The Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida is nothing like the church your parents or grandparents attended. It is part of the growing movement of transhumanism. Unlike traditional religions, transhumanism does not invoke the supernatural. In fact, many transhumanists would shun the religious label entirely because at the heart of the transhumanist movement is a rejection of the religious belief in an afterlife.
Transhumanists embrace the goal of immortality, but they do not think death-transcendence will come from faith in a higher power. Many transhumanists are atheists. They argue it is up to humans to engineer their own eternal life through medical and technological innovations.
Possibilities range from the relatively humble goal of defeating specific terminal diseases such as cancer to the more science-fiction sounding interest in defeating death by transferring human consciousness to a machine body or uploading it into a supercomputer that would allow people to live indefinitely in cyberspace. The end game is to beat death. All science-based options are on the table.
The Church of Perpetual Life hosts regular, usually monthly, services that involve music and a variety of speakers who share their ideas about how immortality on Earth can be achieved. When interviewed, church members expressed the kind of sentiments one would expect to hear from any typical worshiper. To them, the church is a place for like-minded people to come together for fellowship and to pursue a shared interest in a goal that unites diverse religions all over the world - the quest to be more than mortal.
Though the church has been criticized by some as having ulterior financial motives, it is just one example of the mixing of religious ideas and secular techno-ideologies. Consider, for example, the growing Mormon Transhumanist Association. Transhumanism is particularly attractive to atheists; however, the majority of the members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association believe in God and are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. They are largely young, male, science and tech savvy professionals who see supernatural beliefs and the pursuit of immortality through science as going hand in hand.
The Mormon Transhumanist Association reveals a tension within the broader transhumanist community. Many atheist transhumanists are adamant that their movement remain free of any supernatural beliefs. Yet, other, more spiritually-minded transhumanists see no conflict between supernatural ideas and science-based efforts to conquer death. Some argue, for instance, that perhaps a creator blessed humans with intelligence so we could become the architects of our own salvation. Transhumanism is by no means sweeping the nation, but it hints at the possibility that many people need a religious-like outlet.
Humans, like all organisms, strive to survive. However, we possess a distinct cocktail of cognitive capacities that make this goal a more conscious and purposeful one. Self-consciousness, combined with the ability to think abstractly and in terms of time, has rendered us aware of the fact that the self we so dearly cherish is finite.
Our intelligence has allowed us to dominate the planet and bend nature to our will. In many ways, our species is god-like, able to split the atom, map the genome, and, arguably no less important, brew an outstanding craft beer. And I have no doubt that we are on the brink of having the flying cars we were all promised as children. Through science and technology, we have been able to increase the human lifespan and make living more comfortable.
Still, death stalks us. Most mentally healthy people do not fixate on mortality. We have too many obligations and goals. But life is full of experiences that bring to mind the transience and fragility of our existence. The death of a loved one, an accident or narrow brush with serious danger, a personal health scare, a disease outbreak, crime, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and even the daily aches and pains associated with aging, all serve as potent reminders that death is certain and often cannot be predicted or controlled.
What did our ancestors do when they became intellectual animals able to ponder their mortal predicament? For one, they turned to the supernatural. Religious beliefs and identifications have no doubt served a wide range of psychological and social functions; however, a key feature of many faith traditions is the problem of death. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.”
Psychologists have now conducted dozens of studies that reveal Lincoln’s opinion is not unique. When research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind, they exhibit increased religiosity and, more broadly, increased belief in, openness to, or curiosity about a wide range of ideas affirming the sense that humans have a spiritual or nonmaterial essence that transcends mortality.
Do people, particularly nonreligious people, become attracted to transhumanist ideas when thinking about their mortality? Social psychologists at the University of Arizona explored this question in a recent experiment.[i]
Participants in this study were randomly assigned to read one of two articles. One article made the claim that medical and technological advances are making it possible and even likely that people will be able to live much longer lives in the near future and that it is even conceivable that by the middle of this century we will have the ability to extend human life indefinitely. In other words, scientists are getting closer and closer to solving the problem of biological death.
The other article also described the idea of science being used to indefinitely extend human life but argued that there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that we are on the verge of stopping or reversing the aging process.
So one article made it appear that the idea of indefinite life is reasonable whereas the other article made it appear that such an idea is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Critically, the researchers also randomly assigned participants to spend a few minutes thinking about their mortality or another topic unrelated to death.
The final part of the experiment was a questionnaire measuring transhumanist attitudes. It assessed the extent to which participants supported the goal of indefinite life extension, thought the goal was achievable, and wanted to have their own lives extended.
The study produced two distinct patterns of findings. First, providing people with reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic about indefinite life extension influenced transhumanist attitudes. However, people’s level of religiosity greatly influenced this effect.
For highly religious folks, being presented with a case for or against indefinite life extension did not influence attitudes. The highly religious were simply not that supportive of or interested in indefinite life extension regardless of how it was described.
Nonreligious individuals, however, were significantly more optimistic about and likely to support the idea of scientists pursuing indefinite life extension if they had read the article suggesting that it is a legitimate and achievable goal that could be reached in the coming decades. Nonreligious participants who were not given such hope had attitudes indistinguishable from their highly religious counterparts.
In short, providing those who do not have a religious path to immortality with hope for immortality through scientific innovation inspired support for transhumanist ideas and goals. Atheists don’t want to die and disappear forever any more than anyone else.
The other pattern of findings involved the manipulation in which participants thought about death. Having people think about death influenced their support for the goal of indefinite life extension. But again, religious identification played a critical role. For highly religious folks, thinking about death actually decreased support for indefinite life extension.
To some highly religious people, transhumanist goals might be perceived as humans trying to play God, a potential threat to their religious worldview. Indeed, other research shows that people who strongly believe they have an eternal soul are not particularly concerned about the possibility of the world ending.[ii] They have a religious path to immortality.
The results were the opposite for nonreligious participants. Thinking about death inspired these participants to exhibit greater support for the scientific pursuit of indefinite life extension. Nonreligious individuals are less inclined to believe in an afterlife. Therefore, when they are grappling with existential fears they become more hopeful about finding immortality on Earth through medical innovations. This finding is consistent with the idea advanced by some scholars that scientific efforts to replicate or upload people’s brain patterns are rooted in existential fears about death.[iii]
This is just a single study but it is consistent with the broader literature that people, even those who do not subscribe to traditional religious beliefs, want to defeat mortality. Though in this experiment highly religious people generally were not attracted to indefinite life extension, the example of Mormon transhumanism previously discussed suggests this issue is more complex. Some people may be interested in a range of metaphysical and science-based paths to death-transcendence. Perhaps some want to keep their religious traditions alive in order to feel connected to a broader community but also desire to explore new techno-religious possibilities. More research is needed to understand the many ways different people respond to the uniquely human ability to ruminate about mortality.
[i] Lifshin, U., Greenberg, J. Soenke, M., Darrel, A., Pyszczynski T. (in press). Mortality salience, religiosity, and indefinite life extension: Evidence of a reciprocal relationship between afterlife beliefs and support for forestalling death. Religion Brain and Behavior.
[ii] Lifshin, U., Greenberg, J., Weise, D., & Soenke, M. (2016). It’s the end of the world and I feel fine: Soul belief and perceptions of end-of-the-world scenarios. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(1), 104-117. doi:10.1177/0146167215616800
[iii] Linssen, C., & Lemmens, P. (2016). Embodiment in whole-brain emulation and its implications for death anxiety. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 26(2), 1-15.