Christians are embracing cyborgs, cryogenics, and radical life extension.
Image: Silver Menna/Flickr
A lot of people think of Christianity as a backwards-looking religion, obsessed with protesting gays, being judgmental, and imposing its rules on everyone else. That doesn't sound like a group of people ready to embrace the cutting edge of technology or culture—but Christianity has reinvented itself many times in the past, and when it does, it often ends up profoundly forward-looking and progressive.
I believe that this reinvention is happening now, and what is emerging is a new class of Christian transhumanists and singularitarians with radically disruptive views on the future.
Of course, I'm hardly unbiased. I'm one of them: I grew up as a preacher's kid, saturated in the Bible and Christian thought; I've identified as a transhumanist since the mid-90s; and I'm currently the executive director of the Christian Transhumanist Association.
For those not familiar with transhumanism, it has been called "the world's most dangerous idea," and has recently been making waves in popular culture, with numerous references in big-budget movies, appearances on TV shows and documentaries, and now even a political candidate in the upcoming presidential race. In movies (like the just released "Self/less") transhumanists are almost universally portrayed as wanting to transplant brains, upload themselves into the Matrix, create runaway AI, or freeze their corpses.
Despite a generally negative portrayal, the movement appears to be growing rapidly, fueled by a simple idea: make the world better through science and technology. In a time where we face pessimism and cynicism from many directions, this idea seems to carry real weight.
For the most part, the transhumanist movement has been defined by hard-core atheists, with a generally negative attitude towards religious people and religion in general.
But this is where things get interesting: religious transhumanism is a growing phenomenon. The Mormon Transhumanist Association has existed for nine years, and has over 500 members. The Christian Transhumanist association is newer and smaller, but seems to represent a real and felt need among a growing number of Christians.
"I think Christians are uniquely placed to be ready for massively extended lifespans."
Florida pastor Christopher Benek is one of these Christian transhumanists. Lately, Benek has been making headlines (and even an appearance on The Daily Show) with his controversial take on robots, A.I. and the future.
"I don't see Christ's redemption limited to human beings," he says. "It's redemption to all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ's redemptive purposes in the world… AI can help spread the word of God. In fact, AI might help us understand God better."
These statements might seem strange to the average church-goer, but this conversation isn't just a fringe phenomenon in Christianity. Renowned anglican theologian N. T. Wright has been regularly participating in public conversations on transhumanism and Christian faith. And new conferences on religious transhumanism are emerging every year.
It would seem that the world's most dangerous idea is increasingly being explored, and often embraced, by religious individuals.
"Technology isn't going to solve all our problems, nor is technology going to advance forever at an exponential rate," says Geoffrey Miller, a 27-year-old graduate student and Catholic monastic. "But so what? Cochlear implants can help deaf kids hear and cybernetics can help lame men walk. That's good enough for me…that's my Christian transhumanism."
"For me, Christian Transhumanism is a way to support my faith without needing to give up reason," says Dorothy Deasy, a design researcher in Vancouver, Washington. "Christianity provides a way for society and culture to understand how to use the power of technology. Christ's mission was based on feeding, healing and teaching. Transhuman age technologies are providing tools to exponentially extend the reach of feeding, healing and teaching."
What may be most surprising to bystanders is that this impulse to explore and embrace transhumanist ideals often emerges from an increased devotion to historic Christianity. When not quoting popes and ancient church fathers, Christian transhumanists often cite C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and G. K. Chesterton—writers much loved by conservative Christians—as some of their primary influences. Even the word "transhuman" seems to have its origins in Christian history, apparently coined by Dante for the Divine Comedy in 1320 as an allusion to St. Paul's visions of profound transformation.
At the same time, this new wave of religious transhumanists often have ideas that are even more extreme than those of the secular transhumanists. These believers tend to see the advancement of technology as a religious imperative, something that emerges from fundamental Christian teachings like "love your neighbor as yourself."
They often understand Christian apocalyptic and eschatological teachings not as predictions of a coming doomsday in which only a lucky few may survive, but as a calling to confront the immense challenges of our human future. They are inclined to see the Christian project not as an attempt to escape a doomed Earth in favor of heaven, but as an attempt to bring heaven to Earth, echoing Jesus' words in what we now know as The Lord's Prayer.
This means that things like space exploration, artificial intelligence, radical life extension, cyborgs, and cryogenics—are all up for consideration, not as threats to Christianity, but as the precise tools needed for achieving the Christian mission.
"I think Christians are uniquely placed to be ready for massively extended lifespans. We already have a view of what kind of mind you need," says Australian engineer Jonathan Gunnell, referencing Christian values such as compassion and self-sacrifice. "Without [that] I can foresee the Singularity degenerating into civil war."
How do other transhumanists feel about the increasing presence of religious individuals in the movement?
"My initial reaction was probably amused curiosity," says Hank Pellissier, director of the Brighter Brains Institute, and producer of a popular series of Transhumanist conferences. "Later…I was angry about religious transhumanists. I was a militant atheist before I was a transhumanist, like many transhumanists are."
But for Pellissier, interacting with some of these religious transhumanists changed his mind.
"[Now] I welcome them. If transhumanism presents itself as an atheist-only anti-religious club… this would be detrimental to transhumanism as a movement."
This sense that religious transhumanism is here to stay—a new and yet necessary part of the transhumanist landscape—seems to be becoming the accepted reality. And as Christians begin to feel more comfortable in the transhumanist world, more and more religious and theological ideas will become connected to concrete actions and technologies.
The last great upheaval in Christianity was the Protestant Reformation, with reformers rejecting ecclesiastical authority in favor of a new reliance on scripture. As a result, literacy—and the technology which enabled it—became a core part of the way Christians framed their work and their mission.
Just as the printing press gained incredible religious significance during the Protestant Reformation, we may see the next wave of Christians embrace transhumanist technologies as part of a sacred duty to participate with God in the redemption of the world.
Maybe missionaries will embark on cryonic missions to the future. Maybe would-be "Noahs" will take vast arks full of the DNA of endangered species, and head towards the stars. Maybe Christian computer scientists will take seriously the responsibility of a creator to its creatures, and treat new artificial intelligences not as monsters, but as beings deserving of love.
Maybe missionaries will embark on cryonic missions to the future
These are all possibilities. Whatever the reality turns out to be, I think we are only at the beginning of Christianity's most profound transformation yet. With any luck, what emerges will not only transform our understanding of technology and human nature, but will help us move into a future more compassionate, more sustainable, and more imaginative than ever before.
Micah Redding is a software developer and the executive director of the Christian Transhumanist Association. He grew up as a preacher's kid, traveled the world as a rock musician, and writes about the intersection of human values and technology.