by Mike Darwin
I can remember, with unfortunate precision, when I ceased to believe in God. Please note the emphasis on the “I” and the capitalization of God.
I was seven years old and being prepared for my First Communion in the Roman Catholic Church. I do not know what this entails today, but at that time, being enrolled in a Parochial school before the advent of Vatican II, it was an elaborate, 9-month long process of indoctrination and ritual. The church I attended was dark, Gothic, aromatic and overawing. The nun who instructed me and my class was kind and compassionate, but also knowledgeable, stern in her faith and firm in her convictions.
Sister Mary Ephraim (Right)
Amidst the endless rote memorization of the articles of the faith of the church and the various moral absolutes and injunctions, were told often, and in hushed tones, about the sacred transformation that was about to occur in us. The Holy Ghost was about to enter our bodies and sanctify and purify us, and we when the priest put the Host upon our tongues, the Body of Christ would enter into us and we would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord. This was to be a a transformative moment. In retrospect, it seems very strange that out of that first grade class of 30 or so children, not one ever asked a question along the lines of, “What does it feel like to have the Holy Ghost enter your body?” or “What does it feel like to have Jesus inside you?”
To my knowledge, no one asked those questions there in class, or at home of their parents, or to each other during recess, or after school, or at any other time. Remarkable!
And so the time came and I had my First Communion and the celebratory breakfast at a local restaurant afterwards. I’m smiling in the photos taken at that event and seemingly enjoying my gifts. But inside, I am already desperately unhappy, because whatever magical feeling was supposed to have happened; it didn’t happen to me. Again, strangely, I didn’t discuss this non-event, and neither did anyone else, if indeed, it was a non-event for them. And so, from that day forth I knew that for me, at least, there was no god. The capital came off the g and, gradually, as time wore on and my intellectual horizons began to grow, I realized that probably most of the other kids in my class had had a pretty similar experience to mine. There had been no hallelujah moment, no inward whoosh of the Holy Ghost, and urgent need for temporary immunity with a sanctifying jolt from Jesus that had to be renewed once a week with Holy Communion.
Grade School Graduating Cohorts: 1969. How many felt the rapture?
Their belief had become not a direct belief in that tangible supernatural experience, but rather a belief in the belief of the goodness and the rightness and the necessity of that experience, and as a side effect, of all the dogma, doctrine, ritual and machinery of the church that was tied to it. Of course, I did not understand why they believed that and why they needed to believe it; so I kept my mouth shut and went along with it until cryonics entered my life.
Cryonics changed everything, because it was the key to understanding the fundamental reason for the need to believe in religion and that was in turn the need to deal with the central and most pressing problem of human existence (which is not, as most philosophers would have you believe “man’s purpose in the universe,” but rather, the problem of DEATH. A writer who particularly influenced me (via cryonics) was Alan Harrington. with his radical manifesto The Immortalist. Once I read The Immortalist the key turned in the lock and the door opened. Religion was a coping mechanism it was a sanity mountainous device that had no more basis in reality than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. From Harrington I learned of Miguel d’Unnamuno and then, in my Sophomore year of High School I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death which frames the whole proposition from a more rigorous cognitive perspective.
In more recent years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that religion, religious thought, religious beliefs and mystical experiences are likely rooted in our evolutionary biology and that, as opposed to being merely a social tool for coping with the terrible reality of death, religion may have an evolutionary-biological basis, as well.
The implications of that, if true, are powerful and staggering, because it means that as we outgrow the need for such ancient and irrational coping mechanisms, it will be difficult to set them aside – more difficult than we may have previously imagined. As a consequence, we will need all the tools of logic and reason at our disposal to demolish the infrastructure of religious thought.
Growing up, as I did, in a religious environment, and being both an atheist and a cryonicist, I was confronted with many religion-based arguments against cryonics and immortalism. This was also a time of stunning advances in biomedicine and cryonics was all about the promise of more to come. At that time, and even more so now, the party line within the cryonics community was one of strict appeasement with respect to any conflict with religion. “Don’t antagonize them. We need the members. Keep your mouth shut.” Those were the bylines. Mostly, I held my tongue. But I from time to time I would mumble, under my breath, the thought I often had after the shame of not feeling the rapture of the Holy Ghost (nee’ Holy Spirit) pouring into me or Jesus not suffusing my being after Holy Communion: Well, you know, the only thing that would have lent real credibility to Christianity is if, when Jesus, God’s beloved only son, exsanguinating on a rough hewn cross of wood, cried out, “E’-Li, E’-Li la’-ma sa-bach’-tha- ni?” there was absolutely no answer, and that was really the end of it. No resurrection 3-days later. No atonement for mankind’s sins. Just oblivion. No backroom deals, no escape clause, no abracadabra, no miracle.
I mean, honestly, how scary is obliteration if it lasts only as long as a 3-day bender, or an especially bad bank holiday weekend? How big a deal is death, if it really isn’t forever? I was coming of age in a time when people were recovering from comas that lasted for weeks for or months – and in rare cases even for years! Three days? Give me a break! On a purely logical basis, Christianity doesn’t make any sense. As we cryonicists are quick to point out, there is a serious logical fallacy if the definition of death is the irreversible loss of life, and yet dead people can supposedly come back to life, get married have children, grow old and die again, ‘cmon!. Where’s the sting in that? So Jesus died?
OK, so lots of people “die” nowadays. They suffer and “die.” They exsanguinate slowly, they suffer injuries so terrible that they make Jesus’ brief tenure on the cross and his march down the Via Dolorosa look like happy hour on Folsom Street in San Francisco. And what’s more, they live – and they live long, satisfying and productive lives, including people like the one in the photo above. And they do so, not because of anantiquated coping mechanism for death and mayhem, but because of rational, scientific inquiry and its application to medicine by courageous and dedicated men who value life and want to preserve and extend it.
One good thing I can say about Roman Catholicism is that a central tenet of the faith is that it must be accepted willingly – not through coercion. As a consequence, the adherent is asked at numerous junctures if he is he is indeed a believer. Me being me, I said no, early and often. My parents’ response to this was to force me to observe the rituals of the church. I was made to attend Mass. However, to their considerable credit, the priests and nuns would and did not cooperate in any way with my parents’ attempts to force further participation. So, while my parents sat and stood and keeled and spoke as the ritual dictated, I merely sat. And so it went until this ordeal became too embarrassing for them.
My parents never interfered with my intellectual autonomy. They never even attempted to interfere with my signing up for cryonics at the age of 15, with embrace of Darwinian evolution, or with any other of my beliefs or ideas. Somehow, they knew and respected that cryonics, in particular, was absolutely critical to my person-hood and to my dignity – indeed that it was central to my integrity as a human being. I could then only imagine what it must have cost them to do that.
When I saw that my mother was developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), a number of doable scenarios crossed my mind that would have allowed me to cryopreserve her, or to otherwise render her brain into a fixed, unchanging state. I have done this before in very different situations for very different reasons. How is not material to what I have to say here. The fact is, I would have done almost anything to have saved my mother. I would have stolen or killed to have saved my mother.
The one thing I would not have done is to have defiled her autonomy. And therein lies a terrible irony, because, at the very cost of her own life, the values she, and her logically bankrupt religion taught me, stayed my hands.
Will she and all the other dead be recoverable some day in some way in an infinite universe or multiverse? Perhaps. That’s what the theoretical physicists tell us this week. Maybe in 13 billion years we will all be united end of the space-time continuum. Does 13 billion years matter? Hell yes! Three days? No so much. We aren’t gods and the fact is, we are so far from it we can’t even approach that throne, look upon it, or begin to understand it. So for all practical purposes, 13 billion years is forever and for now, dead is dead. We need to keep that in mind as we reason our way forward day by day and make the decisions that shape our lives and the lives of those we love.
 “My God, My God, why hath Thou forsaken Me?”