Will God Survive?
There is a specter haunting theology today – the specter of digital immortality. If its most aggressive proponents have their way, death will be a memory by 2045. Within thirty years anyone who chooses will be able to create an online replica of themselves that will replace them when they die. Heaven will be within the reach of anyone with the price of admission. No God. No acts of faith. No need for redemption.
This vision is not science fiction. It is the program that Dmitry Itskov and Martine Rothblatt offer. If you go to Rothblatt's Lifenaut.com site or to Itskov's 2045 Initiative, both easily accessible online, you will find instructions for how to conquer death and live forever. This is the vision and these are the people I deal with in my new book, Internet Afterlife: Virtual Salvation in the 21st Century.
Two years ago I had no idea that such people or such promises existed. Because of my long-term interest in death and the dead I undertook to examine how the dead live on on the Internet. I did this because when people die something seems to leave. Nothing is as evanescent as the soul. In contrast, nothing ever seems to die on the Internet. Even if we think we are deleting things they remain. Here was my thought: if souls leave when people die, and if the Internet keeps information forever, might there be some way to combine the fugitive nature of souls and the de facto immortality offered by the Internet? On these terms I began my search.
I will not go into further detail about my search at this point, except to say that saving a dying soul to the Internet will require that that soul be transformed into something that the Internet can keep. If we are to live forever online we can only do so if our souls become digital programs. The Internet exists because computers exist and digital immortality will require a digital soul. Is this possible? Itskov and Rothblatt, among others, think so.
If they are right, or even if people think they are right, traditional Western religions are at risk. The afterlife has always been part of God's empire, the final source of both His appeal and His power. Spiritualists claim that the spirits of the dead can occupy an afterlife that has little or no relation to the a religious Heaven. But the dominant story about the afterlife has always been the one that Christians, Muslims and Jews tell.
If Itskov and Rothblatt make their case, Heaven can no longer be reserved for believers. Even non-believers can live forever online, on their own terms. They will owe nothing to anyone. If this idea becomes popular, if people think that they can create a Heaven without benefit of God, this could mean the beginning of the end for traditional religious beliefs and the complex social and political institutions that such beliefs support. Will belief in a religious afterlife wither and finally disappear as belief in a digital one grows, year by year? Will the religious categories and familiar rituals with which many of us have grown up be abandoned as quickly as rotary phones and land lines? Is belief in a personal God the Betamax of the 21st century?
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
University of Redlands
Author of Internet Afterlife: Virtual Salvation in the 21st Century. Praeger. 2016