Posted: Sat, April 20, 2013 | By: Religion / Atheism
by Gennady Stolyarov II
On a recent Immortal Life debate/discussion thread, I was asked to participate in a conversation about whether advocates of indefinite life extension should call their opponents “deathists” or whether such a label is counterproductive. Another question on that thread concerned the use of the designation “immortalist” to refer to an advocate of indefinite longevity. On a different thread, I was asked to address the question of whether religions would become obsolete in an era of indefinite human life extension.
My view on this matter is a nuanced one. It is crucial to make a distinction between (i) people who simply hold the common “tragic worldview” – who accept their mortality as inevitable and try to “make peace” with it and (ii) people who actively work to stop life-extension technologies.
The former are simply mistaken and can be reasoned with, persuaded, or at least led to gradually become more comfortable with life extension as it becomes ever more real. The latter, however, might not be open to persuasion and might pursue legislative action (or worse) to stop life-extension research. Every person’s arguments should be addressed civilly and intelligently. The label “deathist” is not uncivil per se, however, and has its place with regard to people who cannot be swayed by argument or evidence from a position that is actively hostile to life extension.
These are not your rank-and-file skeptics of radical life extension, but rather people such as Leon Kass, Sherwin Nuland, Daniel Callahan, John Gray, and Nassim Taleb, who will not be shifted from their anti-life-extension views and who have made considerable amounts of money out of attacking pro-longevity ideas. Calling these people “deathists” is not aimed at persuading them, but rather at alerting possibly more objective third parties of the dangers of their views. If there is still the opportunity to persuade someone, then labels of this sort should not be directed at that person.
As for positive labels, I can proudly attribute the term “immortalist” to myself – not because I think that indefinite life extension will by itself bring immortality (it will not), but rather because I think that any condition that more closely approaches immortality is a desirable one. Thus, I support not only the lifting of upper limits on lifespans, but also major improvements in protection against asteroids, earthquakes, weather events, vehicle accidents, infectious diseases, and manmade conflicts. I oppose anything that can destroy an innocent human life. This approach should be part of the war on ruin we all need to fight in the furtherance of our civilization.
Obsolescence of Religion?
The future of religion is a topic on which I created a video in early 2012: “Religion and Indefinite Life Extension”.
To summarize, in my (atheistic) view, religions are generally not animating forces of societal change. Rather, they tend to be barometers of prevailing attitudes approximately one generation in the past. Often, religions get dragged along into making progress by intellectual developments outside religion – in the same way that, as a result of the 18th-century Enlightenment, various Christian denominations gradually transitioned away from providing Biblical justifications for slavery and toward denouncing slavery on Christian grounds. The impetus for this transformation was the rise of ideas of reason, individualism, and natural rights – not the doctrines of the Christian religion.
I suspect that there will be a broad spectrum of responses among various religious denominations and their followers to the prospect of indefinite life extension, once most people begin to see it as within their individual grasp. In Christianity, on the cutting edge will be those Christians who interpret the message of the resurrection (a literal resurrection in the flesh, according to actual Christian doctrine) to be compatible with transhumanist technologies. (We already see the beginnings of forward-thinking interpretations of religion with the Mormon Transhumanists.)
On the other hand, the more staid, dogmatic, ossified religious denominations and sects will try to resist technological change vigorously, and will not be above attempting to hold the entire world’s progress back, merely to make their own creeds more convincing to their followers. Historically, religions have served two primary societal roles: (1) to form a justification for the existing social order and (2) to assuage people’s fears of death. The first role has atrophied over time in societies with religious freedom.
The second role will also diminish as radical life extension in this world becomes a reality. Religions do evolve, though, and the interpretations of religion that ultimately prevail will (I hope) be the more peaceful, humane, and progress-friendly ones. At the same time, proportions of non-religious people in all populations will rise, as has been the trend already.