(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, July 21, 2014)
Mankind is still embryonic … [humans are] the bud from which something more complicated and more centered than [themselves] should emerge. ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J.
1. The End of Religion
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1
Transhumanism appears to have nothing in common with religion, defined as: “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship…”2 In transhumanism gods plays no role.
Yet the two are not entirely dissimilar. Like transhumanists, the religious generally want to overcome the limitations of the body and live happily forever. With no other options available religions, arising before transhumanist ideas were conceivable, advised their followers to accept death and hope for the best. Religious beliefs provided comfort in the face of death and natural evils before the advent of science and technology.
But must we relinquish religious beliefs now, before science gives us everything we want? Might we allow the comfort of religious beliefs to those who need them, to those who must tell their children something when someone dies? The most important reason to abandon religious belief is religion’s opposition to most forms of progress. Religion has generally opposed: the elimination of slavery, the use of birth control, women’s and civil rights, stem cell research, genetic engineering, and science in general. Organized religion typically opposes progress. It is from our past; it opposes the future. The comfort provided by archaic superstitions often impedes advancement and therefore should be set aside.
2. Transhumanism as a Cosmic Narrative
But can humans function without the old religious narratives? As I said in a previous post, humans need a new narrative based on a scientific worldview. This narrative could be a transhumanist one, of humans playing their role as links in a chain leading to more complex forms of being and consciousness. But against this seemingly infinite temporal background, what can be said of the significance of a single, finite human life? Not much. For now we must be content to hope that our post-human descendants will experience more meaningful consciousness, grateful to us for the part we played in bringing about their future.
And what is the point of cosmic evolution producing these higher and more conscious life forms? Again we must hope that our post-human descendants will understand these ultimate questions and that our own lives—by then long past—will be given significance by that knowledge. We can also hope that somehow we will be aware of, and possibly participate in, this better and more meaningful cosmos. For now we must take solace in the hope that the better world we imagine is indeed possible.
No doubt humans need a new, scientifically based cosmic narrative to replace the older, less plausible religious ones. Such narratives are beginning to emerge as our understanding of cosmic evolution and our proper role in it increases. But whatever shape those narratives take they must be informed by the belief that humans can evolve into something much more than they are now.
1. This quote is from the Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.
2. From “The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.”