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What is the Value of Religion?
Lincoln Cannon   Dec 4, 2014   Ethical Technology  

The value of religion depends, of course, on what you mean by "religion". If religion is merelyeuphemization of escapism or nihilism, as it so often manifests itself, then it probably has a net negative value—"probably" only because I can imagine some poor unfortunate souls that are constituted in ways that are painfully incompatible with the world as presently or possibly configured. Too many of us use religion or are used by religion to stop caring about the world and each other, except to the extent it and we happen to be "good" already. 

Editor's Note: This article was published to help balance the opinions presented on the IEET. As far as we know there is no one way to think about the universe, however, obviously science is the dominating epistemology and ontology, and we think you will find this article intriguing.

Too many of us wait on God (or an analog) to solve our problems. Too many of us demand that others wait for God to solve our problems. Too many of us posit heaven (or an analog) far away in time or space -- or even as negation of time and space. Is it any surprise, then, that our world in practice reflects this escapism and nihilism?

If religion is merely an instigator of conflict over convoluted propositions about supernatural entities, as it also so often manifests itself, then again it probably has a net negative value -- here, "probably" only because I can imagine some that are constituted in ways that are stunningly incomprehensible to the rest of us, and whose expressions, if they form propositions at all, must inescapably baffle us while nonetheless being the greatest possible fulfillment of their will to relate with us. Some celebrate faith as irrationality, deriding science and reason, supposing their sacrifice to be required by God. Some indulge in superstition, carelessly embracing their own interpretation of experience without concern for reconciling others' interpretations and experiences. Some mindlessly repeat and otherwise consent to the positions of authorities under duress of social pressures.

​If, on the other hand, religion is any practice that provokes a communal strenuous mood, as I define it consequent to observing and considering others' observations of its actual function, there's a lot more to be said about the value of religion. While we can engage in practices that provoke us to a communal strenuous mood toward escapism and nihilism, we can also engage in practices that provoke us to a communal strenuous mood toward life in all its presence, embodiment, relations, and ecology. As religion can provoke us to terrible atrocities, so it can provoke us to wonderful charities. Religion, from this perspective, is a tool, a social tool, and the most powerful of social tools. And like all tools, it can be used for good or evil, and surely has been.

So we have a choice, individually, whether to engage the tool or not. Will we expose ourselves to the risks and opportunities, persuading each other, and joining in religious community? And yet, whether we recognize it or not, there's a risk and opportunity both ways. What kinds of communities and consequent experiences can arise only within the context of a shared strenuous mood? Do we value those? Can we pursue those opportunities in ways that mitigate associated risks? Can we, with wisdom and inspiration, design our religions for the better? Alternatively, can we mitigate the risks of irreligion? What could we lose by choosing against the religious impulse and drive? When the most vital moments of life come calling, perhaps when the very existence of our community is on the line, or when nothing less than our greatest aspirations suffice, will we have what it takes to come together?

It's interesting to note how many of my apparently technophilic peers are actually quite technophobic when it comes to social technologies. Many love the powerful gadgets of the introverts, while becoming squeemish at even a hint of the powerful processes of the extroverts. Many others engage the form of religion, ritualizing their gadget love beyond mere marketing, and yet cannot or will not see their behavior for what it is. Even now in this post, I'm engaging some of these social technophobes by employing secular descriptors for the religious phenomenon, as if they were somehow the most accurate descriptors, as if they could present the sublime in a general way rather than at best merely proxy for accounts that have evolved across many generations within the vocabularies of those who actually experience the sublime in ways that move them together.

The problem with secularism is not that it's evil, as some religious persons claim, but rather just that it's weak in itself. How could anything so bland be evil? How could anything devoid of the strenuous mood be a worthy foe for a God? Secularism certainly is useful in its own ways, and most particularly as a context in which to regulate competing religions and encourage them to non-destructive expressions. But of course it can do so only by aspiring to the disinterestedness of a referee at a sporting event, or by being as dry as a moderator at a debate. And in both cases the real value of the dry disinterestedness arises entirely from its relation to and service of the wet interestedness of the contenders.

How about Humanism? Is that an alternative to religion that rises above the weakness of mere secularism? Yes and no. Yes, it can be an alternative to religion, as many non-strenuous practices can be alternatives to strenuous practices. No, it doesn't rise above the weakness of secularism unless it is a religious Humanism, which of course is quite possible -- and in some forms even quite recommended, so far as I'm concerned. Recall that this assessment is not hypothetical, here, in context of my definition of "religion", in context of defining "religion" in terms of its observable historical and present function across the various phenomena we've commonly labeled as "religion". Only if we require a definition that narrows religion to presecular, supernatural, or irrational behaviors can we claim some forms of Humanism to be strenuous non-religious practices.

In any case, I'm a religious person. Surely that's in part for reasons beyond my ability to control. But I'm also religious, at least in part, quite intentionally. I trust in our capacity to engage in religion, to mitigate its risks, and to harness its power to provoke us to a shared strenuous mood for work toward a better world, beyond mere survival, beyond present notions of suffering and death, to radical flourishing in creation and compassion. I trust certain kinds of religion can take us there. I believe they're even necessary (albeit insufficient in themselves) to take us there, because nothing short of the religious drive to life may prove sufficient to counter the religious drive to death.

Lincoln Cannon is a technologist and philosopher, and leading advocate of technological evolution and postsecular religion. He is a founder, board member, and former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He is a founder and advisor of the Christian Transhumanist Association. And he formulated the New God Argument, a logical argument for faith in God that is popular among religious Transhumanists.


As always, of all the champions of “religion” (I use the quotation marks because definition is indeed everything), Lincoln does the best job!

For me, the key is the following: “Only if we require a definition that narrows religion to presecular, supernatural, or irrational behaviors can we claim some forms of Humanism to be strenuous non-religious practices,” where I would take issue with just two aspects: firstly, the word “only” suggests that such a narrow definition of religion is not a sensible or convincing definition to use, and I’m still not entirely convinced of this (though I’m not entirely unconvinced of it either), and secondly I think transhumanism does a far better job of invoking the strenuous mood than humanism, which is one of the reasons why I find transhumanism (admittedly, another word that requires definition) so compelling. (The other being that it seems far more future-proof than more traditional forms of humanism.)

Why am I not entirely convinced that adopting a definition of religion that limits it to pre-secular, supernatural or irrational behaviours is a bad idea? In part, because so much religious behaviour I see around me does seem to fit that definition rather well. On the other hand, I also see merit in adopting a definition of religion that actually allows it to be a good thing to practice, at least for some of us, including those of us think we can do better than pre-secular, supernatural and irrational behaviours. Perhaps we can agree that the “extrovert social technologies” to which Lincoln refers, and at which religion indeed excels, are essential and (with due caution) to be welcomed, and leave it as an open question whether and when it is appropriate to refer to them as “religion”?

Thanks for commenting, Peter. We’re on the same page. smile

This is an interesting discussion. Over at the Kurzweil Forum, there has been some vehement discussions (when are there not?) concerning whether or not there can be religious Transhumanism? I have always held that there can and should be religious Transhumanists. Of course most people will hang with a kind of atheism or agnosticism on the matter. Since I value personal freedom I would opt for a Transhumanism that is kind of like a salad bar, in that you take only what you need. If religion doesn’t work for you, then drop it like a bag of wet cement. If it does click for you, then it’s something worth continuing with to the ultimate future.

To my mind Lincoln, if religion does not sustain one emotionally then it may be fairly, judged, as a hindrance. If it does sustain one emotionally, then it’s a really good thing. Beyond this and for the present and the future, there is the question condition of human mortality. If your version of Mormonism , Lincoln, then your religion like all religions like all philosophies, must deal with the concept, or proposal for some kind of afterlife. The case of Transhumanism, it must be scientifically based. To be more precise, it’s the possibility for human transcendence. On the other hand, if a religion has a fix for the human condition, I would say this faith or philosophy has Won the future. 

Best Regards,


P.S. Hey Peter!

Hmm.. I’d like the term ‘communal strenuous mood’ defined.  I’m guessing you may mean group cohesion?  Religion can definitely lead to group cohesion.  Of course other things do this too, like nationalism, racism, etc.  As you point out it can lead to things both positive and negative.
Religion has been used as a tool by many states and kings down through the ages. It’s certainly not something to be ignored.  It’s true that science and secularism can fail to excite.  Why is, say debunking UFOs less exciting than believing in them?  As Wim Wenders asked, why is there no epic of peace?  When you appeal to an emotive state, you can be playing with fire.  As one study I read mentioned, love and hate may be intimately linked within the human brain.

Instamatic, I agree. Also, in addition to and perhaps even more profoundly affecting than the ethical systems, the esthetic systems of religion move communities in unparalleled ways, and they too can be observed, documented, and ultimately perhaps even quantified in practically applicable ways.

The Darwinian point is important. Let’s remember that biological evolution (competition between genes) is being replaced by technological/ideological evolution (competition of memes). Religions are clearly memes, which is why it is possible to talk about religions “winning the future” (Hey Mitch!). How sustainable this process is is another question: I guess it’s still possible that human civilisation will collapse, the viruses and bacteria will take over, and/or some other species, and biological evolution will once again rule the day. For now the two compete, and the human brain is one of the arenas where they compete: our hard-wired, survival-and-reproduction-oriented behaviours versus those that result from social technologies such as religion.

One further point: as a moral subjectivist I see ethical systems as essentially a subset of esthetics. Ethics, from a moral subjectivist perspective, is essentially a set of preferences about how we should behave and what it depends on. However, I do think Lincoln may be underestimating how powerful some esthetic systems that we don’t normally regard as “religion” are in moving people. Secular Western society is not “weak”, it is a cauldron of competing, interacting esthetic systems that move people in various ways, from football to politics to nightclubs. For some, religion forms a compelling part of the mix, for others, not really.

One question that may be important for the future is how effective religions can actually remain in moving communities once they are stripped of their escapist, delusional components. For the moment, the most vibrant, resurgent religions seem to be the most delusional ones.

Thanks for all of the additional comments!

Peter, as you acknowledge implicitly, my position is in part a criticism of that which secularists normally regard as religion. If I were satisfied with normal secular accounts of religion, I would be more anti-religious than I am. However, I consider normal secular accounts of religion to be too narrow for various practical reasons I mention or link to in my post. Self-identifying secularists who engage communally-provocative esthetics while declaring themselves non-religious seem to me like monotheists that might position themselves as non-religious compared to polytheists.

Spud100, I agree with you, of course, that there SHOULD be religious Transhumanists. For your friends that debate whether there CAN be religious Transhumanists, I’ll just note that the case is closed: not only can there be, there simply ARE religious Transhumanists (MTA members alone number about 500), and they may even be increasing in number at a faster rate than non-religious Transhumanists presently. Here are some related thoughts:

Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” is obviously pertinent here, since it deals precisely with the “extrovert social technologies” at which religion excels. One thing that seems to mark religion apart from other (perhaps softer, even weaker?) social technologies, however, is the emphasis they place on faith. Lincoln I’d be interested in your views on this. As Instamatic says, we can’t live withut certain delusions, but for me the single most important distinction between religion and secular thought is that the former prioritises faith while the latter prioritises doubt and critical thought. Would it be fair to say that there needs to be a balance between the two?

Yes, Peter. I do think there needs to be a balance. Your question reminds me of our conversation about one of my previous IEET articles:

I suppose I would even go so far as to say that faith (an archaic word for “trust”, which I much prefer) is not even merely compatible with critical thought, but actually strongly complementary.

Fully agreed: faith and doubt are complementary, and precisely for that reason need to be held in balance. Precisely where to strike that balance must be to some extent a matter of taste, and I guess it must be correlated in some way with people’s attitude to religion, though not in a particularly simple way. In any case, it is important to value both in my view.

It was interesting to read the earlier thread! Re faith vs trust, to me they have somewhat different connotations, and the word “faith” does fill a gap left by “trust”. For example, I’m not sure there’s any way to use the word “trust” that packs the same punch as telling someone to “have faith”.

Yes. For most, the words do have different connotations. Although I’m not a fan of that, I still have to navigate the practical ramifications, such as the one you point out.

Instamatic, I share your embrace of Darwinism, and I agree that timelines (and outcomes) are mostly imagination. That’s not all bad. An important kind of truth is created, and an important kind of created truth depends on our intention subsequent to imagination.

To clarify, I don’t think religion is inherently positive or negative. I think it’s powerful, the most powerful social tech, and it’s up to us to make positive or negative use of it.

Agreed, Instamatic.

If religion is technology, then asking whether religion is good or bad is like asking whether technology is good or bad. Some forms of technology would indeed seem to be better than others, though it depends on context: even the bomb might not appear so bad if it nudges away an incoming asteroid. Likewise, perhaps even the forms of religion we currently consider most odious have their (potential) uses: as Lincoln says, it’s what we make of them. My experience of religion was a tad more fire-and-brimstone than yours, Instamatic, but not hugely so. On the other hand, take away the fire and brimstone and it can start to appear insipid. People start to drift away - or invent revivalist, fundamentalist versions of it that seem more compelling.

I very much like what Lincoln says about imagination creating an important kind of truth. It makes us aware of the possibilities, and how we feel about them. The future is not something merely to try to predict, it is something we should try to shape. If it was entirely predictable, there would be no point in predicting it, since doing so would not change anything. Soros (following Popper) understands this very well, more than most.

On Darwinism, an important distinction is to be made between Darwinism as an empirical theory and Darwinism as a normative ethic. The latter is not Darwinism at all, of course, in its original sense, yet the two do get conflated. As an empirical theory Darwinism is essential; as a normative ethic it is problematic.

Instamatic, I do think there are many positives about the LDS Church—as implied by the fact that I’m a member of it. I am not, however, indiscriminate in my assessment of the Church. There are also shortcomings, both in its history and in its policies and practices, as there are in all of our institutions. Like them, the LDS Church is a tool, which hopefully we will continue to use in better ways. I’m optimistic about that, but I also want to be realistic about it.

The thing about the historical Jesus is that we know virtually nothing about him for sure. All we really know is what some of the first Christians wrote about him. Obviously much of what they wrote is made up, and to the extent that some of it is based, however loosely, on events that actually took place, it is questionable whether the Jesus portrayed in the gospels corresponds even roughly to one individual who actually existed. We just don’t know. As a working assumption, I’m willing to apply Occam’s razor and assume that he did exist, and was even crucified under Pontius Pilate. Why not? It does seem to be the simplest theory that fits the evidence (i.e. the existence of the gospels and related manuscripts). But it’s still just a theory.

As for God, clearly there are different conceptions and definitions, and the traditional Christian one is a thoroughly patriarchal one. He is also, very obviously, a figment of our collective imagination. Did Someone actually create the universe we inhabit? Sure, if we’re in a sim. But this Creator - or these Creators - certainly bear little resemblance to the Christian God. There was no garden of Eden, neither was there an original sin. That guilt trip has to be thoroughly rejected.

Of course, none of this need prevent us from drawing inspiration from our respective religious traditions. Even if the historical Jesus (if such a person existed) seems unlikely to have been a deserving object of our worship, there is nothing to stop us inventing, and worshipping, a legendary Jesus, perhaps even the Jesus of the gospels. As I’ve said before, the important thing from my perspective is to avoid taking our suspension of disbelief too far.

I don’t want to escape my past. I want to live effectively in the present. And that present indeed includes millions of educated people - and not only in mid-America - who have been indoctrinated by friends, family. and the lifestyle they have built around them, to believe in Biblical inerrancy. And the fact that this includes members of my close family is a large part of what drives my interest on this issue. I don’t resent them, but I do want to understand them, in order to relate to them better.

As for control freaks (religious or otherwise), in my experience the important thing is to clarify one’s boundaries and stick to them…religiously.

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