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New-Time Religion


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.

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