Why a Religious Person Can Choose Cryonics

by Steve Bridge, former president of Alcor Foundation

"Why on God's Green Earth would someone want to be frozen and come back later?"

"I guess I am of the mind that Death is natural and something I look forward to because of my belief in God and an afterlife."

"How does God fit into cryonics? Or does He?"

These are some of the questions that a friend asked me last year; but they are not new. I have been asked variations on these questions many times in my 18 years in cryonics. They may be the same questions you get from your friends and family; or you may have these questions yourself. One is always admonished to avoid the topics of religion and politics at a party; people just feel too strongly about them. I recognize that is true, and I may be wading into a deep and tangled swamp by tackling this subject at all; but it is too important to ignore.

A further caution: I am not religious myself. I was raised as a Christian and even had aspirations to be a minister at one time. In college I decided that religions were untrue and I became an atheist. However, I am not anti-religious and I have discussed religious beliefs with many different people. For a different point of view, ask for a copy of Alcor’s pamphlet, Cryonics and Christianity.

Some cryonicists and many interviewers assume that only an atheist can become a cryonicist, that religion and cryonics are totally incompatible. This is completely untrue. The reasons that one person chooses cryonics may be very different from another person’s reasons.

Some people have gone so far as to say that the success of cryonics will mean the destruction of religion. I think such a viewpoint is nonsense. Changes in some religions, yes; just as many religious groups have adapted in various ways to knowledge of the solar system, birth control, transplant technology, and in vitro fertilization. Certainly more of Alcor’s suspension members are atheists than are religious. Often these non-religious people have stepped away from the mainstream in many areas of life and are willing to look at and adopt new ideas more quickly than others. However, as cryonics matures and seems more likely to work, more traditionally religious people have also decided they want the expanded possibilities for life in the future that cryonic suspension will be able to offer.

The first and most important point to make is that in most ways cryonics has nothing to do with religion at all, any more than do penicillin or heart transplants. Cryonics is a technology to help keep people alive. The entire history of medicine is about helping people live longer and healthier, and most religions (with rare exceptions, such as Christian Science and some small “faith healing” Christian sects) have embraced and advanced medical knowledge. Some of the finest hospitals in the world are owned and managed by Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and other religious organizations.

Cryonics is NOT about bringing the dead back to life. We are not talking about performing miracles. The entire point of cryonics is that physicians of today often pronounce patients dead at a point when doctors of the next century would consider them alive and would cure them. At some point real death occurs; but we think we may actually be preserving life (rather than reversing death) when we suspend patients.

It is a basic tenet of cryonics that what criteria we use to label people as “dead” at one point in history are not the same criteria we use for that label at a later point. A simple example is the modern ability to revive humans from several minutes of no circulation or breathing -- a condition that was routinely labeled as permanently dead in the early part of this century. From that point of view, many thousands of people have been “revived from the dead.”

If we use the word "death" to mean a permanent cessation of function, it is currently impossible to specify the exact instant when a patient crosses that line. Every year researchers make great strides in their abilities to resuscitate seemingly “dead” individuals, and we are a long way from reaching the limits of this technology. For example, how can we know what to label someone who is in a coma? One patient may have a nearly destroyed brain but have a heartbeat, while another may appear brain dead for months and suddenly wake up with all his memories. Each case may appear the same even to experienced neurologists, yet the outcome is quite different.

People often ask where the “soul” goes when a person dies and is frozen. If we wish to revive that person in the future, will the soul still be there? I suggest that these people need to ask that question about the people who are already being revived from “death-like” experiences. Excellent examples are the many children who have been revived from cold water drownings after thirty minutes underwater -- no respiration, no circulation, no brain waves. They appear to be dead, and fifty years ago any physician would have labeled them that way and would have made no attempt to revive them. Yet now they can survive such conditions. The record is 66 minutes underwater by a 3-year-old, with full recovery, no apparent brain damage. The child had no electrical activity for an additional two hours after being pulled out of the river. Did the "soul" go somewhere and come back? Did God want the child to survive?

Robert Ettinger, in his original book about cryonics, The Prospect of Immortality, pointed out that “no one seems to make an issue” of where the children’s souls went while they appeared to be dead. They were just happy to have their children alive. Ettinger then goes onto point out:

“Why, then, should anyone be concerned about the souls of the frozen? The mere length of the hiatus can hardly be critical; in God’s view, 300 years is only the blink of an eyelash, and presents no more difficulty than 2 1/2 hours.

“Except quantitatively, then, the problem is not new, and the religious communities have already made their decision. They have implicitly recognized that resuscitation, even if heroic measures are employed, is just a means of prolonging life, and that the apparent death was spurious.”

Another kind of medical rescue now possible is a “suspended animation” brain surgery for aneurysms . A medical team lowers the patient’s body temperature to about 50 degrees F, shunts the blood out of the patient’s brain, and performs bloodless surgery on the brain for about 50-60 minutes. There are no brain waves during this time. The team then warms the individual back up and restarts the cerebral blood flow. The patient survives with his memory and personality (and presumably his "soul") intact.

One cryonics laboratory, building on what Alcor did several years ago, can now take a dog, begin cooling it, replace all the blood in its body with an organ preservation solution, cool it to about 3-4 degrees above freezing, and hold it at that temperature for nearly six hours. At that time the dog can be warmed and his blood reintroduced, and he survives. He still answers to his name and he knows the same commands as before. We assume that surgeons will apply similar techniques to many human operations in the next decade.

What this proves as much as anything is that we don't know much about life and death. It seems apparent that physicians of the late 21st Century will define the point of death much differently than most people do today. A doctor from the future traveling back to today would no doubt be saddened by the hundreds of thousands of patients we call dead when he could see they were repairable with future knowledge. If this is true, then we should consider them "alive" now, and arrange to get them to that doctor in the future.

Cryonics should be viewed as an extension of clinical medicine, not a new kind of dead-body storage. The entire purpose of this technology is to save lives. From that point of view, religious beliefs are irrelevant as far as cryonics is concerned. Cryonics success would not prove or disprove Christianity, anymore than heart transplants or other life-saving treatments do.

Assuming there is a God and assuming that God created humans, then God also created our brains. He (or She) also created our curiosity and the desire to explore the limits of our existence. God apparently allowed us to develop CPR, antibiotics, heart transplants, brain aneurysm surgery, and other medical advances. It appears that if this is God's creation, it is our duty to continue to explore that creation and find out what our human limits are. From this point of view, if cryonics works, God meant it to and meant us to explore it. If it doesn't work, then God didn't mean it to. As with heart transplants and other medical advances, God doesn't tell us in advance. Humans have to explore for themselves.

One of the interesting things about religious arguments is that almost everyone has their own opinions based on what they were taught; but many extend those opinions to saying they know what God's plan or purpose is. I don’t believe anyone can know that. Anyone who did would by definition BE God. All we can do is our best and try to help each other. I choose to do so right now by helping people stay alive -- or at least by giving them as much of a chance as possible.

Because of this sort of reasoning, Alcor and other cryonics groups have sometimes attracted suspension members who are religious. This has given us the chance to ask them about their beliefs and often to speak with their religious leaders about cryonics. (I will point out that no religious group has -- as far as I know -- stated an official position on cryonic suspension. The following ideas are from individual members and religious leaders.)

For example, the members of one conservative Christian family believe that God wants them to stay alive as long as possible to spread the Word. Choosing cryonics for them means doing God's work.

Orthodox Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and some other religious groups believe that the Bible says nothing about a person's soul floating up to Heaven when he dies. They believe the Bible tells us that when you are dead, you are completely DEAD -- until the Resurrection , which means the revival and reconstitution of the physical body, including the soul. Therefore, you may as well stay alive as long as you can; when God is ready for the resurrection, it won't matter if you're alive or dead -- or frozen.

There are several reasons to believe that the Catholic Church in the next century will actually view cryonics with favor. As far back as the late 1960’s, a Catholic priest was photographed blessing a capsule at the Cryonics Society of New York. On at least two occasions in the 1980’s, television interviewers added Catholic ethicists to cryonics programs to provide “the other side;” and the ethicists decided that they saw no conflict with Church teachings.

At some point in the late ‘80's, the case of some frozen fertilized embryos in Australia brought an official Vatican reaction (I don't recall if this was an official statement of the Pope, though). Fertility researchers had already proven that human embryos could be frozen in liquid nitrogen, thawed, transplanted, brought to full term, and produce normal, healthy children (the first in 1984, now many thousands worldwide). The Church’s position was that these fertilized embryos had souls, were humans, and destruction of them was murder. This seemed to imply that liquid nitrogen on its own was not inimical to "soul storage."

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a prospective member who had spoken to his priest about cryonics and had gotten an interesting answer. I have since asked at least one other Catholic priest about this and was told that the answer had theological merit.

Today, if a Catholic is in a hospital with an illness for which life-saving treatment is available, some theologians would argue that for the Catholic to refuse that treatment would be willful death -- suicide. God chooses when you die, not you, and God has given you a way to survive through medicine. By extending that argument, if cryonics could be shown to work -- to save lives -- then choosing not to undergo cryonic suspension when current medicine cannot save you could also be considered willful death.

A firm answer on this question cannot be given yet, because cryonics is still experimental. Perhaps these people in cryonic suspension should be considered alive or perhaps they should be considered dead. We won't know for a very long time. But if they are really dead, then God has already taken care of their soul and it doesn't matter. A person can lose nothing spiritually by trying cryonic suspension. God does not punish people for trying to stay alive.

Neither priest could find anything inherently wrong with cryonics as a potential life-extending technology.

Back to those questions at the beginning of the article: One of the most often heard comments about cryonics, from religious and non-religious people alike, is that "death is natural." There are at least two ways to reply to that. You may recall Katherine Hepburn saying to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on this world to overcome.” It is our “nature” to overcome what is “natural.” “Natural” is running around naked in the woods eating roots and grubs. Our human nature (whether given by God or evolved) has led us to build homes and churches, make tools and clothing, and invent air-conditioning, surgery, libraries, bifocals and hearing aids, Cadillacs, digital watches, and gourmet restaurants to make our lives easier, longer, and more interesting.

Another approach is to point out that rape and murder and war are also “natural.” Does that mean we should not try to prevent them? Does that mean that God wants us to rape, kill, and bomb? Or are these actions things we must learn to overcome? If so, then why not learn to overcome dying?

In the 1800's, many whites in the American South told black slaves that their conditions were the "natural, God-given" state of things. Further, they said that African people were naturally inferior and destined by God to be slaves of the superior descendants of Europeans. In fact, slave owners made a great deal of noise about how slaves were happier being slaves, about how slavery made them better people, even brought them closer to God. This was the equivalent of giving seminars in how to be a happy slave instead of showing them how to be FREE.

Likewise today, why give ourselves seminars in how to be happy that we will soon die? Let’s learn how to be free of death instead.

"Why on God's Green Earth would someone want to be frozen and come back later?"

That’s the easy one. I don’t particularly want to be frozen and come back -- I want not to die in the first place. But if my condition is so poor that all other options are closed to me, I want to be placed into cryonic suspension so that I can continue my existence.

The question should be, “Why do you want to live indefinitely?” The answer is both easy and complex: Because I like being alive, in this form and in this identity. Because life is good and infinitely varied. There is much more to learn and experience and explore of this universe (this “creation,” if you prefer) than we can do in thousands of years. Living includes thinking and studying and learning, maybe in other parts of the galaxy, comparing my observations with beings much different from myself. Perhaps people who can live a very long time will spend a lot of it examining and defining the meaning of human existence, the nature of the universe, the relevance of religion, and the existence of God. Are religions elaborate lies or tricks we have played on ourselves to remain sane in the face of death? Or does one of those hundreds of sets of beliefs that people swear are “true” actually reflect the reality of our existence before and after the event we call death?

If today we are dying and do not choose cryonic suspension -- and if it turns out that this existence is all there is -- then we lose the bet and no more choices are possible. If we choose to be suspended and can be revived again, we can continue to look for the answers. Death and “going beyond” -- if such a thing can happen -- will always be options.

It is my personal belief that all human religions most likely have evolved from our primitive fears of death and of the power of nature. I suspect there is a space in our brains that requires religion to fill it. It may be natural or it may be trained, but the near universality of the religious impulse seems to suggest that humans have an evolved need for religion, which they will fill by learning or by invention.

Cryonics itself is only a technology, not a religion. However, I will admit that for me cryonics is part of a philosophical approach (which includes immortalism, life extension, space travel, and other ideas) that fills the psychological space in my brain previously used for religion. It performs well in one of the primary roles of religion: to help people stay sane in the knowledge that death comes to everyone. I don't know if cryonic suspension will preserve life or not. I think it is likely, based on my understanding of science; but I have no guarantee. However, if it turns out that my life only exists in this physical reality, then I want to prolong that reality for as long as possible.

I am not saying this to persuade you that my beliefs are correct. Religion or lack of it is very personal, and my beliefs certainly will not have an influence on yours. Besides, mine may change again over the next decade. But I want you to see where some of my beliefs originate and to remind you that there are many approaches to life and philosophy that can co-exist with the choice of cryonics.

I also want to inform all prospective suspension members (and to remind the current suspension members) that Alcor’s official policy is to take no position on the relationship of cryonics to religion, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other belief. Individuals make their own decisions on the correctness and acceptability of cryonics, based on whatever criteria they consider important. Alcor’s approval of suspension membership is not related to an individual’s religion or personal belief system. Please note Alcor’s “Non-Discrimination Policy” elsewhere on this page.

We welcome your further thoughts on these issues, especially if you can discuss how cryonics might fit in with Islam or other religions with which Americans are less familiar.

If you are not yet a suspension member of Alcor, do some thinking about how important living is to you. If it seems a lot more important than dying does, you may wish to make cryonic suspension arrangements, so your safety net is in place. You might make that decision based on your religious beliefs, on a desire to fill some part of your own empty “religion slot,” or for reasons based completely on logic and science. Whatever causes you to make this choice to live, we welcome you.

Appendix: Non-Discrimination Policy

The Alcor Life Extension Foundation believes that every person has a right to choose and arrange for his or her own cryonic suspension and to enjoy its possible benefits of greatly extended lifespan. To this end, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation does not discriminate against any person on the basis of race, religion, color, creed, age, marital status, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation or preference, medical condition, or handicap.

However, nothing in this statement prevents Alcor from avoiding any situation that genuinely threatens the health or safety of Alcor employees, volunteers, patients in suspension, or the public, or from requiring reasonable medical evaluations in some instances where a genuine threat to health or safety may be suspected to exist, or where the legal status of an individual with regard to mental competency may be in question.