Michael Burdett on modern Atheism’s renewed interest in religion and the attraction of Transhumanism
On February 23, 2012, in the Sheldonian Theatre at the University of Oxford, two figureheads of Modern Britain debated a topic fit for the location: “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin.” Under a newly refurbished painting depicting the arrival of Truth to the Arts and Sciences, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams represented not just Christianity but — so secularists understood — all religious peoples across time and space. His opponent was Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist and retired former Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Dawkins, as his former title suggested, symbolized the atheistic scientific perspective on human origins.
In the longstanding tradition of Oxford debates over scientific and religious matters — one of the most famous was the Wilberforce-Huxley debate of 1860 — this Williams-Dawkins affair was relatively tame. Previous matches between the New Atheists and theists might have encouraged some in the audience to expect blood. Yet Williams and Dawkins remained cordial and civil while representing diametrically opposed positions on religious matters. To everyone’s surprise, Dawkins admitted in this encounter he was more of an extreme agnostic than an atheist — “On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six”; and he said he was humming a well-known hymn in the shower earlier that morning. For this pleased spectator it seemed the modus operandi for the debate was to find common ground on the guiding question rather than hurl insults from opposing trenches. The event raised significant questions: Could modern atheism be losing its militaristic tendency? Might it tolerate the claims or practices of religious peoples?
Atheism 2.0. Atheism is more nuanced today. Anyone currently studying theology or religion in the West understands well militant atheism’s domination of the public square and of the halls of higher education. Academics sometimes feel the pressure to justify their place as religious scholars at the table of higher learning. This is particularly ironic given the historically religious character of many of the world’s top universities. But this attitude does seem to be changing. Many, if not most, would admit that the study of religion is relevant both because the majority of peoples around the world are religious and because global politics demands its consideration. Religion is important — even modern atheists seem to recognize this.
Dawkins’s deferential demeanor in the aforementioned debate with Williams is such an example. He has elsewhere admitted that he thinks Williams is “a lovely man, extremely kind, intelligent and nice” and that his own Church of England raising “probably does show through” from time to time. This once caused an interviewer to qualify Dawkins’s atheism as “Christian atheism.” Many others are beginning to recognize that not only has the New Atheism gone soft but also that an entirely different attitude towards religion has begun to arise amongst atheists. This is nowhere more apparent than with Alain de Botton.
De Botton, a British/Swiss philosopher and writer, takes a much more sympathetic approach to religion than his New Atheist forbearers. Recognizing that he “will annoy partisans on both sides of the debate,” de Botton claims: “The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.” His book on the subject, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, outlines his break with the militant atheist approach and, with it, hails a new era of public atheism often referred to as Atheism 2.0.
His text on the subject probes the religious practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism to glean the sociological and psychological benefits that have made religions so successful over the generations. De Botton wishes to claim for atheism these religious practices “as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.” For instance, de Botton lauds the practical wisdom contained in conventional theological anthropology that recognizes that even the best of human saints, when left to their own devices, are still incredibly weak and need constant reminders and aids to help them lead virtuous lives.
Religions pay attention to the lived spaces of believers and constantly project stories and images of role models/saints into stained glass, frescoes, and personal icons or statuettes as a reminder of the ecclesial community that both shares in the struggle for holiness and is an example that one can attain holiness. De Botton contrasts this with the modern secular appraisal of learned adults as free individuals who are deemed grown-up and are no longer in need of guidance. The modern valorization of freedom as the “supreme political virtue” has led to non-involvement in the private lives of citizens: “[I]t is not thought to be the state’s task to promote a vision of how we ought to act towards one another.” This libertarian ideology rampant in the West, de Botton argues, is naïve and “ignores how much of our original childhood need for constraint and guidance endures within us, and therefore how much we stand to learn from paternalistic strategies” found in many religions today. Religions might hold the key to remedying some of the failures of the modern secular society that atheism has praised for so long.
De Botton is not the first atheist to strongly advocate the study of religion or theology. Whereas Friedrich Nietzsche and the New Atheists prefer the extirpation of all remnants of religious life, their fellow atheist Ludwig Feuerbach was adamant that nothing more worthy could be studied than the very idea of God. Feuerbach understood that the notion of God is important to human rationality. He avowed that humanity’s very reasoning powers are most completed and manifest in thinking the highest of thoughts — that of God. Feuerbach asserted, “God is … the highest degree of the thinking power … Only when thy thought is God dost thou truly think.” He shares with de Botton the belief that religion has some role to play in modern secular society; to deny religion’s place in it is to overlook the anthropological value of religion.
Modern atheists’ renewed interest in religion shows how other atheistic ideologies may be more successful today than the New Atheism. One of de Botton’s central claims is that the individualistic libertarian ideology modern atheism so praises is actually stunting its growth as a movement and not helping modern atheists lead fulfilling lives. De Botton’s project does not stop with writing popular books but also details the practicalities of his “School of Life.” This “School of Life,” often labelled an “atheist church,” is in central London and hosts daily workshops and seminars on those very issues that often get sidelined in a secular world and in modern atheism: how to face death, choosing the right vocation, how to be a better friend, how to balance work with life and how to be creative. De Botton prefers to call these “secular sermons.” They do not just convey knowledge in some disengaged way, but he hopes they are “actually going to be something that will … steer how you live. So it’s didactic … it’s explicitly moralistic not in a kind of starched, Victorian way, but in the best possible sense. It exhorts you to a kind of better, fuller life … .” De Botton does more than exhort modern atheists to import religious elements into their lives; he devotes significant time and resources to making it possible.
Atheism 3.0? Secular transhumanism is likely to be more successful than past atheistic ideologies for many of the reasons de Botton outlines above. Religious scholars such as Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Robert M. Geraci, and Brent Waters have outlined how transhumanism has incorporated many religious tropes and elements and ought to be considered a kind of “secularist faith.” Nick Bostrom, a leading philosopher and vanguard of the movement defines transhumanism as:
(1) 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.
(2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.
Transhumanism, as the term and definition suggest, is related to humanism. Transhumanism shares with humanism the central values of reason and science, human progress, and the value of our present life. Both focus on the flourishing of humanity and the improvement of the human condition through rational and scientific thinking. But transhumanism then takes these shared humanist ideals and advocates the enhancement of the human species through biotechnology and information technology, moving beyond the utilization of these technologies for therapeutic purposes alone. And whereas both humanism and transhumanism acknowledge the evolutionary trajectory of human beings, transhumanism advocates for the acceleration of human evolution through technological enhancement.
Many of transhumanism’s beliefs have strong religious ties. Transhumanism espouses the cessation of death through technology that is akin to religious salvation. Notable transhumanists Aubrey de Grey and Raymond Kurzweil understand the ageing process to be a catastrophic peculiarity of organic life. Death is merely an obstacle for human beings, not an immutable feature of creaturely existence. When an interviewer asked him about the religious implications of transhumanism, Kurzweil agreed transhumanism fulfills many of the same functions that religion has in the past. For him this is especially apparent in the shared commitment to ceasing or “forestalling death.” De Grey and other transhumanist scientists are researching how to remove this genetic feature so that human bodies do not degrade. Kurzweil himself ingests between 180 and 210 pills a day to reprogram his biochemistry and to stave off natural death. For Kurzweil and many other transhumanists technology acts as our savior; it rescues us from our death.
Religious themes of transformation and glorification are central tenets of transhumanism as well. Transhumanism proposes, in the first instance, to apply advancing technologies to outfit the human body. They recommend at the very least a kind of transformation of an organic human being into a veritable cyborg. However, the ultimate goal many transhumanists advocate is reverse engineering the human brain so that people can go on living as bits of software in what transhumanists refer to as “mind-uploading.” This project of mapping the mind seems to be a lynchpin of the transhumanist project. In the ultimate leap of faith they conclude that, if the brain can be “coded” into 1’s and 0’s, human beings can be effectively immortal. Humankind will be transformed from an organic species into pure information.
This transformation, for transhumanists, is not only external. There is a complete transformation of the internal experience as well. Nick Bostrom concludes that the inner life of our transhuman children will be nothing short of bliss — beyond what we can even fathom today. Taking on the voice of the transhuman, Bostrom says in his essay “Letter from Utopia”:
You could say that I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel surpassing bliss. But these are words invented to describe human experience. What I feel is as far beyond human feelings as my thoughts are beyond human thought.
Transhumanists assert that this transformation is entirely positive and can be likened to a kind of glorification. Images like that seen here are the norm in representing transhumanism. In this image the transhuman towers over its evolutionary ancestors and is depicted in a glorified state — complete with divine aureoles of light beaming from the head and hands. It is clear that transhumanism uses religious imagery explicitly.
Finally, transhumanism utilizes religious tropes about the future and derives religious hope from this envisioned future. Despite an ultimate hope in the force of technology, transhumanism posits a larger narrative that speaks of an equal danger that must be overcome in the short term. For transhumanists, this religious/existential anxiety today stems from two forces in the universe. First, inhospitable cosmic forces threaten human beings. Any major astrophysical phenomenon, such as celestial collisions or the Big Crunch/Big Freeze, could drastically alter the conditions of humanity’s survival. Second, there is a more imminent threat: “the Singularity.” The Singularity refers to a time in the near future (Kurzweil sets it at 2045) when artificial intelligence will greatly surpass the computing power and abilities of human intelligence such that humans and artificial intelligence will become one. According to Kurzweil, it is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” On an intuitive level and from our current perspective the Singularity represents a point at which historical prediction becomes very difficult if not impossible altogether because the societal and historical change will be so rapid that all our modeling will no longer be able to cope.
In many ways, the Singularity represents a kind of religious apocalypse in that one cannot see beyond its horizon. If Kurzweil is right, history, from our current perspective, seems entirely different after the Singularity. The Singularity marks a qualitatively different epoch. But it differs from a traditional apocalypse in that it is entirely seamless with the present. “It’s not like we are going to go along and nothing is going to happen and suddenly we are going to take this huge leap to super-intelligent machines,” Kurzweil states. “We are going to get from here to there through thousands of little steps.” The Singularity is not like an apocalypse that originates from outside of history. It is something that comes entirely from within the confines of history.
This apocalyptic Singularity evokes both dread and hope for transhumanists. The Singularity causes anxiety because we can’t see beyond its horizon. Things will be so different, according to transhumanist philosophy, because it signals a break with common history. Humankind will no longer be the most intelligent known entity in the galaxy. The very technology that has given us such an advantage in history could end up extinguishing us all.
Yet the Singularity is also a source of hope for transhumanists, because it is a time of rapid advancement of the human species and also the source of corporate human salvation. With the technological advances promised in the Singularity, humanity might be equipped to radically alter its dangerous situation on a cosmic scale. We might be able to survive such harsh astrophysical events as the Big Crunch or the Big Freeze. These transhumanists say that our only hope in this far future lies in the very technology that is also the source for our anxiety today.
Despite often overt criticisms of religion, transhumanism contains many religiously-inspired elements. If de Botton is correct — that for modern atheism to survive it ought to import more religious elements — transhumanism could fill a void and be more successful in atheist circles. The attraction of transhumanism for atheists could be both its secularized, techno-scientific dogma and its resulting responses to pressing religious/existential questions. What is going to happen to us and the planet in the future and how can we safeguard what is meaningful for our progeny? What about our individual deaths? What about transcending ourselves and growing and getting better? What can I really hope for and in? Transhumanism offers responses to each of these questions in a robust narrative and it does so with a strong footing in science and atheism.
Modern atheism will likely continue to evolve in Western, post-secular societies. The diversity of its expression can increase its ideological adaptability, making it even more pluriform in the future. This pluriformity will likely continue cross-pollinating with religious traditions of the world, thus continuing the question of how religion relates to the public square. De Botton’s “School of Life” may be only the beginning of atheisms that look in some ways more religious than traditional religions themselves.