Sunday 11 July 2010

Obsolescence of heaven? [updated]

Adam Ozimek at the excellent Modeled Behavior (despite its inferior spelling of the latter term) ponders what happens for Christians when science makes death near-obsolete. If you have to die to get to heaven, and if your religion forbids suicide and requires you to take lifesaving medical treatments, what happens? He gives some options, none of which I find terribly plausible:
  • A rise in religious suicide bombing, sending souls to heaven targeted at scientists bringing forth the singularity
  • Decline in religious observance - rise in atheism
  • Rise in religions prohibiting life-saving treatments
None of these strike me as plausible [updated]. Instead, I'd predict a shift towards millennialist versions of Christianity in which folks immortally await the Rapture. Why? Because that's the lowest belief-cost move for Christians. Suicide terrorism - high cost and doesn't square well with most folks' existing beliefs. Rise in atheism - high cost of changing beliefs. Rise in religions prohibiting treatment - high real-life cost of belief.

But switching slightly towards predictions of the Rapture - that's low real-life cost, and relatively low belief cost. Just model folks, as Caplan does, as optimizing over the psychic cost of diverging from a bliss belief and the real-world cost of holding any beliefs, and the comparative statics on this one seem pretty obvious.

Update: LemmusLemmus makes the obvious point on cohort changes over time leading to more atheism: he's certainly right. Fewer will opt into religion when fear of death is gone. And Adam notes that terrorism targeted at the scientists bringing forth life extension is plausible. I'd agree - there could be a few folks nuts enough to do it.


  1. No, Dispensationalism is a minority view firmly rejected by most Christian churches.

  2. Your point about a rise in atheism presupposes we're talking about individuals changing their beliefs. But aren't we mainly talking about inter-cohort differences, i.e., people not starting to seriously believe things in the first place?

    Also, the evidence seems to show that Christianity is almost infinitely malleable, so the most probable outcome would seem to be an adjustment towards versions that avoid this problem altogether, with the Rapture version being only one of many.

  3. @FC: Beliefs are malleable: see Mosca on the temperature-sensitivity of Janist beliefs. Whatever is the lowest cost move that allows heaven without death is the one that'll be adopted.

    @Lemmus: I can buy fewer folks joining churches as fear of death is eliminated. Yup. For those maintaining belief, I'd expect that it would go to whatever is the lowest cost move that fixes the immediate problem. If there are cheaper options than the Rapture, then that'll be the one taken.

  4. Hrm. Although we are still in the realm of heaven-with-death, the churches with less restrictive doctrine and practice - Mainline Protestant, Unitarian, liberal Jewish - are currently declining relative to more strenous and orthodox (and Rapture-rejecting!) denominations.

  5. @FC: It's certainly true that denominations requiring a costlier signal have been more successful lately - Iannacconne has documented some of this.

    But holding costliness of signal constant, oughtn't we expect the denomination with the greater promised reward to do better? And if heaven's precluded for followers due to combination of effective immortality on earth with a death prereq for most denominations....

  6. The lowest cost christianity framing sounds like a sensible framework to me, but I think we should also consider the group status nature of religion. If one is still going to affiliate with groups based on beliefs, there must be some costly way to signal in-group status. Otherwise Unitarianism is the equilibrium we'd observe new.

    I'm not predicting terrorism as a major alternative for todays believers, but that we'll see a relative increase in it. I think the biggest returns to terrorism for extremists will be targeting science in the run-up to the invention of the cure for death, not so much targeting individuals to send to heaven. The returns to that seem much higher than the returns to todays terrorists, and so we should see a high increase.... then again, since the possibility of living forever will be right on the horizon, the costs of killing oneself at that point will be higher also.

  7. Ok, I can buy targeting of scientists in that way; I clearly read the first post too quickly.