“Transhumanism is a philosophical doctrine that aims to continuously improve humanity,” says new Italian MP Giuseppe Vatinno, interviewed in New Scientist. “Ultimately, it aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human.”
Which means developing technologies “that boost health and fight aging and disease.” The interviewer asks if this wouldn’t make us less than human, which was the question we would have asked, and Vatinno answers: “Becoming less human is not necessarily a negative thing, because it could mean we are less subject to the whims of nature, such as illness or climate extremes.”
Vatinno’s is a truncated idea of what it means to be human. A humanity freed from biological limitations is, we would think, just as human as it always was: The will remains the same, the heart, the passions, the loves and hates, the fears and hopes. All you have is a man who doesn’t get sick as often and lives a few decades longer. Not necessarily a bad thing, and also not necessarily a good thing, but in either case, hardly a change in humanity’s humanity.
Transhumanism doesn’t conflict with religion, Vatinno insists, though he admits that it “does tend to avoid recourse to an external deity and, in fact, most adherents are materialists.” But some are Hindu and Buddhist and even Mormon.
The religion it accepts is “a religion of science and technology.” It is religious “in the sense that it could provide ethical principles. The scientific method implies an absolute honesty in producing data and searching for the truth. It could be a model of correctness. A philosopher might argue that a flower is blue rather than red, but science tells you unambiguously what color it is.”
We’re not sure how useful would be a religion based on accurate data, but interestingly, given his claim for the scientific method’s “absolute honesty,” the same issue of New Scientist—indeed the same two-page spread that includes the interview—includes a long article on the inaccuracy of scientific data. “More than half of biomedical findings cannot be reproduced,” proclaims the subhead.
The pharmaceutical company Amgen admitted that “over the past decade its oncology and haematology researchers could not replicate 47 of 53 highly promising results they examined,” and this is apparently typical. The companies frequently fail to report their failures to replicate experiments.
The natural world is difficult to study, the article points out, and researchers feel “the pressure to cut corners, to see what one wants and believes to be true, to extract a positive outcome from months or years of hard work.” And their bosses want results they can use and make money with. In other words, scientists are just as fallen as anyone else. The problem with appeals like Vatinno’s to an ideal science is that science only exists as it is performed by scientists. Who are, you know, human.
We can understand the appeal of transhumanism’s promise to reduce suffering. But, as discomforting as the answer may be, suffering can change us for the good. Or so explains Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia.
The best answer comes from Leon Bloy, a writer who himself chose to become a Catholic. “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,” wrote Bloy, “and into them enters suffering, that they might have existence.” In a sense, all Christian belief is cocooned in those words. Christians have no desire to suffer. But we do understand and appreciate the power of suffering.
The archbishop calls suffering “the truest democratic experience” because everyone suffers. “But Bloy understood, just as Viktor Frankl discovered in the death camps, that we can always choose what we do with the suffering that comes our way. We have that freedom. This is why suffering breaks some people, while it breaks open others into something more than their old selves, stretching the soul to greatness.”
Wandering around the American Kennel Club’s big “Meet the Breeds” event with my two youngest children recently, I saw a big banner in the cat section proclaiming that a particular breed had been considered a god by an ancient civilization. Of course, our understanding of the genuine religious impulses of ancient religions has increased, but still, one of the gifts the Jewish people have brought the world is that no one who knows about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the least bit tempted to worship cats.
I mean, would you want to worship a murderous narcissistic psychopath? This is not an image of God to make anyone happy. If you’re going to worship an animal, why not the Border Collie, frantically eager to please, or the loving, soulful-eyed Lab? Or the alert and protective German Shepherd? Or the indomitable Saint Bernard? Or the classic loyal and even-tempered mutt?
Here’s something we didn’t know about and are glad we do now. Writing about Humanae Vitae just a month after Pope Paul VI issued it, at which point lots of Catholics, including a goodly number of Jesuits, had popped a cork, the then-superior general asked his fellow Jesuits to assume an attitude of “obedience which is at once loving, firm, open, and truly creative” and “to do everything possible to penetrate, and to help others penetrate, into the thought which may not have been his own previously”—precisely because they were Jesuits, and this is what Jesuits do.
Fr. Pedro Arrupe offers a good description of the way Catholics think, or ought to think, with the Church and “the specific data of Christian revelation.” As the obedient Jesuit “goes beyond the evidence available to him personally, he finds or will find a solid foundation for it,” wrote Arrupe. “To obey, therefore, is not to stop thinking, to parrot the encyclical word for word in a servile manner. On the contrary, it is to commit oneself to study it as profoundly as possible so as to discover for oneself and to show others the meaning of an intervention judged necessary by the Holy Father.”
“I wanted to add, ‘You go to nightclubs, drink alcohol, wear skinny jeans, tight tops, and makeup,’” says Melissa Kite, recounting in the Spectator a shocked conversation with an English friend who announced that she’d converted to Islam, as she was marrying a Muslim. It wasn’t a big deal, her friend, an Anglican, responded. “I don’t have to wear a veil or go to mosque or anything. It doesn’t seem to make any difference at all.” Asked about having to agree to raise her children as Muslims, she said, “Well, it will be nice for them to have a faith, and a set of rules to live by.”
Apparently, though the author’s evidence is only anecdotal, an increasing number of women in England are becoming Muslim because they are marrying Muslim men who require it. The number of converts to Islam has grown from 60,000 in 2001 to 100,000 today. About 5200 convert each year, with an average age of 27. Sixty-two percent of them women.
Some of you may read this while watching television or otherwise multitasking your way through the competing interests of the day. Stop it, my friend David Ousley would tell you.
“The whole idea of multitasking as something good is based on the assumption that life is about getting things done,” he writes. But “human life, and Christian life, is more about love than about accomplishments. How would lovers think of multitasking? Would the young woman being courted be pleased to have her lover texting while they are on a date? Would she not justly expect that he would pay attention to her and her alone when they were together?”
Ousley is the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel in Philadelphia, a parish of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the special body created for American Anglicans who want to enter the Catholic Church. Writing in his Rector’s Chronicle, he points out that if we cultivate distractedness by multitasking, we’ll be distracted when we pray. He suggests that “we strive to attend to the one thing before us, and cultivate the discipline of single-tasking, so far as possible.”
Multitasking, in other words, is a habit rather than a skill, or maybe it’s a skill that becomes habitual. Sometimes necessary, as he notes, but otherwise, just turn off the television and ignore the text messages when you read.
The London Daily Telegraph reports that “A late-night reveller caught urinating in the street was told by the judge: ‘This isn’t France, you know.’”
“One political issue about which we’ll hear much less for three or four years—or ever again, conceivably—is abortion-on-demand,” wrote Russell Kirk . . . in December 1972, a month before seven Supreme Court justices swept away every state restriction on abortion and began a period of forty years (and counting!) in which the issue has dominated American politics like no other.
He was reporting on referenda held six weeks earlier, in which support for abortion was defeated in Michigan 61 to 39 percent (despite the support of the United Automobile Workers, the Teamsters, and some other unions) and by a four-to-one margin in North Dakota. Not that the Supreme Court cared.
The religious world was certainly more pro-choice then than it is now. Kirk mentions a Duncan Littlefair, then the well-known pastor of the very liberal Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids, who argued in a public meeting that though human life is sacred, the child only becomes human by being socialized. And preferably socialized in a certain way. “Human life cannot be allowed to go on by chance,” he claimed, declaring that “the time will come when society will say who may have babies and who may not.”
Our pro-choicers no longer talk like that. They now talk mainly about human freedom and autonomy, with occasional nods to the tragic choices people must make. The eugenics line is rarely heard, but we suspect it still matters to some of them.
It seems to have mattered a lot to Littlefair, who told the meeting, “We must assume total control of life.” Meaning, Kirk notes, “total control by persons of the Littlefair persuasion.” As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. . . . For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Or as Littlefair put it, “I believe in the sanctity of human life in my terms.”
As we write, the Yankees have been swept in four games by the Detroit Tigers, who crushed them in the last game 8 to 1. Gloom reigns among their fans at the ignominious end to their season. For some of us, Red Sox fans for example, our season ended ignominiously at about the third week.
Despite, and this galls the true fan, the team’s spending vast amounts of money on new players, including some who just weren’t going to be that good, and everyone but the general manager seemed to know it. Baseball guru and Red Sox adviser Bill James says, “After we had been very successful for a long time, we lost sight of the fact that we were still capable of making huge blunders. We sort of started to assume that whatever we did would work out.”
This explains so many seemingly inexplicable decisions in life. You get told that you’re smart enough times, you begin to believe it, and you start spending money wildly. Presumably you feel that he who is successful with little will be much more successful with a lot. Most of the time, such people and their enterprises wind up like this year’s Red Sox.
This explains, among other things, the federal budget.
He wrote the stories on which the movies Blade Runner (a classic of its sort), Total Recall, and Minority Report were based, and was a kind of Christian believer, was Philip K. Dick. (“The infinite mercies of God make no sense whatsoever,” he said, apparently appreciatively, after he survived what he called a “spectacular” attempt to kill himself.) He had, according to his friend Tim Powers—himself Catholic and the author of bestselling novels that fascinatingly blend the historical and supernatural—several apparently mystical experiences.
Near the end of his life (he died in 1983 at the age of 52), Dick called Powers to say he’d figured out the mystery of the universe, and for some reason Powers asked him to put his answer into a limerick. When Powers arrived at Dick’s home a few hours later, Dick had written one:
The determinist forces are wrong
But irresistibly strong
While of God there’s a dearth
For he visits the Earth
But not for sufficiently long.
But he also provided a different ending:
But of God there’s no dearth
For he visits the Earth
Though just for sufficiently long.
We like the second ending better than the first, and are glad to know that God’s visits were for Philip K. Dick at least possibly sufficiently long.
Judging from our correspondence, there really is, out there, such a thing as Islamophobia. Muslims, several letter-writers have said, worship a demon, and others insist that Islam is not a religion at all but a political philosophy, and a very dangerous one at that. This was not the belief of our founder, writing eight years ago.
Fr. Neuhaus insisted, in response to critical letters he had gotten even then, that “Christians, Jews, and Muslims agree that the God we are disagreeing about is the God of Abraham who spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” That said, he continued, “Christians hold that Jews and Muslims are not worshiping God rightly—as the Father who revealed Himself in the Son and is understood by the guidance of the Spirit in Christ’s body the Church.” But God is the same God across this particular board.
The New York Post’s editors write some great headlines—“Headless Body in Topless Bar” being the most famous—and let us tell you, an editor could die happy after writing that one—but one that appeared at the end of the Yankees’ season wasn’t so good: “Girardi’s Father Passes Away, Will Manage Yankees Tonight.”
As one of us here occasionally tells others of us here, that’s why even editors need editors.
The writer, explaining that he is gay and feels “very strongly that gay relationships should be supported by society,” insists that marriage is “an immutable term that can only apply to heterosexuals.” Which is nice to hear, especially coming from a writer in the Washington Post.
But Doug Mainwaring doesn’t really concede much. “We should welcome the opportunity to christen a new tradition,” he continues, “beginning a new chapter in the history of gays and lesbians within American society. Same-sex relationships are different from heterosexual relationships, and gay men and lesbians need to accept that and design their own tradition.”
What exactly that tradition would be is a question. It probably wouldn’t be a version of marriage like civil unions, which are really only marriages under a different name, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto, though slightly less social status. More likely, he means a relation that’s settled and recognized but more sexually expansive and legally less restrictive than marriage, an ideal sexual relation that various homosexualist writers have promoted.
We’re not sure that’s really much of an improvement. A society’s investment in marriage isn’t just about the commitments the married themselves accept, but about the direction and control of sexual desire.
Most people between fifty and eighty remember the days when good, politically sensitive Americans were supposed to stop buying certain things in protest, solidarity, etc. For some of us, the Cesar Chavez–led boycott of California grapes helped form our childhoods.
Now the boycott is more a conservative than a liberal method—perhaps because so many liberals are now conservatives and remember the political techniques of their youth—but in any case, it’s often a nearly perfect example of cheap grace, though not as perfect as those groups that make you feel virtuous when you buy something for yourself.
Writing on his New Agrarian website (newagrarian.com, in case you want to look it up), David Walbert offers a way to take this kind of action without feeling smug about it:
Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.
The one thing you do, he continues, should not include spending money, but it should include sacrificing something. This sacrifice “need not be anything major; this isn’t about grand gestures. It could be as simple as resetting the thermostat (or doing without HVAC entirely for a day) before you sign that petition about fracking, or remembering to take your own container to the co-op to fill from the peanut butter grinder before you send that email about drilling in the Arctic.”
In fact, he writes, “it might be better if it’s a very small thing but one that can become a habit, because then every time you do it you’ll be reminded of how paltry a thing it is, and of how much more you ought to be doing.”
Okay, we live and work in Manhattan, but still, we sympathize with the concerns of our friend and writer Patrick Deneen and his peers in the Front Porch Republic movement. A few months ago, Pat raised a minor fuss when he wrote about leaving Georgetown University and Washington, D.C., for Notre Dame and South Bend, Indiana. Some people thought he was abandoning his post on the front lines.
He discusses on his weblog the effects of our elites congregating in a few “super-zips” (elite zip codes) in Washington, Boston, New York, and a few other cities, noting that no matter what their political commitments—67 percent are liberal, 19 percent conservative, according to Charles Murray—“they in fact have far more in common in their ‘lifestyle’ and general worldviews and outlook on how life should be lived.” These people
are essentially trained to be concerned about the affairs of the world, to seek to change the world, at least at the scale of the nation-state, if not the international scale. . . . They are in fact more commonly and deeply bound by a shared perspective that what matters is the big and the expansive.
These elites live where they live because places like Manhattan and Georgetown “are places attractive to people who seek to transcend any particular locality and become citizens of the world. As thought and opinion leaders, they help to foster a national and international consensus that the things that really matter are the things that are being debated and discussed in Washington.”
Pat sees it differently. He is, he writes, “learning to leave Washington” and trying to learn that life in the place he lives deserves his attention and care “far more than whatever the debate I’m told to care about by my betters who seek to focus my attention on the national and international stage.”
Today’s trivia: There were 228,000 new cases of leprosy in the world in 2009, according to the World Health Organization. Over half occurred in India, with 37,600 reported in Brazil and 17,300 in Indonesia.
Last month we criticized the mistaken but understandable proposal of some Anglican bishops for a U.N. declaration outlawing the insulting of other people’s religions. They live and work in Muslim areas, after all.
My friend Mark Barrett writes: “But they deny the moral agency of the Muslims. They think that unless someone controls others’ speech, of course Muslims will fly into a rage and chop people’s heads off because they are not fully human and responsible. In the Western mind, they are still savages. The colonialist mindset doesn’t really change. Its application changes, but the mind remains.”
Mark notes the difference in the English response to the IRA and to Muslim terrorists. “I’m always grimly amused when the Islamists set off bombs in London and the overarching response of the British establishment is to blame Blair and British policy, wring their hands, ask how can we help the Muslim ‘communities,’ attack Israel, say it’s our fault, etc. Apparently this new-found sensitivity developed after, oh let’s say, 1997.”
In response to an item last month about the very bad argument that homosexuality must be okay because Jesus didn’t say anything about it, our friend Gerry McDermott notes that Jesus did give his teaching on the matter, “albeit implicitly, when he condemned porneia (sexual sin) in Mark 7 as evil. All Jews knew that porneia was defined in Leviticus 18 and 20, where the only sexual sin that merits the description to’eva (abomination) is male homosexual practice.”
Readers may be interested in the weblogs written by our writers. Here are some:
• Edward Peters’ In the Light of the Law (canonlawblog.wordpress.com)
• Peter Berger’s Religion and Other Curiosities (blogs.the-american-interest.com/berger)
• Leroy Huizenga’s personal weblog (leroyhuizenga.com/category/blog) and that of the Christian Leadership Center he directs (clcumary.com).
• Patrick Deneen’s What I Saw in America (patrickdeneen.blogspot.com).
“I hope,” says our friend and writer Thomas A. Howard, that the Center for Faith and Inquiry he runs at Gordon College will “distinguish itself as a place on the Evangelical academic landscape that takes seriously the vita contemplativa—that works against, in other words, what Mark Noll famously called ‘the scandal of the evangelical mind.’” He also hopes it will draw together Christians from the different traditions in a John 17 kind of way.
The center will have, by the time you read this, hosted a talk by the editor on “Piety and the Life of the Mind.” For more information, see gordon.edu/cfi.
In one of the book reviews she wrote for her diocesan newspaper—now there’s a lesson in humility for writers—Flannery O’Connor wrote, apparently wishfully, “If the Church were equipped with a reverse index which required that certain books be read . . . .” We know the feeling. Just the Catechism and the papal encyclicals as they appear would be a great start. But with the abolishing of the Index of Prohibited Books—something O’Connor obeyed scrupulously—is lost the possibility of an Index of Required Books.
Nevertheless, we hope that First Things is required reading and on your personal reverse index. If you know other people who might want to add it to theirs, send us their names and addresses, and we’ll send them a sample copy. Just write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
while we're at it sources: Inhuman Transhumanism: New Scientist, September 15, 2012. Chaput on suffering: payingattentiontothesky.com, September 14, 2012. Obedient Jesuits: frvanhove.wordpress.com, October 6, 2012. Muslim brides: The Spectator, October 13, 2012. Against multitasking: ordinariatephiladelphia.org, October 2012. Not done in France: telegraph.co.uk, October 9, 2012. Red Sox lessons: sportsonearth.com, September 12, 2012. Philip K. Dick’s religion: Orange County Weekly, July 4, 2002. Neuhaus on God: First Things, May 2004. Headlines: nymag.com, October 11, 2012. Smug boycotts: newagrarian.com, October 3, 2012. Leaving Washington, patrickdeneen.blogspot.com, October 9, 2012. O’Connor’s reverse index: The Presence of Grace, edited by Carter Martin.
wwai tips: Mark Barrett, Robert Grano, Nathaniel Peters.