New Age thinkers in Western societies. Then we shall turn to near-death experiences, past life memories and their proponents’ fallacious statements that they are “proofs” of an afterlife. 

As I mentioned earlier, we shall discuss what Stephen Cave has termed “staying alive” as long as you can and the secular illusion that spurs the search for immortal life through various medical and mechanical devices, and the difficulty with each category. We shall look at legacy, leaving our research, work or talent to the world after we die, and therefore living on in people’s minds.  In that same category, we can place the biological legacy of leaving children behind us, who will remember us during their lifetime and perhaps pass that memory down to future generations.

We shall end the Illusion of Immortality, Part 2, next month, with thoughts about how we might begin to live more fully by giving up our immortality fantasies.  The search for immortal life, the denial of death, has fueled a great deal of human civilizations and their development.  Perhaps we might try to develop better conditions on this planet, for the people living on it.  Perhaps, just perhaps, we might stop trying to accumulate fortunes or fame or conquests that we fantasize will outlast us.  Perhaps, if we give up these immortality fantasies, we shall stop enriching religions by our adherence to their practices and their greed. And just perhaps, we might finally, begin to live.

Video of Lecture: The Illusion of Immortality, Part 1

Lecture: The Illusion of Immortality, Part 1

Video of Discussion: The Illusion of Immortality, Part 1

Discussion: The Illusion of Immortality, Part 1


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