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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Religion and Transhumanism

Alex McGilvery

Ethical Technology

January 22, 2012

At first glance religion and transhumanism are at opposite poles of human endeavour. Religion with its superstitions and reliance on supernatural intervention is the very kind of thing that transhumanism is trying to free the human species from. Yet there are a lot of things that transhumanism can learn from religion. There are even things that could make transhumanism and religion partners in improving the human species.

Transhumanism in its simplest incarnation is about lifting humanity to the next level and freeing it from the physical and psychological crutches that hold it back.  We could leave our bodies and their problems behind. In many ways the body has taken us as far as it can. Its limitations are not just about our emotional and psychological upheavals, but the very real limitation of death. It is hard to get any work done when you know that your body is going to keel over after just seventy or eighty years of good working time.

We could also transform our bodies into something more durable and flexible. Drugs and other interventions might control our irrational behaviour and allow us to override instincts to create a true thinking man.

The goal of transforming humanity is a shared goal with most religions. In fact the entire purpose of religion is the transformation of humanity. Most religions wish to accomplish this task through relationship with the divine, while transhumanism seeks to use scientific progress to accomplish its work. Yet there are meeting points. The Cyborg Buddha project is one such meeting point, recognizing that many of the goals of Buddhism are compatible with that of transhumanism and that transhumanism may be a way of accomplishing the goals of Buddhism.

Beyond the Cyborg Buddha project we also have the need to convince the populace that there is a need for transformation. There is a perception that all too many people are content with their seventy odd years and a flat screen TV. There is a great desire for spiritual growth and learning, but not through the classical forms of religion. There is a huge opportunity for catching the imagination of people by allowing and even encouraging the use of spirituality to describe the goals and means of transhumanism. That meditation increases empathy in Tibetan monks and has other salutary effects is well known.  Meditation in a vacuum is a very difficult thing to sell. If meditation is connected to personal growth through something like Karate or Buddhism or even Catholicism, can we not also consider connecting meditation to the progress of science and specifically transhumanism?

Whether atheists or religious have a greater claim on charity is a moot point, but religions have been teaching charity or some form of it for centuries. How do we grow that kind of dedication for science in the people who we want to consider transformation through non-supernatural means? Many religions have built into their DNA the idea people have a responsibility to help their neighbours and especially the poor. If transhumanism were to tap into religious understanding of global charity, and not just as a way of getting money, we could also tap into a large reserve of untapped resources. If you wonder if there is any common ground between transhumanist goals and religions goals in this world look at the list of causes supported by member of if IEET; everything from support of the Occupy movement to opposition to global warming to advocacy for better schools and food for the children who go to them.  A cursory search of social justice sites will reveal that these are also religious causes.

One last thing that I firmly believe that transhumanism needs to learn is that humanity is messy. If you put three people in a room there will probably be four opinions. This is especially true when you approach matters of religion and spirituality. If we are able to approach people with the knowledge that while one person might think you are an incarnation of the devil, another person might find what you are doing rather interesting. David Brin talks in this video about using Genesis as a way of talking to religious people as a way of proselytizing atheism, by being able to talk their own language. The fascinating thing is that I agreed with almost everything he said about humanity being meant for scientific endeavour and exploring the cosmos. To talk to people in a way that will be heard we need to be able to use the language they use to describe the world. That doesn’t mean becoming religious, but it does mean recognizing, as David says, the way religious language works and how it can be used to reach out to people who might not otherwise consider the ideas of transhumanism.

This leads into how religion and transhumanism might become partners in some instances to make the world a better place. While the number of people attending religious services in the developed world is dropping and will probably continue to drop for a bit yet, there are still a significant number of people warming the pews on any given Sunday (or Friday, or Saturday). Imagine if those people could get excited about the possibilities and challenges that life extension, artificial intelligence and the rest brought to the world. And I mean excited because they are positive contributions, not because they are the devils work. Believe it or not, the fanatical conservatives are in a minority, they just get better press. Having religious people interested and excited about the potential of science and part of the discussion of the ethics of new technologies will mean advocates in the congregations that might otherwise become groups of people fearful of change. Those advocates will be the ones who will challenge negative assumptions about science and its goals.

Transhumanism will need to find some way of dealing with religion because as numbers are dropping in the developed nations, they are increasing in the developing world. If there is no comfortable place to meet, then religion and science will continue to divide the world in an artificial and unhelpful manner. There are already discussions about the conjunction of religion and science around the globe. Transhumanism needs to be part of that discussion and not simply known for rejecting the concept of religion entirely. Again it isn’t about advocating for religion, but learning the language so that knowledge can cross the barrier.


Partnership will also be useful in naming religions that are not “religious”. The neo-liberal economic theories that are driving the global economy is one such faith. The faithful claim that if governments are austere enough, small enough, then everyone will see prosperity. They hold this to be true in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary. This austerity thinking will affect the scientific community as governments cut research programs. Consumerism is an offshoot of neo-liberalism with its claims that you can buy happiness.  The consumerist focus is on product and not pure research. If it isn’t going to pay out in the short term, it isn’t worthwhile. The global warming debunkers are yet another example. They give science a bad name by picking and choosing data and confusing science with political posturing. The truth is that some religion is just bad. Religions that tries to change science to match faith or which demand blind obedience are going to lead to ignorance. If you want to challenge bad religion, you will find no better partner than good religion which encourages critical thinking about the world and one’s place in it. Look at the Christian left for instance; you will see a stronger condemnation of the absurdities of the fanatical right than from any humanist source.

Now I know at this point there are people saying “The only good religion is no religion.” Maybe so, but right or wrong the human species is a long way from being free of the need for religions. They might trade Sunday at church for Sunday at the mall, but they are seeking the same thing – meaningful lives. While religion may or may not add meaning to existence, there is no doubt that buying more stuff adds little but bills. Until science and transhumanism can offer the promise of some meaning and purpose to existence, some people are going to worship something that gives even the faint possibility of hope.

The fact of the matter is that it is immaterial whether religion is “right” or not. It is possible to work together using the different strengths and networks of both the scientific and religious communities to transform the world and the people who inhabit it. The notion that science and faith must be at odds is relatively modern and it is false. Science and faith can and do work in partnership.

It is a just question of choice.

Alex McGilvery is currently living in Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada. He is an author and serves as the minister of a thriving United Church congregation.


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