Living Forever — Fact, Faith, or F&SF?

The other day, my wife made an interesting observation. She asked, “If so many people believe in Heaven and an afterlife, and Heaven is so wonderful, why is everyone trying to live forever?” At that, I got to thinking about the associations and corollaries. According to the polls and statistics, the United States is the most “religious” nation in the world. And from what I read and can determine, we’re also the nation that spends by far the most money on medical research and procedures to keep older people young and to extend life-spans. We’re also the nation where talk of practical immortality and agelessness holds great sway, where the singularity will lead to practical agelessness, if not immortality. The entire issue of immortality has been one of the staples of both science fiction and fantasy from the beginning, with the immortal land of faerie or such works as Zelazny’s This Immortal.

Yet, if the true believers are right, what’s the point? Heaven is obviously a far better place than here on earth. If it weren’t, how could it be Heaven? So why are we spending billions to keep the most elderly barely alive, if that, when they could be in a better place… that is, if you’re a believing and practicing Christian or Muslim? And why have so many books and stories centered on immortality?

Now, I’m not disabusing medicine or medical research. People shouldn’t have to suffer horrible diseases or die of infections or be paralyzed for life or otherwise incapacitated when medicine can cure them or improve their life or condition. Yet, the plain fact of medicine is that, in the United States, the vast majority of medical care and expense goes to those who are in their last year of life, and far, far, less money in research and treatment goes to children and infants.

If those dying of old age are going to a better life anyway, wouldn’t it make much more sense to spend more of that medical funding on finding cures for children’s ailments… or providing better nutrition and preventative care for the young?

But then, do all those true believers really believe in Heaven and the afterlife? It’s often been said that actions speak louder than words and that people put their money in what they believe… and they read that which interests them. If that’s so, all the medical scrambling to extend lives and find immortality might suggest a certain, shall we say, shallowness of belief. Even hypocrisy, perhaps? Or, too, perhaps they do indeed believe in an afterlife, and subconsciously don’t want to face the theological nether regions reserved for those whose actions are less than charitable and worthy.

Either way, I find it food for thought. Exactly why does a society with so many true believers support medical age-extension and the quest for physical and earthly immortality anyway? And why is there now such an increase in books about immortal vampires and werewolves and the like? Are the two trends connected… and if they are… how do they square with the fact that the fastest growing religions are those which are best described as fundamentalist evangelical… with the attendant belief in an afterlife?