Religion, Sci-Fi and the Age of Disposable Human Bodies

By Ronald Brown

As I stood by one of the burning gats on the bank of the sacred Ganges River, I couldn’t help but contemplate the Hindu approach to death.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims view the death of the body as the end of our earthly existence. The individual then goes on to either heaven or hell if he or she is religious, or we simply cease to exist if we do not subscribe to one or the other of the major world religions. For Hindus, on the other hand, one body is disposed of and the person takes on another to continue his or her spiritual voyage.

As I watched one worn-out garment after another being consumed by flames, I couldn’t help but think of challenges disposable human bodies will pose for Christians in the future.

Unfortunately, the only serious discussion I found of this topic was not by religious thinkers but rather in serious Sci-Fi literature such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel, Childhood’s End. Transcendent evolution is also a theme in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a film co-written by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick.  I contend religious leaders must begin to confront this urgent question.

The time has come for humans to ponder their post-body existence and the freedom this will result in.

For too long religions have not only venerated the human body but idolized it. At the dawn of the 21st century, humans are slowly ending their millennia-long romance with physical bodies and are surging into the brave new bodiless world. The profound influence material bodies have exerted on human religions is coming to an end. Before the age of embodied humans is relegated to the trashcan of human history, I chronicle in this article the impact of material bodies on religions.

The body in world religions

Judaism, Christianity and Islam place great emphasis on the human body.

According to Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and the man became a living being.” What God breathed into Adam (derived from the Hebrew word for the soil of the ground) is not elaborated, but theologians came to call it the soul. The Koran states that Allah created Adam from “sounding clay, from mud molded into shape.” Thus began the intimate link between the human body and the soul that has dominated Judaism, Christianity and Islam until today.

Jews have elaborate rituals and laws regulating the body, ranging from kosher foods, beards, hair, cleanliness, and days of rest. Christians emphasize the importance of the physical incarnation, scourging, crucifixion, resurrection, and bodily ascension as central to God’s plan for salvation. Mary was pronounced a biological virgin, even after giving birth to Jesus, and later a doctrine was elaborated that she was assumed bodily to heaven (The Assumption). Baptism, the eating of Jesus’ body and drinking of his blood, became the central rituals; the veneration of relics further emphasized the importance of the human body in Christianity. Islam retained many of the Jewish body regulations, such as circumcision, food regulations (halal), beards for men, and veils for women. There is also the removing of shoes and washing before prayers, and fasting and then feasting during Ramadan.

The Hindu Rigveda argues that all material creation hatched from a primal egg that floated in primordial waters. This explains the Hindu belief that all living things, from a lofty Brahman to a lowly microbe, are equally sacred. The Hindu dietary regulations, ritual washings, the famous mass bathing in the Ganges, the burning of bodies after death, are all body-centered. The most distinguishing aspect of Hinduism is the elaborate caste system that separates humans based on birth, and maintains this separation through rigorous rules of food, physical contact, housing, marriage, and even the fear of a lower caste person’s shadow falling on a someone of a higher caste. In spite of the centrality of the body to Hindus, the ultimate goal remains the shedding of the body.

Buddhism, of all the major world religions, considers the body among the many obstacles to be overcome on the individual’s path to enlightenment. Once enlightenment is achieved then both the human body and individual consciousness are unceremoniously discarded, except for those few saintly bodhisattvas who freely chose to retain their human bodies in order to help others on their paths to liberation.

Sci-Fi and the liberated human

Millions of years of human evolution have so bound the individual with his or her material body that we have difficulty conceiving of human life without our sack of water and protein. Only Science Fiction literature has ruthlessly taken the mind into realms where no one has gone before — the realm of bodiless humans.

Sci-Fi has not only explored this possible future non-corporal existence but even celebrated it. Hollywood is literally light years ahead of theologians, scientists and governments in exploring the fascinating implications of disposable human bodies.

The first work that opened my eyes to the possibility of human liberation from our material bodies was Clarke’s Childhood’s End (made into a 2015 SyFy Channel mini-series). In the novel, aliens arrive on Earth and announce the time has come for humans to move to their next stage of evolution. Under their guidance, children begin to exhibit clairvoyant, telekinetic, and other mental powers. They soon begin to transcend their burden of material bodies and gradually merge with a vast cosmic intelligence that is the amalgamation of many ancient civilizations. At the end, the last human, Rodricks, watches as the last children leave their bodies and eventually all matter dissipates in a blinding flash of light.

Rodricks experiences a profound sense of fulfillment, akin to seeing a child graduate from college, get married or achieve success. Adulthood inevitably follows childhood. The earthly material existence of humans is but a preparation for a glorious future.

In the 2014 film “Transcendence,” Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) contracts a fatal disease and his wife uploads his consciousness to a computer. Eventually, Dr. Caster adapts to his non-body existence, but love for his wife forces him to create a new physical body. Unfortunately, 350,000 years of attachment to a human body were not easy for Will’s earthly wife to overcome. However, implied in the film is the possibility of constructing and inhabiting a material body, any kind of body, at will. Dr. Caster himself is proud of his mastery of “body-building.” In the future he could easily send his consciousness to another planet or galaxy and construct a body that could survive in an atmosphere where human bodies could not.

In the 1992 movie “Lawnmower Man,” Jobe Smith is subjected to an experimental intelligence expanding program that turns a mildly retarded yard boy into a genius. He soon finds that his physical body can no longer contain his increasing intelligence and powers. He insists he has reached the final stage of human evolution — liberation from the limitations of a human body, which he describes as a “husk” — and is becoming pure energy. He uploads his consciousness into a VSI computer mainframe and from there is able to access all the electronic systems of the world.

However, like the traditional mad scientist genre, Jobe sets out to punish all those who treated him poorly when he was of limited intelligence. Dr. Angelo, Jobe’s former colleague, sets out to stop Jobe’s evolution and remotely infects the VSI computer. Angelo then joins him in virtual reality and tries to reason with Jobe, but Jobe overpowers and kills him. In a final effort to stop Jobe, other scientists plant bombs in the computer center to “kill” him.

Jobe employs religious terminology to describe his quest. He states that when he has spread to the complete planetary computer network, he will be “born.” At the end of the film, as the computer center goes up in flames, Jobe manages to escape through a maintenance line and he announces his “birth” by the simultaneous ringing of every telephone on the planet. Implied is the idea that his real birth, his baptism, into a complete person happened only after he was freed from his physical husk.

A film still from 2009’s “Avatar” (courtesy Twentieth Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios).

The 2009 blockbuster film, “Avatar,” features a future world where advances in human technology enable the transfer of a human’s intelligence into biological bodies at remote locations. The name of the film is derived from the Hindu belief that gods have the ability to take on flesh form at will. In the film, a group of aggressive capitalistic businessmen from Earth are out to destroy the people and environment of a distant planet named Pandora to mine a rare mineral called unobtanium.

Unlike the individualistic Earthlings, Pandora’s living creatures have evolved a vast neural network that is vastly superior and more powerful than the individualistic Earthlings and is centered on a giant tree called “The Tree of Souls.” One of the Earthmen, Jake, recognizes the superiority of this collective and sides with it to resist the Earthlings. Jake, a vastly superior human, is able to access the collective and achieves both a human existence and an avatar existence. In the end, the humans are defeated and, except for Jake and a select few others, are expelled back to Earth. Jake permanently merges with the collective existence of the planet of Pandora.

Conclusion

The future holds a plethora of challenges and promises. In the human journey to places where “no man has gone before,” we will abandon not only our mortal bodies but our home planet and galaxy as well. “Once upon a time, humans inhabited physical bodies and lived on a small planet called Earth” will be the opening lines of novels, bedtime stories, and history books.

As I watched the porters hurrying down to the burning gats in Varanasi to dispose of still another discarded bag of water and protein, I realized the Hindu attitude toward the human body was far more advanced than that of any other religion. The ultimate goal was liberation from our sacks of water and protein.

Central to most of the above and many other works of Sci-Fi is the premise that humans will one day become gods. The powers that humans have long attributed to gods will be assumed by humans. Lacking bodies, humans will be in control of creation. Freed from material existence and biological sex, humans will freely create new beings. Freed from death, we will become immortal; as we join the universal consciousness, we will become immortal. Unlimited access to all other minds and artificial intelligence will render humans all-knowing. Conquering distance, gravity and disease will grant humans omnipotence.♦

Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College, and teaches courses in world religions at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, he is author of A Religious History of Flushing, QueensInto the Soul of African-American Harlemand How New York Became the Empire City.

Graphic at top: A detail of Richard M. Powers’ cover illustration from the first edition (1953) of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End for Ballantine Books.

6 thoughts on “Religion, Sci-Fi and the Age of Disposable Human Bodies

  1. Dr. Brown, thanks for the article.

    Though I haven’t had so much time to read for leisure recently, I have been an avid science fiction reader since my teenage years. I grew up quite atheist, but I credit my exposure to the kind of ideas you bring up in science fiction as leading me to consider, and eventually to lead, a religious life myself. The individual self that participates as an individual in the collective consciousness of Pandora is similar to the current evolution of my own faith — and that collective consciousness perhaps has some similarities to the emergence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point as the final, most complex unity of everything. Such participation shows how unity and diversity can be reconciled.

    • David,

      Thanks for your comments.

      I have found Sci-Fi a fascinating world for speculation on where humanity is headed and where religion is going. I especially enjoyed Soviet Sci-Fi, Solaris and Stalker. Religion was a bit out of favor in the USSR so many searchers and believers adopted Sci-Fi as an acceptable medium for speculation.

  2. Dr. Brown,

    Thank you for a so-well-composed essay on such an important topic. Considering your reports on Hinduism and Buddhism (of which, my Buddhist wife states that my ability to understand it is so limited that she cannot try to explain it to me), they share with the followers of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the search to enter a noosphere transcendent of the body, and, with some Middle Age mystic Christians and a current movement to revive gnosticism, a strong hope to escape the burden of corrupted sexual desire. Unificationism’s positions on the body differ from these.

    Ancient Judaism and especially the early Christians, were very concerned with avoiding self-destructive sexual temptations. Then episcopal churches emphasized ways of limiting the self-destructiveness of having such a temptation. The Enlightenment project, asserting the uniqueness of the human animal among all others, sought to deemphasize the reality and effects of sexual desire. This led to governments, to avoid the social destructiveness of uninhibited sexual desire, to seek to control it through ever-increasing regulations. In this context, there arose during the late 20th century both the movement to applaud uninhibited sexual desire and the search to satisfy it, rather ignoring its self-destructiveness, and, on the other hand, philosophies such as that of Chardin, “new age” ideas and practices, and mysticisms.

    Then, what are positions in Unificationism on the human body (including sexual desires which, may be, rather than simple biological urges, the constructs of psychological factors including patently irrational desires) and on life after physical death?

    Our bodies are valued as vehicles for the expression of love. Just as God’s heart, the core or essence of God, is depicted in Unification Thought as the irrepressible impulse to give love, so each of us, in God’s image and likeness, have as our core the impulse to give love to whatever scope imagined. Using our mind and body, we discern at a very early age opportunities to give love. We may then choose to express love through our bodies. If we do, we receive more of God’s love and truth and are thus enabled to discern and give love more widely and/or deeply. This is the process of spiritual maturation. (The impulse to love may be awakened without physical discernment but simply through mental imagining; however, since it cannot be expressed, such imagining is inadvisable.)

    The reproductive act, which is the target of sexual desire, is at its root an act of love. Since intercourse is the most intimate relationship possible between a man and woman, and since the fundamental impulse of a person is to give love as intimately as is possible and effective toward the greatest possible scope imaginable, and since contribution to the creation of an heir has that greatest effect, the physical intimacy of intercourse is always stimulated by and accompanied by the impulse to give true love and is always an expression of it, even if it is intellectually known that procreation is at that moment impossible. Love in sexual intercourse may be pure or corrupt. The expression of corrupted love seeking its fulfillment through sexual desire brings about its strengthening and can even lead to addiction, and is thus self-destructive. Unificationism inherits from major strains of Christianity the exaltation of pure marital love as sacred. We also inherit from Christianity techniques for lessening the temptation to arouse sexual desire.

    All children long to attain functional adulthood, and, of course, most do attain the physical means for this; however, it is rare that someone attains full spiritual maturity before the path is cut short by the death of the body. Therefore, we may easily imagine a spiritual-only existence after death, free from physical flaws, living happily in relationships with at least God.

    Unificationism’s solution to the frustration brought about by physical death contrasts with those found in some strains of Islam and those found in nearly all strains of Christianity (and, of course with that of Buddhism, as you reported). Passages in the Koran depict on afterlife virtually identical with life as we know it and emphasizing the pleasures of sexual intercourse. Christianity inherited from a strain of Judaism the belief that a body may be “resurrected” to live free from burdens. In fact, not only is this greatly emphasized in Christianity but is a major factor in attracting people to engage in the thoughts and practices of the religion. By contrast with these, Unificationism flatly denies any post-death existence of the physical body. (I, personally, hold this view as part of the denial of God’s ever-altering the physical laws that God created, and that denial entails a disbelief in purely physical miracles.)

    After the death of our physical or animal body with its physical mind as its inner directive nature, our spiritual self continues to exist. While we are alive, our spiritual mind is the subject partner with our physical mind, and it is through this union that our spiritual self can cause actions on earth; however, without a physical mind as mediator, it cannot do that. This does not mean that we live in isolation in the spiritual realm. A disembodied self consists not only of the spirit mind but also the spirit body. I take this to mean that it has the power to act: first, toward the fulfillment of spiritual desires and, second, to stimulate change in the spiritual realm.

    Regarding the first, True Father spoke plentifully about a happy life after physical death, the instantaneous fulfillment of desires. With regards to the second, I first interject a statement by True Father, “The physical world is a factory, the spiritual world is storage.” No matter how loving our actions in the spiritual world, we do not grow. It is well-known that a physically deceased person through his or her legacy –- exemplary life, oral or written communications –- may exert great power on earth. Through this, the geographical scope of the person’s loving may expand; however, his or her spiritual maturation is still limited.

    Unificationism’s solution to the frustration of physical death is that a physically disembodied spirit may interact with the spirit self of a person still physically living. When, through this interaction, the “earthly” person grows by expressing greater love through his or her physical mind and body, the disembodied spirit person also grows towards complete maturity. A process is also outlined by which spiritual disorders and even outright evilness of spirit persons can be remedied through interaction with the physically living.

    The value of the body in Unificationism is thus represented in its depiction of life after death as one of happiness and yet continued striving for perfection. To this picture, I suggest the following addition. True Mother is said to weep daily over the benighted existence of billions of persons who do not know about True Parents and the grace that they offer. I and, I think every person has, because of lovingness, concerns about the troubles of loved persons. When I have transitioned to live in the spiritual realm only, will I not sorrow over the situations of ones I love?

  3. John,

    Thanks for your very insightful comments.

    You bring up some very interesting points. For example, once we have discarded our physical bodies and achieve immortality, concepts like birth and death, sexual reproduction, marriage, male and female, family, and so many other body-determined events will cease to be significant. These are the issues that humans will have to confront in the not so distant future. I just read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, which is also a Netflix series. He confronts many of these issues in a very Hollywood fashion.

    Attachment to our physical body will go the way of our fondness for the horse and buggy and oil lamps. It should be an exciting new world.

  4. I must confess that I have a completely different viewpoint than the one expressed in this article.

    First of all, the fact that human beings have a physical body is one of the aspects that makes them superior to the angels. Even if I do not share the belief that some Christians have about a physical resurrection, I still consider our physical body as a very important part of ourselves. To me, the concept of marriage, family made of husband and wife and their children are not just earthly concepts, but have an eternal meaning. The idea of reincarnation has created more problems than solving problems, even though I understand why people developed this idea.

    I watched several times the movie “Transcendence” and I still have quite a negative opinion about the ideas it spreads. For example, the idea that you could transfer the mind of a person into a computer is suggesting that the mind can be reduced to something material or that one day computers can develop consciousness, which is absurd to me. Also, I believe in the individual, in his responsibility and freedom and that even if we should create unity and harmony among people, we will always exist as a person and will not merge into a unique universal consciousness.

    I can make many other points, but I will stop here and if someone wants to discuss about any of the points I have mentioned, I can develop it in more length instead of the simple unproved assumptions I have been making here.

  5. Didier,

    Well, I think you may have great difficulty adapting to the inevitable age of bodiless humans.

    Marriage, family made of husband and wife and their children are earthly concepts, but have no “eternal meaning.” How Christianity will adapt to the new age is problematic. Most probably, the religion will have great difficulty. To put this in Catholic terms, what is the “substance” of humans? Once you remove all the “accidents” such as hair color, height, race, sex, and other accidental qualities, what is a human? If Christianity is unable to adapt to this new world, it will join the many other religions in the trash heap of history, such as the religions of the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, Celts, Germans, and many others.

    Unfortunately, Christian theologians are being left behind in the search for the religion(s) of the 21st (and 22nd and 23rd) century. Fortunately Sci-Fi writers and filmmakers are in the forefront.

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