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Transhumanism: a “secular spirituality” of life extension and cosmic consciousness finds mainstream hearing

A broad-based movement pressing for life extension and radically enhancing human consciousness through technology is gaining mainstream support and adopting a unique kind of “secular spirituality.”

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At a late May conference on non-institutional spirituality at Columbia University in New York, Abou Farman (City University of New York) presented a paper on a fast-growing network of technological thinkers and groups that he called “informatic futurists” that both borrow concepts from religion and spirituality while seeing themselves in competition with traditional faiths. The network consists of transhumanists, who hold that humans can transcend their limits through technology, artificial intelligence enthusiasts, and “singularitarians,” who believe that a computerized “super-intelligence” will replace the human mind.

Farman said that these different groups all share the particular worldview in which the universe is understood to be constituted by and through information and that the use of information technology can be a way of “surpassing the limitations of biology and ushering in the next stage in evolution.” These different groups coalesced during the technology boom of the 1990s in Silicon Valley in California. Some of the groups in this network have a more “spiritual” orientation than others. Teresem, a Florida-based organization dedicated to achieving immortality through nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and its founder Martine Rothblatt, uses language that is “spiritual even New Age-the reach for authenticity and origins, the revelation, the projection of unity and inclusiveness, the appeals to energy and immortality,” Farman writes. Rothblatt, a transgender lawyer, disavows mystical and supernatural explanations yet uses spiritual language to describe ideas that go beyond science, including the views that the mind is a pattern of information just like matter and that the progress of technology has a definite direction and purpose.

In recent years, transhumanist groups have sought to show how their work is compatable with “religion” and “spirituality.” The Mormon Transhumanist Association held a recent conference on “Transhumanism and Spirituality,” which included prominent leaders in the movement. In 2009, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pistoia in Italy held a week-long seminar on “The Idea of Immortality on Earth,” which drew both transhumanist support and criticism. But Farman adds that the informatic futurist network has a strong atheist and materialist component. He cites surveys showing that atheists and agnostics comprise anywhere from 72 to 85 percent of these groups' memberships, along with a minority of pagans and other religions.

In many cases, informatic futurists seek to compete and eventually overturn traditional religious institutions. William Sims Bainbridge, a prominent sociologist of religion and pioneer in this movement, has argued for the need for “really aggressive, attractive space religions...meeting the emotional needs of different segments of our population, driving traditional religions and retrograde cults from the field.” This idea has more recently been taken up by Giulio Prisco, an Italian transhumanist activist and former physicist, who has established the Order of Cosmic Engineers. The goal of the order is to “permeate our universe with benign intelligence, building and spreading it from inner space to outer space and beyond.” In a similar way, informatic futurists see spirituality as a mental process that can be harnessed for technological progress. Ray Kurzweil, the founder of the singularity movement, claims that it will be possible to simulate spiritual experiences, such as through neural networks and brain emulations, and enhance them through technology to produce a “new generation of humans that will be trillions and trillions of times more capable and complex than humans today”-a future event that Kurzweil defines as the “Singularity.”

Although these ideas may sound like science fiction, Farman says that the informatic futurists are gaining increasing influence in mainstream society. In his position at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Bainbridge has organized a U.S. government-sponsored conference on the “convergence” or unification of nanotechnology, biotechnology, informatics, and cognitive science. The innovations of this convergence will change the landscape of human civilization, according to Bainbridge and his colleagues. Singularity thinkers have found a welcome at the U.S. space agency NASA. A recent NASA publication attempts to tie together sociobiological views of cultural evolution to physics and astronomy, arguing for the need for a “cosmic consciousness.” Farman cites the publication as claiming that the cosmos is “intertwined with human destiny...impinging on (and arguably essential to) questions normally reserved for religion and philosophy.”

Farman says that the influence of the informatics futurists and their promotion of a convergence between science and human consciousness will “shape more and more of our lives, whether it be through neuroscience research, NSF priorities, Silicon Valley venture capital or popular conferences and ideas.” These challenges will likely change the shape of the relationship between religion and secularism. He concludes that it may be the case that “secular humanism and religion will find each other closer than ever before as the informatic cosmologists try and move away from both gods and humans, as well as from the earth itself.”

Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com.

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