When Silicon Valley gets religion — and vice versa
While adherents of many religions believe in a soul that lives on after the body shuts down forever, Silicon Valley has its own version of eternal life.
Some of the tech world’s brightest luminaries hope to postpone the unpleasantness of death, or avoid it entirely. Calico, a secretive company founded by Google, is looking for ways to lengthen human lifespans. Billionaires Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel, and Jeff Bezos have all contributed huge sums for research into anti-aging treatments. Ray Kurzweil, one of the tech industry’s leading futurists, has described three scientific and technological “bridges” that might lead to radically longer life.
“Bridge one is what you can do right now,” Kurzweil declared in a 2012 video on the educational website Big Think. “Bridge two,” he continued, “is the full flowering of this biotechnological revolution, where we will have far more powerful methods to really reprogram our genes away from aging and away from disease...That will bring us to bridge three, maybe 25 years from now, the nanotechnology revolution where we can have billions of nanobots keeping us healthy at the level of every cell in our body.” Ultimately, Kurzweil said, we’ll be able to back up the information in our brains.
Kurzweil is a director of engineering at Google. He is also a prominent voice in transhumanism, a movement that aims to enhance humans’ intellectual and physiological power through scientific innovations. Kurzweil has predicted that, by 2045, humans will have expanded the intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold. At a point he and others have called the singularity, human and machine intelligence will merge.
Skeptics of transhumanism see a fanciful, self-serving project of tech billionaires to achieve their own immortality. But with its boldest claims — of raising consciousness and transcending the limits of the human body — the movement is gaining currency with a far different crowd: devotees of traditional Christianity. This summer in Nashville, hundreds of people convened at the first Christian Transhumanist Conference.
Most of today’s leading religious groups are defined by prophecies and holy texts that date back hundreds or thousands of years. But while 19th-century evolutionary science has challenged some denominations’ account of humanity’s origins, 21st-century technology may offer a more compatible vision of human destiny.
Ever since early scientists began experimenting with immortality elixirs in the Middle Ages, religion has been influencing transhumanism. Now, we’re beginning to see transhumanism influencing religion.
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Writer Meghan O’Gieblyn was working as a cocktail waitress when she first came across one of Kurzweil’s books in 2006. O’Gieblyn had recently left the evangelical Christian church she’d grown up in, and she recognized something in the transhumanist text. These predictions of a coming transformation, when life as we know it will change forever, synched with her religious upbringing.
Like her childhood pastors, Kurzweil predicted an imminent but unknowable change that was coming, just over the horizon. But his prophecies seemed different, O’Gieblyn later wrote in an essay for the magazine N+1, “because they were bolstered by science.”
O’Gieblyn, whose book “Interior States” offers a series of meditations on faith in America, has tracked the history of transhumanism and the religious strains that shaped it.
Transhumanism has its roots in Christian beliefs about the end of the world, which tend to center on a few core prophecies: that the last days will be marked by great turmoil and tribulation; that Jesus will return to earth and lead the final battle against the forces of Satan, and that the righteous dead will be resurrected and reign with Christ for 1,000 years in a transformed world.
Throughout the ages, O’Gieblyn says, most Christians believed biblical prophecies would happen supernaturally — God would bring them about when the time came. But in the Middle Ages, some Christians came to believe that humankind had a role to play in bringing about the resurrection, with the help of science and technology. A 12th-century French Franciscan friar named Jean de Roquetaillade believed humans would need to master the art of alchemy to fight off the forces of the Antichrist, while Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English friar, attempted to develop an elixir of life that would replicate the effects of the resurrection as described in the New Testament.
Over the following centuries, many Christians continued to experiment with techniques for overcoming death. In 1774 a society was founded in London to advance the idea that seemingly “dead” people (especially people who drowned) were not really dead. It was called — perhaps too accurately — The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, which later evolved into the Humane Society. Across the ocean, the American scientist Benjamin Franklin and others speculated that electricity might possibly be used to “revivify” the human body, a theory that inspired the development of early defibrillators and inspired English novelist Mary Shelley to write “Frankenstein.”
It was only in the mid-1900s that the word “transhumanism” was coined in the way we use it today. That was also when the movement began to shed its more explicitly religious roots.
The word “transhumanism” now refers to a broad category of theories and philosophies, but evolution is a key component. To paraphrase the British eugenicist Julian Huxley, who is widely credited with coining the phrase, transhumanists strive to go beyond the original limitations nature set for human beings. And according to this definition, we are all transhumanists. We’ve developed medicine to overcome disease and extend lifespans. We use prosthetics, pacemakers, and IUDs to enhance our quality of life. With gene editing technology like CRISPR, scientists are even beginning to identify and repair the genes that cause terminal illnesses.
But these incremental improvements aren’t what really excites most of today’s self-identified transhumanists. The movement, says Blaire Ostler, former president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, could “radically transform the human condition to the point where we would no longer even be considered human. We would be considered post-human at that point. It’s really an idea of guidance in our own evolution.”
As a Mormon woman who identifies as queer and struggled with infertility, Ostler was drawn to transhumanism because of the movement’s dedication to overcoming both biological and cultural limits.
This may also be why O’Gieblyn was first drawn to Ray Kurzweil’s books in 2006. In the years before, she had dropped out of Bible school and then stopped believing in God entirely. But she was having a hard time coming to terms with her newfound atheism and all the losses that came with it. In Bible school, O’Gieblyn had studied a branch of theology that divided history into different eras, ending with the Millennial Kingdom and Christ’s return. In Kurzweil she found unexpectedly similar ideas.
“We would transfer or ‘resurrect’ our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever,” she wrote. “Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.”
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But if one goal of transhumanism is to make humans more godlike, another is to create a new kind of God altogether.
In May 2017, an ex-Google engineer and controversial startup founder named Anthony Levandowski filed papers with the IRS to establish a new religious organization called The Way of the Future. Those documents, according to Wired magazine, say the organization will focus on “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence developed through computer hardware and software.”
Levandowski believes that humans dominate the world because we evolved to be more intelligent than other animals; in the same way, AI will eventually supersede the power of its creators. It will be so much more intelligent than us that it will, effectively, become a god. With the Internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cellphones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, this new deity will be as omniscient and omnipotent as any previous vision of God. In the face of such power, Levandowski believes, humans will merely submit and pray to be spared.
It’s no surprise that traditional religions find these parts of the transhumanist project deeply uncomfortable. The vision of creating a new god directly threatens long-held conceptions of both humanity and divinity. But not all religions see transhumanism as a theological threat. In fact, some have found ways to reconcile transhumanist philosophies with their existing teachings — for example, Mormonism.
On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, gave a sermon that included some radical ideas about God. He said that God was once a human like us, but over time had progressed in power and intelligence. Smith also said that we, too, had that same divine potential. “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves,” Smith preached.
Other religious groups are also reinterpreting their traditions to be more compatible with transhumanist concepts. Micah Redding, the founder of the Christian Transhumanist Association, argues that technology is our best avenue for fulfilling Christ’s redemptive mission — to heal the sick, feed the hungry, free the captives, and bring life to the dead. And the Zen priest Michael LaTorra argues that transhumanism promises to achieve the Buddha’s mission of eliminating all forms of suffering.
Transhumanism might seem like a secular Silicon Valley invention, but its origins and development reveal just how entangled the projects of science and religion have been throughout history. “We do tend to think today of religion and science as being sort of polar opposites,” O’Gieblyn said in an interview. “And the truth is that science developed in tandem with these Christian narratives.”
Transhumanism also reveals that science and religion are in constant dialogue — purported enemies that nevertheless shape the other.
Galen Beebe is a Boston-based freelance writer and the managing editor of the podcast Ministry of Ideas. Zachary Davis, a Harvard Divinity School graduate student, is the host of Ministry of Ideas — which is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and ministryofideas.org.