Cheating Death and Being Okay With God

One in four Americans believes that by 2050, most of us will live to 120. Is that good?
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Millions immerse themselves at the confluence of the Ganges, Jamuna, and Saraswati rivers during the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India (Press Trust of India/AP)

This Spring we learned of 32-year-old Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov's determined 2045 Initiative, which involves "mass production of lifelike, low-cost avatars that can be uploaded with the contents of a human brain, complete with all the particulars of consciousness and personality." The mid-century goal, in which Itskov seems confident, is meant as a step toward immortality.

David Segal in The New York Times put to paper the reaction of many: "Are you insane?"

Still almost three-quarters of American predict that by 2050, "artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones." A substantial majority also believe that by that point we'll have cures for most forms of cancer. And fully 25 percent of Americans think that by mid-century, the average person will live to at least 120.

Those numbers are according to Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, which just released results of an exhaustive study on our feelings about "radical life extension."

That term, used primarily by bioethicists and medical researchers, is still surfacing in mainstream conversation—most people report that they haven't heard it before—but that's changing quickly. Radical life extension doesn't usually conjure Itskovian avatars, but rather a body of slightly more intuitive (but still abstract) "treatments aimed at prolonging life." The Pew project was undertaken because leading bioethicists foresee schismatic discussion around anti-aging research and treatments to become increasingly pointed in the not-distant future. Here we have the first large-scale breakdown of public perceptions.

(Pew Research Center)

(Pew Research Center)

(Pew Research Center)

So people who do believe in an afterlife are actually more likely to favor radical life-extending therapies.

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The Pew Center also spoke with a cavalcade of religious leaders, whose perspectives run the gamut. No major religious bodies have issued official statements on these types of therapies, but scholars have begun to consider what their positions would be. A frequently recurring theme is concern over the disparities that access to these treatments could highlight and heighten—that people aren't generally opposed to the notion, as long as everyone has access.

I've condensed some of the more discerning perspectives. The full text is here.

Unitarian Universalist

According to Michael Hogue, associate professor of theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, the Unitarian Universalist Association on life extension “would probably come down [against it].” Opposition would likely stem from “ecological concerns as well as concerns about economic justice,” he said, referring to the environmental impact of faster population growth and the possibility that only the wealthy would be able to afford life-extension therapies.

Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI expressed concern that significantly increasing longevity could strip life of its richest experiences – including the search for the transcendent and the need to have children as a hedge against mortality. A 2004 theological commission headed by Benedict (at the time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) alluded to the issue: “Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of life.” And in a 2010 homily, Benedict warned, “Humanity would become extraordinarily old, [and] there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise.”

Quaker

Many Quakers would have serious concerns about therapies to extend life, predicted Margery Post Abbott, a Quaker author. “Our view is counter to the attitude that one should do everything to extend life,” she says. In addition, Abbott thinks many in her church would have reservations about whether the therapies would be available to everyone and whether dramatically extending human life would negatively impact the environment. “We are already overloading our planet’s resources... and this could make the resource issue much worse.”

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church)

“The church believes that the human body is sacred, which is why it even discourages body piercing and tattoos,” says Steven Peck, a bioethicist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “So, as long as the body remained the same, as long as you were only giving people more of what they already have without big alterations, I think it would be fine.” On the other hand, “if there was a sense that [life-extension therapy] was desecrating the body, that would be a problem,” Peck says.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

An official statement by the church’s supreme governing body briefly addressed on longevity, endorsing “reasonable life extension without expecting or seeking perfection.” It also warned that life extension should “not lead to unjust and disproportionately biased use of limited human and financial resources.”

Islam

Radically extending life “probably wouldn’t be a problem for most” Muslims, according to Aisha Musa, a professor of religion at Colgate University. According to Musa and others, Muslims believe Allah knows the exact life span of each person from birth to death, or what the Quran calls one’s “term appointed.”

“Since you can’t really violate God’s plan for you, life extension is alright because it’s part of God’s will,” Musa said.

According to Mohsen Kadivar, a Shia theologian currently teaching at Duke, many Shia ayatollahs would likely sanction life-extension therapies as long as their object was not to extend life indefinitely. “There is a difference between life extension and immortality,” Kadivar says, adding, “The first is acceptable and the second is not acceptable, according to Islam and the Quran.”

Musa and Sachedina, who are Sunni, agree that striving for immortality would go against Islamic teachings because it would keep Muslims from heaven. “There is a deep-seated belief that death is a blessing,” said Abdulaziz Sachedina, chair of Islamic studies at George Mason University and the author of Islamic Biomedical Ethics. “We look forward to dying.”

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

Joel Lehenbauer, executive director of the church’s Missouri Synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations said a church position would likely reflect two principles: the church’s “very public and very consistent ... pro-life position” and its wariness of “the over-regard for life for life’s sake.” So, no embryonic stem-cell research or human cloning. People shouldn’t try to avoid the “basic scriptural fact” that everyone must die.

Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

“Presbyterians trust science ... so there is no obvious reason to be inherently skeptical of life extension,” said Charles Wiley, coordinator of the church’s Office of Theology and Worship Presbyterian leaders would likely urge people to use their extra years “in the service of the church and God.” He warned, though, that life extension not “be an idol [people worship] that out idols all others.”

Southern Baptist Convention

“Christians certainly do not embrace death as a good in itself,” R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Deseret News in 2006, “but we understand that death is a part of what it means to be human, and that the effort to forever forestall death is itself an act of defiance that will be both unworkable and morally suspect.”

Jeffrey Riley of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary said that many evangelicals would likely accept life-extension, “depend[ing] on how it was being advertised.”

National Baptist Convention, USA

“I think we would embrace it because we welcome the blessings of a longer life so that we can make more of a contribution to society,” said Rev. Charles Brown, a professor of Christian Ethics at Payne Theological Seminary.

“We firmly believe science can be used to advance God’s purposes,” said Marcus Gibson, senior pastor of the Greater Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia

 “There is something in our [African American] historical fiber that might make us want this, after having been denied so much for hundreds of years,” Gibson says. Brown agreed: “We have gone from a sense of impossibility in the 20th century to one of possibility in the 21st, and I think we want as much chance as we can to participate in these new possibilities.”

Buddhism

Only by realizing the ephemeral nature of existence and the illusory nature of the self, said former Buddhist monk and current executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies James Hughes, will one stop creating bad karma and come closer to nirvana. Dramatically longer life would be beneficial, he says, because it would give each person more time to learn wisdom and compassion and to achieve nirvana. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Buddhist nun and associate professor of Buddhist studies at the University of San Diego, warned that “If a person is living a nonvirtuous life – for example, needlessly killing others – perhaps a short life is better.”

Seventh-day Adventist Church

If the Seventh-day Adventists’ highest governing body, the General Conference, were to debate life extension in the future, its members would likely vote in favor of it, says Allan Handysides, director of health ministries for the church. “In our view, the purpose of health is to fulfill the church’s mission – to witness to the grace of Jesus Christ,” he says, adding that the church. “The longer we live and the healthier we are, the better we can do our work.” However, he said, life-extension therapies “would need to be available to everyone.”

Hinduism

Hindu scriptures describe a “golden age” in the deep past when people lived 400 years. “Life extension would be seen as a return to this golden age,” said to Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University. “The normal blessing in Hinduism is ‘Live long.’ So why not live longer?” 

Judaism

Rabbi Barry Freundel, an ethicist and theologian who also leads an Orthodox Jewish congregation in D.C. expects most Jewish scholars to support efforts to radically extend human life. “Judaism has a very positive view of life ... so the more of it, the better,” he says. “The goal in Judaism is to make the world better and [extended life] would allow us to do more of that,” he said.

Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Reform Congregation Beth Chaim in New Jersey agrees that most Jewish thinkers are likely to embrace life extension. “Prolonging life and saving life, no matter how long, is a great thing,” he says, adding that longer lives would allow people to better teach and serve future generations. “Human beings are built for cumulative knowledge," Wisnia said, "and the older we are, supposedly the more wise we are."

It's relatively rare in healthcare that before we get too deep into how and if we can do something, we think so extensively about whether we should.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 
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