12/15/2014 10:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do Bacteria Go to Heaven?

Pope Francis has hinted that all creatures go to heaven.

"The Holy Scriptures teach us that the realization of this wonderful plan covers all that is around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God," Pope Francis said, as quoted by Italian news site Resapubblica. The Pope added that "heaven is open to all creatures..."

Pet owners are rejoicing, and indeed even a nonbeliever like me finds it charming. Still, I worry: does His Holiness include bacteria?

He had better, because bacteria are part of who we are -- a big part. The microbiome within us makes our survival possible. There are roughly 10 times as many bacteria as human cells in each of us, and without them we could not digest our food or ward off deadly invaders.

But we've recently discovered that they are not just passive partners. Bacteria influence our minds. They actively guide our appetites and food choices. Without them, we might just sit around in heaven joylessly munching on cardboard.

But we would have to anyway, if animals didn't go to heaven, where would we get our steaks, and pot roasts and hamburgers, for heaven's sake? Even if all humans in heaven went vegetarian -- which would make a lot of us Americans miserable -- dogs don't have that choice. Kittens, either. They're carnivores; they're not "designed" to run on soy patties and wheatgrass.

Then again, if we're going to have any plants in heaven, it's absolutely vital to have bacteria. Without them, plants can't make use of nitrogen, and without nitrogen none of us can make the proteins we rely on for life.

Come to think of it, though, the entire web of life, from bacteria to megafauna, ourselves included, depends on everything else. So, along with puppies and kittens in heaven, we'll have to put up with mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and cockroaches; snakes, rats, and bats; sharks, jellyfish, and piranhas; and worst of all, Fox News commentators.

But if all of creation goes to heaven, what's the difference? Suffering will abound, just as it does on Earth. Either the fox will terrorize the henhouse and take home a chicken dinner for its offspring, or it will fail and the baby foxes will starve. People would either be disgruntled vegetarians, (excepting those who already are), or pigs, chickens, and cows would continue to be force-fed and then slaughtered. Meantime, plants would continue their never-ending war against one another and the animals that feed on them.

Of course, some would say that only the souls of creatures go to heaven, leaving all that's venal, carnal, or mundane behind. At first blush, that's an attractive idea. Unfortunately, the concept of a soul as the metaphysical, permanent self driving the body is both incoherent and contrary to observable facts.

It is incoherent in the sense that if you take away everything bodily, you are left with a blank sheet, a Caspar-the-Ghost without even Caspar's milquetoast personality. The notion of a permanent soul is contradicted by experience. None of us is unchanging, or even consistent. Some of us, like novelist Iris Murdoch, are brilliant early in life and end our days in the blank fog of dementia. Some, like Robber Baron Andrew Carnegie, start out in life as ruthless predators become philanthropists. When is the "real" self?

We're a tangle of rolling contradictions, whose behavior is hard to predict except in relation to the most worldly of instincts. Consider just the Bill of Wrongs: Bill Bennett, Bill Clinton, and Bill Cosby. (Next up, Bing Crosby.)

In truth, whether there are plants, animals, or microbes in heaven doesn't worry me. As an atheist and humanist, I haven't the least expectation of an afterlife, and that leaves me free to try to be the best person I can in the limited time I've got.