Saturday, August 6, 2011

Immortality: Is it bad for religion?

Back in February, Time ran a cover story on Ray Kurzweil's prediction that technology will cure aging in the coming decades.

This evolution wouldn't actually equal immortality – plagues could erupt and take a toll before being brought under control, and people could die from physical trauma. Nonetheless, it will come as no surprise to you, if you've read any of my six previous posts labelled General: Death, that the idea of even this immortality-lite existence fascinates me.

I wonder: Would this form of immortality make religious practice weaker or stronger? Well, "religion" is a big place, so let's refine that: Would it make Judaism weaker or stronger?

My first thought is that immortality would weaken Jewish practice; many people embrace religion in a search for attachment to something larger than their own limited existence, or out of fear of what happens 'next', but in an immortal existence they would feel less pressure to opt for religion.

On the other hand, it might actually strengthen Jewish practice: One of the disincentives of Judaism is the heavy demand it places upon people's time, and the fear that observing mitzvot will translate into lost opportunities for fun and pleasure. Once we find the Fountain of Youth, though, the pressure to enjoy the moment dissipates.

Further, people whose lives are limitless might feel a greater push to find meaning. In a brief existence, there is relatively little time available for introspection. Extend life by a few centuries, and perhaps more people to stop to think about why they are here.

Those are just beginning thoughts. What can you add?


  1. If one of the reasons we posit the existence of an Afterlife where all accounts are balanced is because of the problem of what theodicy in This World, i wonder if immortality would make us more likely to want to 'settle accounts' in this world instead of letting God handle it in the Next.

  2. with a super-long life, the average person would have the opportunity to learn kiddushin (or bava kama, or sukka, or whatever he wants) in depth for the 10th time. As things are now, I don't know whether I am going to learn certain things for a second time. this would be an incredible opportunity for an individual to have greatly increased understanding of Torah.

  3. Surely the long-lived people in the early chapters of Bereshit and the fact that God eventually reduced their life-span show that long life does not automatically equal meaningful life? As you say, with longer life, people see less reason to worry about olam ha-ba. True, keeping mitzvot for reward/to avoid punishment in the next world is a bad reason for keeping mitzvot, but it's better than not keeping them at all.

    Once we find the Fountain of Youth, though, the pressure to enjoy the moment dissipates.

    I'm not sure that this is true at all. It assumes people want to have fun because life is short. While there may be an element of truth in this, it seems to me that the main reason people want to have fun is because it's fun. The fact that one is obliged to study Torah and perform mitzvot when other people are having fun will still be a disincentive to be frum for a lot of people.

  4. We'll be granted immortality when we've become able to handle it.

  5. Steg, Shmuel-
    Very interesting.

    I hear it; all things are relative, right?

    Anonymous 2:45-
    Is that not true of everything?

  6. " will cure aging..."

    Aging is a disease to be "cured"?

  7. Anonymous 3:53 AM-
    In the cell-damage sense, I think so.