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Transhumanism: A Secular Religion? June 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Over at FirstThings, which I am loath to dignify with a link but here it is, there is a post up counting down a short list.  Inspired by the recent failed doomsday prediction the author decided to do a comparison between the Christian Rapture and another possibly apocalyptic event: the Singularity.  I’m not going to spend too much time on the post itself for the simple reason that it’s really kind of silly and doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been noticed and commented on by transhumanists multiple times in the past twenty years.  What is does do is bring up another, far more interesting question; is transhumanism a religion?

This is not a new debate.  It started right around the time the transhumanist movement started making waves in intellectual circles and has only strengthened as it has moved more and more into the mainstream.  More often then not the ones branding transhumanism with the label are it’s religious critics, seemingly trying to bring the movement down to their level by accusing of being nothing more than dressed up techno-utopianism with a veneer of science and philosophy.  Whatever it’s origin though I do believe its a valid question and one that needs to be answered sooner or later.

Before we can get to the heart of the matter we first have to define exactly what we’re talking about.  In short we have to define religion.  This is not as easy as it sounds since despite what seems like ample time to come up with one there is still no single, universally accepted definition of religion.  One widely held definition seems to be that of a system of belief encompassing gods, goddess’, spirits and other supernatural forces.  This is probably the definition most people use and while I can certainly see the appeal it can get us into trouble.  An obvious question would be where does this definition leave religions that do not profess belief in a deity.  Where does it leave Buddhism? Daoism? Neo-Platonism?  Some might suggest that the aforementioned systems are best called philosophies rather than religion but that strikes me as splitting the hairs of semantics, not to mention raises the problem of finding a clear boundary between philosophy and religion, and doesn’t really answer the question.

A second less common but still widespread definition of religion is a system that provides instruction in morality, how persons should relate to each other and to the rest of the world and provides a sense of meaning and purpose to a person’s life.  This position, sometimes referred to as a life stance in the secular community, avoids some of the problems of the previous definition and easily encompasses non-theistic religions.  Unfortunately it also encompasses quite a bit more.  This is the definition used whenever a seemingly secular ideology is accused of being a religion: environmentalism, Marxism, secular humanism, Objectivism.  Things can get a little absurd if we take this to it’s extreme.  Ask yourself, can a sports team qualify as a religion?  While your first reaction might be no, consider this.  Do they not have holy days (game day and championships)?  Ritual clothing (sportswear)?  Churches (stadiums)?  Do they not foster a sense of community with fellow worshipers (fans)?  Do they not often serve as the central focus of a persons life (your roommate)?  Heck, they even have a sort of afterlife or Valhalla (Hall of Fame).  I realize that I’m exaggerating to make a point but given the above definition is it really that much of a stretch?

So far we have two definitions of religion and neither has proven very useful.  One appears too restrictive to provide an accurate definition while the other appears so broad as to be useless.  Transhumanism would clearly not fit under the first but would under the second (along with everything else).  So where does that leave us?  Perhaps our problem is that in getting bogged down in definitions we’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Perhaps we should ask not whether or not transhumanism is a religion but whether or not it serves the same purpose as one.

Our next question obviously becomes what purpose does a religion serve?  Thinking just off the top of our heads we can probably see the answer.  A religion provides meaning to a person and answers to the so called deeper questions of life (why are we here, etc.)  It often provides a community of like minded individuals.  It teaches morality and where humanity and the individual stand in the greater scheme of things.  It promises a relationship with the divine and the possibility of life in another form.  All of these features can be found in the great religions of the world.  You’ve probably noticed that this is more or less the second definition we listed above.  However by asking what the function of a religion is rather than what a religion is we avoid the thorny problem of having to define it.  Looking at it this way it is quite clear the transhumanism meets the criteria for serving the purpose of a religion, even concerning things like the afterlife which we’ll get to later.

So it seems we’ve come to it.  Transhumanism is, for all intents and purposes, a religion or at the very least a secular replacement for religion, and I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because it’s a good replacement for religion.

What does religion offer that transhumanism can’t?  Ethics?  The movement, broadly utilitarian but with many competing viewpoints, offers sound ethical views on issues as diverse as what constitutes a person, what are the rights of the individual in relation to the collective and how we should treat the natural world.  A sense of community?  Transhumanists have been organized for several decades now and in recent years high profile organizations (IEET, SIAI) have served as a meeting ground and social gathering points for like-minded individuals.  Transcendental ideals?  Go read the literature on mind-uploading, archailects and the end of aging.  Hope for a better world?  Hedonistic Imperative, nuff said.  All this with a solid foundation of rationalism and skepticism, the basis of any good secular ideology.

It’s very fashionable in atheist circles to hold religion over the coals at every possible opportunity (I should know, I walk in those circles) and while there’s certainly a lot that can be laid at religion’s feet I feel that too many in the atheist community fail to recognize both the hugely important role it still plays in people’s lives and the importance of having a secular replacement, both for the sake of those already “converted” and for competing as a ideology.  Atheists, no less than anyone else, seek purpose and answers to life’s deeper questions.  Many seek those out in science, or more specifically scientism.  Other seek it in philosophy, or art, or work.  Others find it, and will find it in the coming decades, in transhumanism.

So the next time someone tells you that transhumanism is just another religion don’t feel bad about responding, “Yes, and it’s a damn good one.”

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