Even Materialists Crave Religion

Original Article

Even materialists crave religion. The need to believe—to locate ultimate meaning in the universe—is deeply embedded in our natures.

Atheists seek to deflect attention from this deeply human yearning. Thus, Richard Dawkins famously wrote that Darwin made it possible “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

But intellectual fulfillment is hardly the same thing as finding meaning and purpose to the mystery of existence. In fact, on another occasion, Dawkins pinpointed a major reason why naked materialism is not widely embraced: “Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end,” he blustered. Maybe. But ultimate existential extinguishment is not a flag most people will cheerily follow. Oohing and aahing at natural selection can only take one so far. Thus, it was only a matter of time before materialists began grasping at a materialist substitute for religion.

Enter the church of transhumanism, which substitutes faith in technology for belief in God (or in reincarnation and karma). Transhumanism is the utopian social movement and philosophy that looks toward a revolutionary future breakthrough in technological prowess—termed “the singularity”—which will allow transhumanists to “seize control of human evolution” and create a “post human species” of near immortals. Transhumanists take these hopes very seriously. Indeed, they proselytize for their ageless post-human future with the kind of fervor materialists usually disdain in traditional religionists.

Transhumanist eschatology contains the Christian element of hope, but its believers expect that man—assisted by artificial intelligent machines, no God needed—will invent the means of attaining an immortal new age. In the transhuman New Jerusalem, we would live for thousands of years, perhaps by sharing uploaded consciousnesses in computer software programs or, if we remain physical, by self-designing our capabilities to resemble the characters in the X-Men comic books. Eventually, according to Princeton biologist Lee Silver in his transhumanist manifesto Remaking Eden (get the title?), humans will become immortal “mental beings”:

 It is difficult to find words to describe the enhanced attributes of these special people. “Intelligence” does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. “Knowledge” does not explain the depth of their understanding of both the universe and their own consciousnesses. “Power” is not strong enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live.

To me, it is telling that transhumanists revere intelligence in much the same way that Christians extol love. But that’s a subject for another column.

Transhumanists used to repudiate any suggestion that their movement is a form of religion. But that wall of denial is cracking. Take this recent article on technology as the new faith, just published in the International Business Times:

 Yuval Noah Harari, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said human dissatisfaction will drive mankind to “upgrade themselves”—and that cyborg technology will allow them to do this. According to the Telegraph, he said: “I think it is likely in the next 200 years or so Homo sapiens will upgrade themselves into some idea of a divine being, either through biological manipulation or genetic engineering of by the creation of cyborgs, part organic part non-organic.

According to Harari, the human inventions of religion and money long succeeded in subduing the earth. But with traditional religion waning in the West—and who can deny it?—we need new “fictions” to bind us together. That’s where transhumanism comes in:

God is extremely important because without religious myth you can’t create society. Religion is the most important invention of humans. As long as humans believed they relied more and more on these gods they were controllable.

With religion it’s easy to understand. You can’t convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana with the promise it will get 20 more bananas in chimpanzee heaven. It won’t do it. But humans will.

But what we see in the last few centuries is humans becoming more powerful and they no longer need the crutches of the gods. Now we are saying we do not need God just technology.

Silicon Valley as the new Eternal City? Good grief.

Alas, for transhumanists, technology is a very hard pillow. The fantasy of uploading one’s mind into a robot might be fun to contemplate at academic symposia and in boardrooms of high-tech companies overflowing with investment capital. And I certainly understand why living longer is preferable to the alternative of permanent nonbeing. But such temporary detours and—let’s face it—highly unlikely scenarios will never supply true meaning to yearning souls (if transhumanists will pardon the term), only a diversion. In the end, transhumanism is a wail of despair in the night, spitting vainly into the howling existential winds of what most true materialists see as a meaningless void.

I am having none of it. But I must admit I find it fascinating to watch.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.