I have a piece in this month’s First Things about how transhumanism is a form of materialistic faith. The column describes what I observed at a religion and transhumanism conference back in May. From, “New Time Religion” (subscription required):
The West, we are told, has entered the secular age. Religious faith is irreversibly shriveling, opening space for a society governed by reason.
Traditional religion may well fade, but we will never see an end to something like religious belief. We’re subjective beings whose need for meaning will never be satisfied merely by what can be “proved.” Thus, even if Judaism and Christianity are reduced to vestigial influence in America, the will be replaced not by unbelief but by different creeds.
Transhumanism–the belief that through technology we can become immortal and redesign a better “post-human”species–intends to become our primary source of societal values:
Why consider ourselves made in the likeness and image of God, when we can recreate ourselves in our own, individually designed, “post human” image?
Why worry about heaven, hell, or the karmic conditions in which we will be reincarnated when we can instead enjoy radical life extension, perhaps even attain immortality by uploading our minds into computers?
Indeed, transhumanist prophets such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil and Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom, eschatologically assure believers that science will soon wipe way every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain, for through technology, the former things will all pass away.
Transhumanism has no liturgy, nor does it hold that belief or behavior impact one’s ultimate destiny. Conference organizer, Hank Pellissier–director of Brighter Brains Institute–angrily chastised the movement generally for lacking generosity and a charitable mindset. Perhaps that what comes from a purely materialistic mindset.
That point aside, the new time religion does perceive itself, in the words of professor emeritus at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Ted Peters, “as a grand vision in which all broken things get fixed.”
Representatives of several faiths tried to accommodate their creeds with the transhuman techno-Utopianism. Mormonism, Buddhism, Catholicism (just a bit), Islam (me: no way!), Terasem (a new transhuman denomination that seeks to use yoga, music, and conversation to fill the empty space left with the loss of transcendent faith), and the Raelian science cult. Indeed, the Raelian representative–the almost surely pseudonymous Felix Clairvoyant–showed how closely the two belief systems are aligned:
Unlike orthodox transhumanists, Raelians deny evolution, claiming that all life here was intelligently designed by extraterrestrial visitors. That one point aside, the Raelians and transhumanists have much in common. Both deny theism and embrace scientism as the way to attaining ultimate materialistic truth.
The Raelians also claim that our interstellar “creators” are already transhuman: Through applied biotechnology and other scientific advances, their bodies last for one thousand years, and when they can no longer be maintained, their minds are uploaded into a computers, they are cloned, and then their software is downloaded back into their new brains and they are good to go for another millennium.
I could almost hear the sighs of longing from the audience. Oh, death, where is thy sting?
I met transhumanism’s up-and comer potential presidential candidate and author of The Transhumanist Wager, Zoltan Istvan, who issued a clarion call that atheism requires transhumanism:
Istvan flatly stated that transhumanism unequivocally “cuts against” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “If you don’t have restrictions on morality that religion imposes on life,” he said, “you have more freedom to think.”
As people learn they can “live indefinitely,” it will profoundly erode religion since it will allow people to stop worrying about eternal life as something we experience only in the hereafter. Istvan also argued that with transhumanism the only hope in a material world, and therefore interfering with life extension research should be a crime. In fact, substantially thwarting efforts to achieve transhumanism would be a just cause for war. Onward transhumanist soldiers!
I came to some conclusions after a full day of lectures:
It is clear to me that transhumanism aspires to be what monotheism was to polytheism, e.g., to supplant theism as society’s reining source of mores and values. If it can be said to “worship” anything, it is an intense and distinctly eugenic sense of the pursuit of a perfected humanity.
We will be free from sin, by definition—none of those moral restrictions on life. And we will be delivered from death by technology. Like many faith systems, it also offers itself as a bulwark against suffering (we can eliminate it) and hope in the face of death (it is optional).
Different strokes for different folk, as they say. But there is real danger here…There was precious little discussion of love for, or duties toward, others, in the 10 hours of the conference…This sadly confirms my own observations of transhumanism over the last ten years…Transhumanists tacitly—sometimes explicitly—reject the principle that each and every human being deserves respect and protection simply by virtue of being human.
Such a morality impedes the benevolent god known as evolution—thus delaying the perfected human future they envision. To bring about the hoped-for future we must discard the notion of each human’s intrinsic dignity. One need not think transhumanists’ predictions will come true to worry that their values might take hold.
Transhumanism is a desperate belief system that grasps at technological straws. But the raw desperation in that grasping has the potential–like all Utopian movements–to unleash violently destructive forces. Caveat emptor.