The West, we are told, has entered the secular age. Religious faith is irreversibly shriveling, opening space for a society governed by reason. What such statements miss is that while traditional religion may well fade, 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, they will be replaced not by unbelief but by different creeds.
Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than the recent rise of transhumanism, a futuristic social movement that offers a worldly transcendence through faith in technology. Why consider ourselves made in the image and likeness 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 University of Oxford’s Nick Bostrom assure believers that science will soon wipe away 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.
I took in this new religion at the recent Religion and Transhumanism Conference in Piedmont, California. The human heart’s thirst for meaning was epitomized by the opening speech of conference organizer Hank Pellissier, director of the Brighter Brains Institute. He seems a very sweet man—evinced by his stated zeal for “charity,” which he criticized transhumanism for lacking. (More on that in a bit.) Pellissier traveled a long and peripatetic road to transhumanism—from Catholic, to hippie, to Daoist, to Quaker, to an atheism so “militant” that he once organized an atheists’ conference that included a “Bible-throwing contest.” When he found Dawkins-style atheism “too bashing,” he embraced transhumanism—although he now is thinking of converting to Judaism (Reformed, he assured the audience) because one of the lesbians in a couple to whom he donated sperm is a rabbi.
The religious nature of transhumanism was described by the conference’s keynote speaker Ted Peters, a professor emeritus at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley who researches how “displaced religious sensibilities resurface in secular forms.” He sees transhumanism as aspiring to replace the worship of God with a perception of evolution as something of a mystical force to which “homage must be paid.” Transhumanists view evolution as ultimately increasing intelligence—a benevolent deity of sorts. Therefore, they assume a moral obligation to “increase evolution” to the end that “just as humanism freed us from the chains of superstition, transhumanism would free us from the chains of biology.” This goal will be fulfilled when we have successfully redesigned ourselves into “cosmic beings”—a technological new heaven and new earth.
To be sure, there is no liturgical worship in transhumanism, and it doesn’t see belief or behavior determining eternal destiny, as do traditional religions. Still, in his speech Peters noted that transhumanism—like traditional religion—perceives itself as a “grand vision in which all the broken things get fixed.” Later he told me, “Much of what we have gotten out of religions we now get from science and technology: human fulfillment, salvation, (the potential for) eternal life. So, ironically, discarded religious beliefs come back disguised in scientized forms.”
Or not so disguised, as in the case of the Raelian science cult. Its representative—the almost surely pseudonymous Felix Clairvoyant—presented two videos on the supposed encounter of cult leader “Rael” with space aliens. Unlike orthodox transhumanists, Raelians deny evolution; they claim that all life on earth was intelligently designed by extraterrestrial visitors. That point of doctrine aside, the Raelians and transhumanists have much in common. Both deny theism and embrace scientism as the way to attain ultimate truth. Thus, Raelians claim that our interstellar “creators” are already trans-humans. Through applied biotechnology and other scientific advances, their bodies last for one thousand years. When they can no longer be maintained, their minds are uploaded into 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. O Death, where is thy sting?
Meanwhile, Jason Xu, a “community organizer” for “Terasem,” a transhumanist church of sorts, told the audience that by embracing rituals, people who reject God can defend themselves against the gravitational pull of “nihilism and secular pessimism.” Terasem’s “devotion to technoutopianism” thus provides transhumanists with “the fulfillment and syncretization of all faiths.” Its four “core beliefs” range from platitudinous to wishful: 1) life is purposeful, 2) death is optional, 3) God is technological, and 4) love is essential.
What does this mean in practice? In Xu’s telling, it was all pretty vague. There are no creeds to which one has to adhere, nor moral codes to follow. Instead, Terasems cohere around a devotion to technology in the understanding that it will take more than achieving post-humanity to give meaning to daily life. To fill the spaces in the soul left empty by that God who is technological, Terasems meet regularly to share art, poetry, and music, and to do yoga.
Terasem comes across as Unitarian Universalism squared. Xu assured the audience that one can be a Terasem and a Catholic, Orthodox Jew, Buddhist, faithful Muslim, or member of any other religion. This would come as a surprise to many believers. After all, if God is “technological,” where does that leave the omnipotent God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? This was not a question Terasems seem to be asking. Maybe theology, like death, is optional.
Not a problem for Mormons, it seems, at least not if we believe Lincoln Cannon, a Latter-day Saint and cofounder of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He claims that Mormonism “mandates transhumanism.” According to Cannon, Mormonism is a “materialist religion, in which everything is matter and God is material.” Indeed, he said, “even God did not start as God.” Moreover, the transhumanist idea of recreating deceased loved ones through cloning or other technologies is consistent with the Mormon interest in genealogy and the faith’s practice of baptizing the dead. Thus, rather than rejecting their faith, Mormon transhumanists can come to the movement because of their religion. Or so says Cannon. Mormon authorities, I suspect, would disagree.
New Mexico State University English professor Mike LaTorra presented the Buddhist perspective on transhumanism. He also argued that Buddhism “mandates” a transhumanist pursuit. “Life is not satisfactory because of suffering,” and transhumanism can be the path leading to something better. An extended life span and the material abundance that hyper-technology will create will allow Buddhists to pursue their practice with greater concentration. Thus, with “transhumanism at the base,” the seeker will be better able to attain “transcendence at the apex.”
Buddhism and Mormonism notwithstanding, according to a recent poll the belief of most transhumanists is atheism. Zoltan Istvan writes for the Huffington Post and authored a novel called The Transhumanist Wager. He offered the atheistic point of view, flatly stating that transhumanism unequivocally “cuts at the core of” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “If you don’t have restrictions that religion casts upon our moral system,” he said, “you [are] more free to think.” As people learn they can “live indefinitely,” religion will erode, since people will stop worrying about death. Istvan also argued that for transhumanism, the only hope is 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!
Although the sects disputed finer points of doctrine at the conference, it is clear to me that transhumanism aspires to be what monotheism was to polytheism. It seeks to supplant theism as society’s reigning source of mores and values. If it can be said to worship anything, it is an intense and potentially eugenic 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, transhumanism offers consolation in suffering (we can eliminate it) and hope in the face of death (it’s “optional”).
Different strokes for different folks, as they say. But there are dangers. Terasemite principles aside, at the ten-hour conference there was little discussion of love for, or duties toward, others. The one exception was Pellissier, who ended the day with an angry story of excitedly organizing a charity drive to collect used cell phones for Africa from fellow transhumanists, only to receive zero responses from his brethren.
This sadly confirms my observations of transhumanism over the last ten years. Even the utopianism that should be one of its most attractive characteristics has a cruel aspect. 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.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.