Religion+ for Humanity+

Michaelangelos-Sistine-Chapel

In early December of last year, Zoltan Istvan wrote an article for the Huffington Post entitled I’m an Atheist, Therefore I’m a Transhumanist. In that piece Istvan puts forth the proposition that many of the nearly one billion “worldwide godless people — atheists, agnostics, and those unaffiliated with religion” are transhumanists; they just don’t know it yet. I disagree with Istvan  and I don’t think that transhumanists should dismiss what religious traditions have to offer to the transhumanist movement.

To begin with I would contend that both practically and philosophically no person is unaffiliated with religion altogether, even if one doesn’t claim to be an adherent to an organized religion. The evidence of the engraftedness of religion throughout human culture is an indisputable fact. This doesn’t mean that a person has to be personally satisfied with the current options of organized religions before them, but to deny religion’s impact on culture is not a very scientific proposition.

Additionally, both in a technical sense and practically speaking, no one is an atheist. The origin of the word “atheism” is derived from the Greek ἄθεος, essentially meaning “without god(s).” And if we investigate, even briefly, the claim that a human can be without god(s) we see that it is a contradiction as to who we are as persons.

We can see this because the definition of a “god” simply put is: “a person or thing that is excessively worshiped and admired; an all absorbing passion, pursuit, or hobby; something idolized.” By definition excess is simply an amount or quality greater than is necessary and worship, in its most basic form, means to have an ardent devotion or adoration for something. This means that one must simply have actual or substantial concern for a passion, pursuit, or hobby that is slightly more than needed for it to be considered a god.

As a result, anything can be a god/idol – an idea, watching too much basketball, a slight over-fulfillment of an instinct, or even a golden statue of a calf. The ancients understood this concept clearly and accepted such reasoning as commonplace and logical. We even find prominent historical evidence of this in the first and second commandments. So in this sense, no person can genuinely or logically be an atheist.

If though by atheist one means that they don’t adhere or believe in a Supreme Being, or a particular religious tradition’s understanding of God, then that is a different use of the word. Such a definition still does not negate the prior one; it simply requires that we fundamentally recognize ourselves as idolaters. It also could though, for the scientific person who considers evidence-based data, leave open the option of agnosticism outside of an organized religion. Even so, the simple fact that we all have gods in our lives and that we worship them – even in very basic ways – demonstrates that we are all religious beings.

This is not a novel concept, it is a basic theological understanding from the most ancient of times. But it does raise a larger point.

Should we leave open the possibility that religious traditions may have something to offer to the transhumanist movement?

And this is where I draw my critique of Istvan’s article most sharply. While, Istvan claims that the “godless” are not “in the business of criticizing religion,” his actual motivation seems to be to convert transhumanists away from belief in God rather than convincing “the godless” to become transhumanists. This to me seems to be more of a power play for the control of the transhumanist movement, which I would contend is not in the spirit of transhumanism. Allow me to explain why.

Istvan promotes his notion of a Transhumanist Wager – the idea that “everyone in the 21st Century must decide how far they are willing to go to use technology and science to improve their lives.” He believes that “the faithless” will be the ones who make these decisions. He goes on to say that many godless people will become proponents of “indefinite life extension and technologies that strip away humanness and promote our transhumanness.” He advocates such an idea because he explains that for him, the word transhuman means “beyond human.”

But such a position assumes that we have a grasp on what the human condition actually is in its totality – and this is a wildly speculative proposition at best. At the very least we should consider the possibility that our evolutionary advancement toward the greater use of tools and technology may imply that part of what it actually means to be human includes an evolution toward a state of being that is better than how we currently exist.

This follows many religious traditions notions that part of being human is the journey toward a more perfected, eternal state. In this way the prefix “trans” takes on a more nuanced meaning that implies traversing “across” the scope of what it might mean to be human. It is not a forfeiture of our humanity; it is a bettering of it.

Such an idea is not in conflict with Transhumanism or the majority of religious traditions, which advocate the holistic betterment of persons. More to the point, the concept of overcoming fundamental human limitations (often referred to in religious traditions as sin) is also a shared goal.

Moreover, Istvan states that the “transhumanist hero” is the individual who “constantly eyes improving their health, lifestyle, and longevity with science and technology.” In his opinion such persons are “not okay with the past age of feeling guilty for aspiring to be different or better than they were born — or for wanting the power to become godlike themselves.” Yet, it is in in this statement where Istvan reveals what he really wants to worship – himself. And that notion is fundamentally at odds with the majority of the world’s organized religions.

Humanity+ implies, in the origins of its plurality, that the coming technological journey is not one that we are going to (or should) make alone. It implies an ethical and helpful use of emerging technologies to enhance humans collectively and, as such, our understandings of what it fundamentally means to be human. It implies a community approach, a journey that we will make together through which we will make humanity better. On such issues of community betterment, religious traditions have centuries of prior experience and much to offer to the discussion.

In this regard, two pertinent religiously based ethical concerns that we might guard against occurring in the transhumanist movement are the idolatry/worship of individuals and the “othering” of persons. For as soon as we make gods of ourselves, our self-absorption dehumanizes us by separating us from our larger relational community. To offer such idol worship as the pinnacle of humankind is, in my opinion, Humanity- instead of Humanity+.

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benek

The Rev. Christopher Benek is a pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head Island, SC, USA. He holds M.Div. and Th.M. (Ethics) degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and is finishing a DMIN (Science and Theology) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

[Editors note see also: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/T/bo8364643.html]

27 Comments

  1. Hi, Rev. Christopher Benek.

    A *god* (minuscule G) is an immortal sapient being who is still finite at any given time (i.e., within spacetime). Whereas *God* (majuscule G) is the infinite sapient being.

    As physicist and mathematician Prof. Frank J. Tipler noted, “Any cosmology with unlimited progress will end in God.” (See Anthony Liversidge, interview of Frank Tipler, “A Physicist Proposes a Theory of Eternal Life that Yields God”, Omni, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Oct. 1994), pp. 89 ff. [8 pp.].) This means, e.g., that any form of immortality necessarily entails the existence of the capital-G God, in the sense of an omniscient, omnipotent and personal being with infinite computational resources. This is mathematically unavoidable, for the reason that any finite state will eventually undergo the Eternal Return per the Quantum Recurrence Theorem. This is very easy to see by considering the simple example of two bits, which have only four possible states (i.e., 2^2): hence, once these four states have been exhausted, states will have to recur. What that means is that any finite state can only have a finite number of experiences (i.e., different states), because any finite state will eventually start to repeat.

    Thus, immortality is logically inseparable from the existence of the capital-G God, since mathematically, immortality requires the existence of either an infinite computational state or a finite state which diverges to an infinite computational state (i.e., diverging to literal Godhead in all its fullness), thus allowing for states never repeating and hence an infinite number of experiences.

    Consequently, transhumanism–if the goal by that position is immortality–is inherently theistic, not only in a lowercase-G god sense, but also in the capital-G God sense.

    The concept of man being gods and becoming ever-more Godlike is simply traditional Christianity, going all the way back to Jesus’s teachings, that of Paul and the other Epistlers, and that of the Church Fathers. In traditional Christian theology, this is known as apotheosis, theosis or divinization. For many examples of these early teachings, see the article “Divinization (Christian)”, Wikipedia, August 30, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Divinization_(Christian)&oldid=509902415 . Though this traditional position of Christian theology has been deemphasized for the last millennium.

    Indeed, the words “transhumanism” and “superhumanism” originated in Christian theology. “Transhumanism” is a neologism coined by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto I, lines 70-72), referring favorably to a mortal human who became an immortal god by means of eating a special plant. For the Christian theological origin of the term “superhumanism”, see the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), the first appearance being by Henry Montagu, 1st Earl of Manchester, in his Al Mondo: Contemplatio Mortis, & Immortalitatis (London, England: Robert Barker, and the Assignes of John Bill, 1636).

    For much more on this, see my following article on Prof. Tipler’s Omega Point cosmology, which is a proof (i.e., mathematical theorem) of God’s existence per the known laws of physics (viz., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics), and the Feynman-DeWitt-Weinberg quantum gravity/Standard Model Theory of Everything (TOE), which is also required by the known laws of physics. The Omega Point cosmology has been published and extensively peer-reviewed in leading physics journals.

    James Redford, “The Physics of God and the Quantum Gravity Theory of Everything”, Social Science Research Network (SSRN), Sept. 10, 2012 (orig. pub. Dec. 19, 2011), 186 pp., doi:10.2139/ssrn.1974708. http://archive.org/details/ThePhysicsOfGodAndTheQuantumGravityTheoryOfEverything

  2. I do take exception to the reverend’s suggestion that no one is truly atheist because we all worship something, as do many of the people who’ve commented so far. They pretty much already made the point that religion and worshipping a god do not equate to being passionate about an idea, activity, etc. so I don’t have much to add to that.

    To get to the main point of the article, while I disagree with religion in general, I have respect for the more reasonable religious folk that I’ve met and if they support transhumanism, then I’d be happy to march alongside them in this movement. I’m certainly nervous, though, that most of the religious community will oppose it. We’ve already heard opposition to stem cell research, for example, from religious groups and I imagine that as we go further down the road of using science to improve the human condition, we’ll hear more opposition from people who believe the human body is sacred. Many christians believe that we were made in God’s image, so to alter what they would consider to be a gift from God could easily be construed as blasphemy.

    This is one tricky thing about religion, though – one religious person will interpret their faith in support of an idea, and another will interpret it as blasphemy, depending on which part of their holy text they find more convincing, I suppose. Since most people don’t seem to recognize the future of transhumanism, we have yet to see how the majority of religious people will react when they do, but I suspect that they won’t react well to it.

    • Joe, as a religious transhumanist, I share your desire to work against counter-productive impulses within religion. Religion contains both many negatives and many positives (much as many other parts of human culture), and our aim should be make use of what is good, and to mitigate what is not.

      Fortunately for your example, most traditions within Christianity identify “the image of God” as referring to our relational and creative capabilities, and not to a specific physical form. I argue that this verse, in particular, is one of the most transhumanist verses in the scriptures, establishing our true identify as creators and shapers of new and diverse forms of life.

      Thanks, Micah

      • Indeed, however there is a growing backlash from GMO fear mongering. We religious transhumanists need to be vigilant and to help our wayward good intentioned bad judging brethren. It is a sad truth that the same entities that help sow discord and mayhem, also sow fear of the solutions in equal order.

        Something to note, he is not saying per se that he is somehow stating that everyone worships a God in the Judeo Christian perspective. Rather he is arguing that all people have a religion of sorts or a “brush” with the Platonic Thought-Forms. Atheistic Transhumanists could be thought of as to worship the ascent of mankind and the God of the collective consciousness of a united humanity. Now I might be against the idea myself, but that does not detract from the claim that there is no Judeo Christian God from the atheistic standpoint (I am aware of the other faiths, but in the US they are less frequently attacked [in debate] by extreme atheism). Rather he is suggesting that everyone has a reason to wake up and not go on a killing spree/commit suicide (I would strongly read Nihilistic literature with this). Whether have Faith that humanity can overcome whatever nature throws at us, that the universe is ruled by a blind idiot creator being, or that a merciful God will reshape the world into a paradise that was once lost, you are asserting a reason to believe that the future will be better (that in and of itself cannot be scientifically verified [in fact science suggests a lack of purpose, rather than a divine mandate]), than the present. After all, how can you as a moral being allow human suffering to continue if their is ample evidence that a massive amount of human suffering is underway. If indeed there is no point to anything then the only moral and ethic standpoint is based on survival rather than Platonic Thought-forms (and thus unrestricted hedonistic pleasures become acceptable for as long as one can maintain them). Based on the information on the universes probability, we are constantly on the verge of any number of overdue mass disaster. Yet we believe as a society that instead of putting humanity out of its misery and committing mass homicide, we trust that either divine providence, a god, or human spirit will somehow avert those odds.

        It is this idea that he is attempting to get across. I would recommend that you look at it in the critical light, rather than asserting your pride at being in the “in” group of militant atheism. Note that I realize that this is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, however 2 evils don’t make a right.

        • I would like to clarify, that my post is not an attack at anyone, but rather a response to a frequently misunderstanding between specifically those who attempt to paint religious people as ignorant barbarians. I sincerely hope that no one will take specific offense as my post was not pointed at anyone responding here.

          • Yes, I was confused for a moment there – I thought, for a moment, that I might have come off as militant atheist. That’s certainly not my intent and I’m not about to suggest that religious folk are ignorant in general. I think there’s about as much ignorance in the religious community as there is in the atheist crowd, and I’m reticent to call myself an atheist because of the atheists who seem to think that religion should be destroyed and take every opportunity to argue with religious people about their personal beliefs. They’re just hateful jerks who can’t stand the fact that others might believe differently from them.

            Anyway, as for the author’s suggestion that “no one is an atheist,” I just thought that was a bit of a stretch. I agree that as a species, we pretty much all agree that we would like to continue existing, but this shared interest does not merge theists and atheists into the same belief system.

            The difference between us is that theists trust in holy texts, believe in a higher power, an afterlife, the end of the world brought on by a higher power, or some combination of these things. Atheists believe none of it. Therein lies significant difference.

            But again, I’m not saying that we can’t get along because of those differences. It’s because of our shared interest in survival and, in the case of transhumanists, improving quality of life, that theists and atheists can work together on this, regardless of the reasons we’re interested. It seemed to me at first that religious belief might be less compatible with transhumanism than a lack of religious belief and this is the point I was originally trying to make, but after reading various arguments here, I’m not sure that this is the case. I suppose that, as with most ideas, a person’s attitude regarding transhumanism is probably affected less by their beliefs regarding a higher power than it is by the rest of their beliefs regarding the human race and what it is meant to achieve. You and I both agree that the human race should continue to improve itself. You incorporate this into your religious beliefs and I incorporate it into my doubts regarding religion, but we will probably come to the same conclusions as to how to go about it. I suppose this is the point the author was trying to make; I just disagree with his phrasing.

            Again, I didn’t mean to offend anyone or to suggest that religious people are generally dumber than atheists or anything like that. I apologize if that’s the impression I gave.

      • I’m relieved to hear that. Perhaps it won’t be a majority of christians who oppose transhumanism – I may have misspoken there – but my concern lies in the fact that I live in the United States.

        Many christian fundamentalists in the southern states still outright oppose the theory of evolution in favor of literal translations of the bible regarding the origins of life. Transhumanism seems to be the next phase of human evolution so it may follow that they will oppose that as well. They might not be a majority of the population, but they are certainly vociferous, so I’m worried that when transhumanism becomes a household word, it will be an awfully divisive issue. I’m not as worried about well-mannered, thinking christians like yourself, but I haven’t heard many voices like yours in the public discourse of my country, I’m sorry to say.

        As for the positive impulses that you mentioned, I don’t doubt that judeo-christian ideas will benefit transhumanism and I do look forward to seeing how it all comingles.

  3. I could not agree more.

    I would call myself no less a religious person as of becoming a transhumanist. It has certainly altered my view of the divine, but not lessened it.

    Many Gnostic meditations actually fit rather well into transhumanist thought. Especially the concept that our fleshy, physical selves are the creations of the Demiurge and the true divine granted us our souls; the ability to “know” ourselves and therefore better ourselves. By doing this, we become more than evil’s dimwitted, death-bound toys.

    Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar.

  4. Science does not disprove God, but provides evidence of a God. Science has shown us that manipulation of time space and energy is completely possible. Transhumanism takes this further. Seeking technology to conquer earthly limitations. To generate and manipulate energy on a universe scale.

    We speak of accelerating technology. Of super intelligence so advanced it wont even be able to comprehend what it is doing. Working on the universe on such a fundamental level we cant even notice it. Why is it so hard to believe, at least in the possibility, that a civilization has done this before?

    • That a very powerful intelligent being is possible,even one so powerful as to seed a new universe or emulate one inside its vast mindspace, does not mean that one should believe such a being in fact does exist without sufficient evidence. This is to confuse possible with actual. It is even worse if one makes this confusion the most important thing in all of reality.

  5. There are no vegetarian because plants are people too.

    This summarizes this mild attempt at trolling that is what this article really is.

  6. Atheist means not believing there is a God. That is it. There are quite a number of people that do not believe there is one. Many do so simply on the basis that they have no good evidence such a thing exists so they no more believe it than claims for other things they have no evidence of. Simple and direct. You will get nowhere trying to play etymological tricks on the word. To deny the reality of this lack of belief would be counter-reality and thus irrational. Besides the ‘a-‘ prefix is negation of what follows. What follows in ‘atheist’ is theist – that is a believer in God. So an atheist is a non-believer in God. Similarly ‘atheism’ is non-theism. That is not holding the belief that at least one deity exist. So please refrain from the claim that there are no atheists.

    Your definition of god is laughable, especially for a minister. First you switch god to be anything one cares much about and then you switch back to God in the sense atheism really refers to. This is bait and switch.

    Then you claim that Zoltan or others that may agree understand the human condition in totality but I see no such claimed universal knowledge in any of the relevant writings. OTOH religions have claimed to have “the Truth” about the meaning of everything and our ultimate destiny for thousands of years.

    • I think his description of gods and God is just fine. The description illustrates the continuum of life goals and aspirations. Some fall really short in the continuum. Every atheist I have ever queried cannot match the christian aspirations. So it seems the atheist long view is nihilistic. what say you?

      • What aspirations? I am a transhumanist. I aspire to the end of aging and mandatory death from aging. I aspire to abundance for all. I aspire to vast increase in intelligence and understanding. I aspire to open limitless opportunity.

        Please tell me more about this religious aspiration that atheists cannot match.

        • Well I am a Christian Transhumanist who aspires to the end of aging and mandatory death from aging. I aspire to abundance for all. I aspire to vast increase in intelligence and understanding. I aspire to open limitless opportunity… all for eternity. That is Godhood. Atheists would have to leave out that eternal idea. Because to an atheist eternal life is neither desirable nor possible. A compassionate God would grant us eternal death rather than than force us to endure eternal life says the atheist. It seems atheists have a problem with understanding eternal growth, and ultimately, that is anti-life.

          • Tipler’s Omega Point is highly contentious and in my opinion unmitigated wishful thinking. I have listened to the talks and read the papers and it just does not follow. Neither does it make sense that we can ever create a computational system in this reality that has the depth and richness spanning everything science has discovered about reality to date – from the quantum level out. If this is in fact not possible than any sort of science mediated triumphalism of a great AGI/god with entire detailed universes at least as deep as this one within it much less all possible universes is simply wrong. Ditto some super-computational point at a great crunch.

            Trying to claim the very word transhumanism as originating in religion is not very reasonable or worth bothering with.

  7. Thanks for this article, Chris. Many of us do feel that religion has something to offer transhumanism; and particularly, that our religion compels us to be transhumanist.

    The emphasis, I think, needs to be on exactly what you identify: that we seek to elevate the society and community, and not just ourselves. That’s the core realization of religion: the recognition that radical individualism is a net loss.

    Some of us have been exploring these ideas here. Thanks, Micah

  8. I disagree completely.The author seems to confuse devotion and worship.I am devoted to the Arsenal Football Club,but I certainly do not worship it.Worship traditionally implies complete faith in whatever authority that is worshipped.I don’t have complete faith in Arsenal.
    The author claims further that such action(devotion to a football team) is idolatry.This implies that the countless religious sports fans globally are practising polytheism.Reductio ad absurdum.
    Finally,though it is useful in linguistics to use etymology in understanding the origin and definition of words,it often doesn’t give the full picture,even misguiding at times.Atheism entails the rejection of the idea of the existence of deities.Anyone who rejects the idea of existence of deities is, by definition an atheist.

    • On the contrary, Carringtone, faith is one of the most difficult things for religious people to sustain. Even clerics lose faith, and finding it for the first time, or finding it once lost, is often an occasion of great personal joy and celebration. So you lacking absolute faith in Arsenal does not negate your devotion as not being religious devotion. Nobody expects Arsenal to win every time, but the devoted hope that it will, and are happy when they win more often than not.
      What you are doing is trying to impose the “God of the Gaps” principle, that true faith only exists in that which is unknown and unknowable, that which is unexplainable and unpredictable, yet what is harder to predict and explain than a come from behind victory in a football match? A clutch goal made by a seemingly impossible act of gymnastic athleticism to put the ball in the net?
      At the same time, unknowability is not the defining restriction on religion. Gnosticism is about knowledge, not unknowledge, yet gnostics are a religious fellowship.

      • I don’t hold a God of the gaps view.I contend that gaps in our knowledge are to be filled by theorizing coupled with continuous experimentation and observation,not any esoteric story that helps us sleep at night.Unknowability is not a constraint on religion,truth is.

        • I afraid I have to agree with the author, and I cite the ideas proposed by the Atheist HP Lovecraft (science fiction author, who rehashed nihilistic ideas). I would compare and contrast Azathoth, Sagittarius A*, black holes (esp. their dualistic nature as destroyers and creators), and the Big Bang.
          There are many correspondences with the divine and the idea of pleasure. Indeed it could be said that God is what you take joy in. I bring this up as a topic starter and not the final end all.

  9. Let’s consider the hashtag #PrayForMH370.

    It’s not that God doesn’t listen to prayers, it is merely that God does not exist. All religions are based upon a delusion.

    Praying cannot change reality. Action is the only solution. Magic or Gods are appealing when a person has no power. Instead of facing the horror of being powerless, in a terrible situation, it can be comforting for people if they delude themselves about God existing to answer their prayers.

    Technology will empower us therefore the delusion of God will become obsolete. Furthermore, the deception of the delusion is not compatible with intelligence, thus if our intelligence is genuinely increasing then belief in God must become obsolete.

    Yes I do recognise the “engraftedness” of religion onto our mindless culture, it is a cancer we can cure.

    Atheism can exist. we can be atheists. We can be without God despite the taint of culture. The delusion of God does not actually mean we are with God. The delusion does not actually mean God exists. We merely live in the midst of a cultural God delusion. Worshipping a thing in and shape or form is not intelligent irrespective of the degree of worship, be it excessive or minuscule worship. It is amusing that you want to define “passion” as “God.”

    Passion is different to God, which I suppose is the reason for there being two different words. Passion is not idolisation. Passionate people, with a passion for a hobby or person, are not idolaters. Passion can be linked to idolisation but it is not idolisation.

    I think Istvan is merely trying to enhance intelligence via rejecting God. It’s wrong to dismiss this as a “power play” or an attempt at converting people. Self empowerment does not entail becoming an idol.

    If your power depends upon people worshipping you then your power is rather limited. Consider all the people worshipping God, yet God didn’t have the power to bring the people from MH370 home safely.

    God is totally powerless because God does not exist. Worship and idolisation are delusional substitutes for power. Worship is integral to a lack of intelligence thus being worshipped by people is a very dismal state of affairs, a very mediocre situation of stupid powerlessness. Intelligence is power. God is a non-existent moronic, completely powerless, thus God equals worship. Worship is stupid thus intelligent people don not seek it. Istvan seeks true power thus he wants to empower people, he wants to enhance their intelligence, which means he wants people to reject the nonsense of religion. That’s the way I see it.

  10. Thanks for writing this article Rev. Benek. Besides being well-written, it’s very interesting and brings up some important points for both sides to consider. Thanks, Zoltan Istvan

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