The Intersection of Tech and Church
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’d sure never thought of becoming as God.
By Sanjena Sathian
Lincoln Cannon was in his late teens when he did a religious double take. Raised Mormon — the descendant, in fact, of a Mormon apostle — he was headed for the traditional Mormon boy-to-man transition: Brigham Young University, a two-year-mission, marriage. Kind of an “awkward time” to drift toward atheism, he reflects now.
But Cannon was a philosophically minded kid raised with computers in the house (this was two decades ago or so), and he began to notice some things that didn’t add up. Some of the teachings he’d grown up with didn’t quite match up, the more he researched church history. Plus, he liked science.
You might think you know what happened between then and now if I tell you that 41-year-old Cannon is, today, a computer scientist who says he’s never questioned evolution, who knows secular philosophy like the back of his hand and who strongly supports biomedical research to prolong the human lifespan. He ditched the church for science, right? Not so. Rather, after a prolonged period of doubt, Cannon sits at the helm of a thoroughly 21st-century attempt to reconcile religion with science — or perhaps religion with the stuff of science fiction. He is the founder of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, which by now has grown to over 500 members and is likely the largest organization of its kind.
It’s not a church — no liturgy here. Rather, it resembles something more like a tech organization, driven by fervent conferences full of futuristic discussions and an active online community where members connect over their shared beliefs; they’ve also got ambitions of advocating for life-extension research, providing stem-cell banking and even cryonics services for members. (Cannon notes that some of those conferences might include speeches of a sermon-esque nature, right alongside the academic spiels.) When he does preach — or more like philosophically pontificate — Cannon speaks of how we should become as God. Become one with God, in fact. And how technology will get us there.
First things first: Transhumanism, for the unfamiliar, is a movement based on the idea that we humans should use science and technology to vault ourselves into better, longer-lasting bodies. Think prosthetic limbs, pacemakers or perhaps the Scarlett Johansson film Lucy — the one where she figures out how to use more than 10 percent of her brain. It’s natural, the transhumanists (or H+, for short) believe, that we live longer, constantly upgrading ourselves until — some contend — we strike the Fountain of Immortality. Perhaps one day our bodies will be computers into which we upload our minds — a sort of perpetual consciousness. H+ is a fringe belief, obviously.
But after decades of obscurity, transhumanism, even in its extreme versions, is on the rise, according to Calvin Mercer, professor at East Carolina University. Technology is rapidly speeding ahead, and the stuff that once seemed wildly futuristic is very much present tense. And certain billionaire philosopher kings have taken an interest in H+; serial entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, plans to mash up his father’s old belongings, photographs and writings to resurrect him via computer program, and Peter Thiel, PayPal billionaire, has his eye on Han Solo–type cryonic preservation.
Cannon’s MTA is probably the largest organization blending religion with transhumanism, estimates Mercer. And transhumanism is also increasingly picking up with people across the faith spectrum: Mormons, Christians, Buddhists and others, he says. What’s fascinating about the small but fervent community of religious transhumanists is that they’re pioneers, grappling with the frontier of a centuries-old battle between religion and science. And they are musing not only on debates like stem-cell research or in-vitro fertilization that preoccupy us today — but, in fact, might be drawing us a road map for the conversations to come 10 or 50 years down the line.
The transhumanists have a crystalline vision of a future toward which they believe we’re zooming inexorably: We will live longer, keep developing new, controversial therapies, alter our genes, perhaps design our babies, consider computer chip implants, possibly even think in the cloud. “This was the stuff of science fiction not long ago,” Mercer says. Much of it still is. But the more rapidly technology advances, the closer we get to what Mercer calls the ultimate scientific revolution — which will test our faith in God and mankind alike. We must, as “incurably religious” people, as Mercer puts it, respond. So, how will we handle the impending angst, how will we make meaning amid upheaval?
For Cannon, there’s no need to change all church doctrine (though he disagrees with some LDS policies, like its stance on gay couples). He figures Mormons are natural transhumanists, explaining that God is not necessarily supernatural in LDS tradition. (The LDS Church told us they didn’t have thoughts to share on the MTA, though the church was aware of its existence.) It’s more like a clean tack-on, a modern belief that sits alongside the ancient ones. Religious transhumanists, Cannon tells me, see no need to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and prefer to keep “what we’ve inherited from the past.” For him, there remains a “practical value in Christianity,” and he continues to be active in LDS activities, attending the sacrament meeting (communion) every week, teaching Sunday school and participating in various temple ceremonies. But he’s also brought his wife, mother and a bevy of extended family on as MTA members — a full circle since the decade or so he spent in theological crisis. And it means a lot to his wife to see Cannon bridging what seemed an impassable gulf.
You hear similar easy explanations from others, particularly followers of less organized faiths — like the Eastern traditions. “India’s always had this idea of the immortal man, since Indian mythology,” says Sonali Gokhale, who runs a “Super Longevity” conference in New Delhi. Though H+ is still far from mainstream in India, she says there’s “a potential to start a revolution here,” where science is standard enough and the ancient texts are pretty down with immortality. “Hindus and Indians are willing to accept the radical stuff,” she says. Professor-slash–Zen Buddhist priest Michael LaTorra, who was raised Roman Catholic, also reckons notions of immortality help escape what Buddhists see as the painful cycle of reincarnation — “the Buddha says coming back over and over again is a pain in the neck!” Plus, the longer you’re around, he says, the more chances you get to meet the right guru and speed along to Enlightenment.
Obviously, transhumanism doesn’t sit well with everyone. “You’re playing God,” Mercer summarizes of the criticisms, particularly from the Christians. Ask Wesley J. Smith, writer and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, and he’ll tell you he sees some parts of H+ as “beyond cuckoo” — particularly after attending a conference on religious transhumanism, where he says he heard people discuss uploading animal minds onto computers and proposing, possibly, that a fight for transhumanism was worth going to war. “There’s a eugenic element in transhumanism that could have some very detrimental impact on the equal dignity of all human life,” he says.
I hear pity in his voice when he describes H+ as a kind of religion itself, with its eschatological vision of impending end times, an “almost Second Coming notion” (of the Singularity, bringing together humans and machines) and a promise of “near eternal life.” Its followers, he says, are “searching for the same kind of hope and transcendence that people have traditionally taken from religion.” Smith thinks H+ actually mandates godlessness, not unlike atheist Peter Wicks, a Brit with a Ph.D. in math from Cambridge — who is pretty much what I expect from this crew. Wicks tells me, not without empathy, that Mormon transhumanists and their ilk are “trying desperately to somehow marry their heritage” to science — because they “very much wish to remain part of that community.” (It’s telling that some 60 percent of transhumanists identify as atheists, according to a 2008 report from the World Transhumanist Association.)
The back-and-forth, as with almost anything involving ancient texts, spiritual beliefs and a science full of unanswered questions, could be endless. In that sense, though, the religious transhumanists are familiar. Like so many discussions on faith, my conversations with the skeptics inevitably turn to the potential logical fallacies in religious transhumanism. Eastern types might ask why living longer isn’t just an example of clinging to the Self, to earthly, distracting desires; Muslims can make a clear argument for a God beyond the Earth. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of Jewish studies at Arizona State University, who has written on transhumanism and bioethics, unleashes a torrent of academic fury on me when immortality comes up. Divinity on Earth? Tosh, she thinks, calling it a “horrendous vision” and reminding me that such notions are why the Jews couldn’t accept Jesus as God: “I don’t think humans should be playing God, and mortality is a blessing, not a curse.”
It’s Nick Bostrom, though, who sums things up for me. Bostrom is far from a church boy; a philosopher and futurist based at Oxford, he is something of a god — if you’ll forgive — among atheist computer scientists, artificial-intelligence geeks and transhumanists. (One of Cannon’s core arguments for the existence of God is a play on Bostrom’s work.) Bostrom’s famous for, among other things, a Descartian type of argument that we might be living in a computer simulation. I ask if his work was meant for the religious — couldn’t the computer simulation be God? He says sure. We mortals don’t know that much, he says. “And we,” philosophers and the religious alike, “might all be in the same boat when it comes to these profound questions about the universe.”