Future Tense

Thinking Outside the Old Religious Box

Transhumanism is complicating the sometimes antagonistic relationship between faith and science.

Robot angel.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

With the passing of Stephen Hawking, the world mourns the loss of one of its greatest minds. His grand intellectual ambitions pushed the boundaries of human knowledge, tackling the most profound questions of existence that border on the spiritual. Although himself an atheist, Hawking once wrote in A Brief History of Time that finding a true theory of everything “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.”

Sometimes, religious language is necessary to express such a transcendent concept. But as our yearning for transcendence becomes increasingly religious, and as religion becomes conceptually divorced from God, the line between science and religion blurs. Transhumanism is disrupting the debate on science and religion by showing us a new way of framing the issue.

Transhumanism is the idea that technology should be used to extend beyond human limitations, like “aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.” This is no small order, but some go even further by including immortality on the transhumanist agenda. There are transhumanists who expect miraculous cures and artificial superintelligence to occur in their lifetime, while others see these innovations as visions of the distant future. But regardless of your beliefs about what lies ahead, many would say that our cyborg future is already here.

Hawking served on the scientific advisory board of the Future of Life Institute, a research organization studying catastrophic risks to the human species. At a recent panel discussion organized by the FLI, fellow advisory board member Elon Musk reminded his audience that “we are, all of us, already cyborgs. You have a machine extension of yourself in the form of your phone, and your computer, and all of your applications. You are already superhuman.” Musk has a point. We have more access to information in our pocket-size phones than the president of the United States did just a few decades ago. Musk continues: “These are magical powers that didn’t exist not that long ago.” In religious language, technology is making the miraculous a reality. Whether you think eternal life is just around the corner or just like knowing a new iPhone will come out this year, we are all transhumanist now.

Millenials grew up under the technological halo of Moore’s law, enjoying booming exponential growth of computation power that ushered in the information age. It should come as no surprise that transhumanism has earned a degree of mainstream acceptance—from Hollywood movies to magazine covers and the latest sci-fi TV. Transhumanist beliefs will continue to permeate culture as long as the promise of technological progress holds its end of the bargain.

These transhumanist attitudes powerfully condition the way we think about science and technology, without us even noticing. Being immersed in a rapidly accelerating technoculture of software updates and constant exposure to progress teaches us to adapt to technological change like adjusting to the temperature of a swimming pool. The extent to which technology constructs our view of the world (and our place in it) is so all-encompassing that it goes beyond how we interact with our devices to include how we conceive of religion.

The relationship between science and religion has a long and complex history. Most recently, the New Atheist movement became the public-facing brand of the culture war between science and religion over the past decade. This exchange played out in numerous articles, books, and public debates as intellectuals such as the late Christopher Hitchens (a Slate contributor) became famous for arguments advancing the idea of an unbridgeable divide between reason and people of faith. However, transhumanism has blurred the line between science and religion. To understand how this works, it’s useful to reframe the debate by rethinking what counts as religious.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote on how technology influences religion, and his analogies prove useful here. In his book Homo Deus, Harari talks about how “technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious visions, like a waiter that demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. New Technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.” This is why our modern technoculture holds the potential of actually creating new forms of religious expression. In fact, this has already started to happen.

For instance, Silicon Valley engineer Anthony Levandowski—whom you may know from the Uber-Waymo lawsuit over self-driving car technology—recently launched the Way of the Future Church, a new religious organization based on developing godlike artificial intelligence. On its website, the Way of the Future states, “We believe the creation of ‘super intelligence’ is inevitable,” and according to IRS documents detailed by Wired, this new religion seeks “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.” This exuberance departs from the cautious stance toward A.I. taken by Hawking, Musk, and others who warn that artificial superintelligence could pose an existential threat. However, regardless of whether artificial superintelligence is seen as an angel or a demon, Hawking, Musk, and A.I. evangelists alike share the common belief that this technology should be taken seriously. For some transhumanists, this translates into religious expression. As transhumanist guru (and Google’s director of engineering) Ray Kurzweil has stated, the possibilities raised by these technologies imply how “we need a new religion.”

Some may argue that the Way of the Future is really just a way of publicizing A.I.
research, but there is an increasing number of truly authentic transhumanist churches. Some of these other religious organizations include the Church of Perpetual Life, the Turing Church, Terasem, the Christian Transhumanist Association, and the Mormon Transhumanist Association. For these and other transhumanist faiths, such as the apocalyptic beliefs surrounding the technological singularity, technology becomes a way of cashing checks religion helped write. We can start to see how the New Atheist argument against supernaturalism doesn’t quite work here, because the speculations about technology underpinning these new religions rely on a strong commitment to science.

Because science and religion serve different functions, they are not actually inherently in conflict. This debate over science and religion needs to be elevated by thinking in new, post-theistic terms, moving religion beyond the theist-atheist paradigm altogether. Transhumanism helps ease our transition to such a discussion.

The question then becomes: What if we challenged our theistic notion of religion as being all about churches, gods, and the supernatural? Harari provides a helpful model of understanding religion in these post-theistic terms: “[R]eligion is anything that legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.”

In this sense, Harari shows how things like liberalism, humanism, and communism all fit this definition and share a common function with religion by providing structure to the lives of the people who believe in them. These beliefs themselves are not artifacts we can put under a microscope or true claims we can scientifically test—they are sacred value judgements that exist as fundamental commitments people share. This is not to say that all beliefs are created equal—there are always varying degrees of utility to any belief—but this is a useful way of understanding how religions function as ideological frameworks.

In this debate, an expanded post-theistic understanding of religion shows how science and religion aren’t necessarily opposed, but serve different functions. Transhumanism helps uncover this often-concealed distinction. Science can tell us about the objective world, but its mission is always conducted within a system of values constructed by the larger society. As transhumanism continues to infuse the ways our larger society thinks about science and technology, we should keep in mind the power technology has in shaping the very way we construct our world and, by extension, our religious beliefs.