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The End of Religion Misrecognized
Lincoln Cannon   Jan 28, 2015   lincoln.metacannon.net  

So much anti-religious dogmatism, so much misrecognized religiosity, so little time. It's a wonder to me that some clearly sophisticated persons can express such unsophisticated opinions about religion. Maybe it's just because we all have vested interests? On the one hand, those who have distanced themselves from tradition seek to justify their choice, as those who have continued to embrace tradition likewise would justify themselves. What's to be made of the strange creatures, arguably not so uncommon now or ever, that reject any notion of the choice being all or nothing or even mutually exclusive?

What's to be made of emerging culture that would both conserve and discard tradition in various ways to various extents?

History is littered with dead gods, so we say. And yet those gods seem to keep resurrecting themselves or each other, in an ongoing theological evolution. From the earliest inarticulate longings for transcendence, through acknowledged superhuman projections, and perhaps on into recursively self-realizing aspirations of superintelligent creation: the past, present, and hopefully the future are littered with living gods.

Will living gods endure? Will our descendants be too advanced to share such primitive beliefs? Maybe so, if we caricature the gods and their function as nothing more than supernatural superstition. On the other hand, will it ever be primitive to persist in trust that we can yet further transcend ourselves? If not, the gods will endure. Oh, they'll surely change. They'll evolve as they always have. And death or its analogs will continue to be part of evolution as they always have been. But intelligence, so long as it can, will continue to do what intelligence does: optimize across environments for its ultimate goals. And those goals are its gods, by any other name as divine -- don't like "divine" then go with "sublime" or whatever makes you happy while preserving the function.

Some suppose that the relevance of religion relies on suffering and death, and that suffering and death will be eradicated by emerging technology. I share their expectations regarding the eradication of suffering and death, so long as they're willing to qualify "suffering and death" with "as we experience them presently". If they're not willing to make that qualification, I'm confident they're in for some serious disillusionment, assuming they live long enough. A world without the analogs of suffering and death, without goals and change, is no world at all. Nihilism lies in that direction.

Beyond that, to suggest the relevance of religion relies on suffering and death is to under-appreciate the power of religion. The reasons are converses to those for which it would be nihilistic to suppose analogs of suffering and death could be meaningfully annihilated. The relevance of religion is in thriving and life. Life is indeed meaningless outside a context that includes analogs of suffering and death, but thriving is so much more than mere survival. Those of us who insist on explaining evolution in terms of mere survival have a ways to go, I contend.

In any case, in that superintelligent future, who will pray for solutions? Those who have moved on to new problems. Who will hope for grace from gods when science offers immortality? Those who recognize science can offer immortality without grace only to the extent it can offer a solution to the heat death of the universe without cooperation. Who will find their answers in ancient scriptures? Those who recognize new scripture informed of old scripture is always being written. It seems to me there will be plenty of praying for grace from gods into conceivable futures. But, but, but no one will call these things "scripture" or "prayer" or "grace" or "gods"? Meh. Those words have existed no longer than the age of the English language, and yet the phenomena they describe are uncontroversially far more ancient. Of course the words will change. That's uninteresting. What's interesting is whether and how and to what extent the associated phenomena will persist.

Those who point to technological assassination of God always do so in the most ironic way. God has been dying and will die, they say, because we will achieve all the powers we attribute to God. Uh. Ahem. Don't they see?!? By supposing technology capable of endowing us with the power of God, they are supposing us capable of becoming functionally equivalent to God. Functionally, they're appealing to the existence of God as an attempt to prove the non-existence of God! Squirm as they might, calling this "godlike" rather than "God", the irony remains.

In overcoming present notions of suffering and death, we would not make ancient aspirations of how to achieve such ends irrelevant. In confronting apocalyptic risk, messianic wonder, and millenarian opportunity, religion does not somehow come to an end. To the contrary, we would simply justify those fears and hopes at last, as prophecies fulfilled! Did we come up with the idea that overcoming them is possible? Did we do all the work that led, step by step, to our present capabilities? Did the old gods not inspire our ancestors along the way? Are not the new gods inspiring us still? Abstracting across old and new gods, is not the living God always leading us toward transformation?

Okay, yeah. I get it. It's easier to damn the old gods, misrecognize the new ones, and think lazily about function. But can we still, with a straight face, claim that prayer and ideology will not help? Can we embrace the reactionary anti-religious ideology without recognizing it as an ideology? Can we imagine the end of religion without recognizing such as a prayer? Can we raise our arms, stick out our chests, and pronounce moral obligation to relinquish religious beliefs with the fullest intent of provoking a communal strenuous mood to that end, and yet not recognize in our own behavior the persistence of the religious impulse?

Some of us manage to get away with this because we've somehow persuaded ourselves that religion is mostly or exclusively the silly and oppressive stuff that religious persons have thought and done. If a large group of persons support each other in thinking stupid thoughts, that's religion! If a whole bunch of us wind each other up to hurt themselves or each other, that's religion! If we come up with an organized way of opposing intellectual, technological, or moral progress then that, above all, that is religion!!! And yet no. Sorry. That's not religion.

​Yes, religion has been and is used to think and do stupid and oppressive and backwards and downwards. Yes, it's been used to think and do such to greater extents than any of us is capable alone. And yes, it seems nothing can compare to the power of religion to inspire evil. Yet that's just the point: power to inspire. Esthetic power. That is religion. And it has also been and is used to think and do smart and empowering and forwards and upwards. The same power that killed Platonic science in Athens elevated Platonic science in Rome. The same power that destroyed Aristotelian science in Christian Europe preserved it in Muslim Africa. The same power that tempted influential Arabs to dogmatism inspired influential Europeans to enlightenment. Religion may yet damn us. It is powerful enough for that. And it may yet save us. It's powerful enough for that too. That's because it's not inherently good or evil. It becomes good or evil as we apply its esthetic power for good or evil. And in doing so, we amplify the good and the evil.

Religion is not the enemy of the future. Neither is it the friend of the future. Religion is simply, and quite powerfully, going to be part of the future, whether anyone likes it or not. So indeed, if we are to survive and progress, we had better figure out how to mitigate the risks and pursue the opportunities that religion presents. Leaving it to chance could be even more disastrous than leaving nuclear weapons or synthetic biology or molecular engineering or machine intelligence to chance. When we leave power to chance, we're really just leaving it in someone else's hands. And that someone else might not have our interests in mind or in heart.

So let's learn through science, and let's govern through ethics, not confusing either of these with religion or as being incompatible with religion. Let's also reach deep into ourselves and broadly throughout time and space to make and find stories that move us together. Let's embrace these stories, building redemptively from ancient aspirations, through cultural and technological evolution, and on into cosmic evolution, that fill us with enduring passion to act strenuously. Let's adopt these stories that provoke us to nothing less than overflowing courage in the work to raise each other together beyond present notions of suffering and death to our transformation as radically compassionate creators. And let's recognize these stories as our religion, both old and new, together pointing the way to our potential with, in, and as God. 

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.



COMMENTS

Nicely written, it is parallel to my argument that religion is technology (software) which properly used leads to an evolution of ethics and improperly used leads to extremism and the rejection of reality.

Much like the internet can be a wealth of information and community or a place to post LOL cat memes.

This is the first modern commentary on religion that has made me think and explore new possibilities in quite a while.  Thanks!

Thank you, Pastor_Alex and kddubb.

“By supposing technology capable of endowing us with the power of God, they are supposing us capable of becoming functionally equivalent to God. Functionally, they’re appealing to the existence of God as an attempt to prove the non-existence of God! Squirm as they might, calling this “godlike” rather than “God”, the irony remains.”

Not much irony here, as the sense in which we can “become God” is recognized as figurative, the literal meaning of which remains a nonsense. Not quite sure what point you think you are cleverly making here, but it doesn’t strike me as one of much profundity.

Sure, religion has been implicated in much of the good and bad in the world. But to treat it all as one big homogeneous mass, as if there is no difference between Spinoza’s panentheism and Wahhabism, serves to obfuscate more than elucidate. I find that the picture you paint becomes much less rosy once we try to justify the elevation of an epistemic posture that prioritizes faith over reason or evidence. Sure, technologies are themselves neutral, though such neutrality dissipates once we consider the directions in which certain technologies bias our thinking, or lack thereof. Yes, one can use a handgun to give back rubs, but it’s much more effective at killing things.

Hi ShaGGGz. Only an arbitrarily narrow religion would conform to your position that becoming God is merely figurative and faith is prioritized over reason. Mormonism provides counter examples for both of those, in which becoming God is quite literally understood and reason is scripturally held in equal esteem with faith. Other examples can be given, and yet stronger examples will almost certainly rise going forward.

Claiming to hold reason in equal esteem with faith doesn’t make it so. Not treating the laughably obvious forgeries of a notorious polygamist conman as the word of God would strike me as closer to holding reason in its proper position relative to faith. And the Adam God doctrine that you reference, one among many doctrines abandoned when it became politically unsustainable, is a curious little exception to the usual omni-everything conception of God, but this curious quirk is not much more than that, with no relevance to the point I was making, and I think you know that.

SHaGGGz, I was not referring to Adam God doctrine. The Mormon idea of exaltation (theosis) stands quite independently of that, and it is quite mainstream. While I agree that claiming faith and reason should be equally esteemed isn’t in itself sufficient to make it so in practice, it likewise doesn’t change the doctrine that you and I know of failings to live up to the notion. You don’t like Mormonism or Joseph Smith. I empathize with the concerns you express, even if my assessment of the concerns is quite different, and yet the concerns are red herrings to the point of my article. Would you like to return to discussing the article, or is this going to become a discussion of a particular religion?

Returning to the article, do you recognize that the omni-everything that you reference was the product of Platonic science eventually integrated into religion by Neoplatonists? Yes. It has become quite influential today, but it is very far from an exhaustive account of the theological phenomenon. And yet, even that account of God approximates the aspirations of Transhumanists that imagine ourselves as posthuman computers of new worlds. It may never happen, but the religiosity, even if misrecognized, is presently at work.

It might as well have been Adam God, as it has the same meager evidentiary foundation. That this “theosis” doctrine is currently mainstream does nothing to change that, and the shifting nature of these doctrines demonstrates just how much more indicative of transient cultural phenomena than divine revelation such figments really are. You’re right, there’s no reason to single out Mormonism. Its relatively recent history makes discerning the contours of its falsity that much easier, though it belongs in the same scrapheap as the others.

No, I didn’t realize that about the Neoplatonists (funny you mention them, as the empirical basis of their musings made them the most worthwhile insights). Interesting a tidbit as it may be, it doesn’t transcend the base reality that these kinds of insights were made by people knowing far less than us about the world, which is reflected in said insights.

You’re right, SHaGGGz, that we know more, and the ongoing evolution of religion will reflect that. Two millennia ago, a Platonist and a Nazarene had a conversation. The Platonist told the Nazarene that religion was dying. The Nazarene told the Platonist that only polytheism was dying, and that Platonism would, for better or worse, soon become part of religion. You are the Platonist. I’m the Nazarene.

Agreed, Linc. I only react angrily to the notion that:
1. I need a priest/guru. Am over 18—way over 18—and don’t need a nanny, Safety Patrol officer or Hall Monitor to give directions. Save for technical matters, have read and heard nothing new for over four decades. BTW, it isn’t that you, pastor Alex, or any other religious person has nothing new to impart to neophytes—but frankly, personally have learned nothing concerning religion/spirituality at IEET or anyplace else.

IT is making progress, IMO spirituality is not.

In fact IMO social progress is a mirage moving ever distant into the future. As for faith per se, all we need to know we learned in Kindergarten. 

Once told you on FB that God is ‘merely’ Good sans the other ‘o’.
Will stick to that prognosis and feel no need at this time to discuss neoplatonism, Arianism, Armenianism, Calvinism, or the Dancing Wuli masters.

Ha. Yeah, Instamatic. If religion were limited to authoritarianism, I’d not be much interested either. We’ll see about progress, eh?  : )

It isn’t even anyone’s spiritual hermeneutics or apologetics I differ with- it is the priests/gurus/theologians themselves, case by case. If the theologian in question is Niehbur, then the difficulty is marginal.
But now take pastor Alex: he gets too much wrong.

For instance leading up to the Singularity we’ll not know “chaos”, as he wrote- we’ll experience dislocation.. quasi-chaos. After all, for instance, there’s a distinction to be made between being anarchic and being nihilistic. (btw I’m no anarchist: IMO Anarchism, large case ‘A’ is as gullible as Libertarianism, large case ‘L’).

I like Religion too much BTW. Ought to be more scientific and less a priori. What is dislikable is the idiosyncracies of priests/gurus/theologians. Am disinterested for example in what a Christian priest thinks of the Gospels—am interested in what Christ thought of the Gospels.

Progress? We wont ‘see’; we are progress. We are guinea pigs in an experiment, not spectators. We’re making up progress as we go along. Which is why I’m skeptical of the future of morality—it’s jerry-built constructs being altered and re-fashioned.
———————————-

At any rate, though, as all your articles, this one is worth reading,  only skimmed it because the philosophy holds no interest for me.. only the spiritual content. If I want philosophy, will read Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell.

I’m afraid Mr. Cannon has surrendered to a very mushy definition of “religion.”  Allow me to offer a more standard definition.  Religion—any set of beliefs, worldview, or life stance containing beliefs in the supernatural, such as beliefs in gods, God, angels, demons, Satan, spirits, souls, an afterlife, heaven, hell, recincarnation, etc.  Using that definition, most of Cannon’s claims in this essay don’t hold water.

He says:  “And yes, it seems nothing can compare to the power of religion to inspire evil. Yet that’s just the point: power to inspire. Esthetic power. That is religion.”
But it is idealism which has the power to inspire.  Religion is just one variation on the idealism theme, and not a very good one.

he says:  “Religion may yet damn us. It is powerful enough for that. And it may yet save us. It’s powerful enough for that too. That’s because it’s not inherently good or evil. It becomes good or evil as we apply its esthetic power for good or evil. And in doing so, we amplify the good and the evil.”
I disagree.  Religion is inherently evil.  Why?  Because it is based on superstition and falsehood.  We can be idealistic without being religious.

He says:  “Religion is not the enemy of the future. Neither is it the friend of the future. Religion is simply, and quite powerfully, going to be part of the future, whether anyone likes it or not. So indeed, if we are to survive and progress, we had better figure out how to mitigate the risks and pursue the opportunities that religion presents.”
Actually, religion is the enemy of the future.  It encourages an ineffective means to an end.  Religion will not be a part of the future in the long run.  Yes, we’d better figure out how to mitigate the risks of religion, while at the same time working for its elimination.

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