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Should we live to be 500? Christians and secularists come together over transhumanism

Attendees of the Christian Transhumanist Conference gather for a breakout discussion in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 25, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — It’s a “tired old story” heard in many a sermon, the Rev. Neal Locke of First Presbyterian Church of El Paso said.

A man is standing on his roof as floodwaters rise. A passing truck stops and the driver tells him to climb in, but the man declines, saying he has prayed and trusts God to save him. He turns down a boat and then a helicopter before the water overtakes him.

The punchline comes when, upon arriving in heaven, the man asks God why God hadn’t saved him, and God recalls sending a truck, a boat and a helicopter, saying, “Work with me.”

Locke, though, wasn’t delivering a sermon.

The Texas pastor was moderating a panel at the first-ever Christian Transhumanist Conference, hosted last month by the Christian Transhumanist Association at Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Nashville.

The Rev. Neal Locke, from left, Aubrey de Grey and Micah Redding participate in a panel titled “Should We Live to be 500?” during the Christian Transhumanist Conference in Nashville on Aug. 25, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller


RELATED: Blessing robots: Is a technological reformation coming?


Transhumanism is the idea humans can transcend their current physical and mental limitations using science and technology. To Christian transhumanists, transhumanism means working with God to accomplish God’s work in the world through the ethical use of that science and technology.

“It’s a conversation that calls us, that challenges us to develop a deeper theology of technology,” said Micah Redding, director of the four-year-old Christian Transhumanist Association.

“That then allows us to enter into these conversations about where technology is going, what it means to advocate for positive, relational values for our human future.”

The church’s interest in transhumanism is growing, according to Redding, who pointed to recent conferences on related topics in London and Vatican City. In turn, secular transhumanists have developed an interest in religion, including creating a religion of artificial intelligence.

But there’s also pushback from both sides.

And that comes, Redding said, from secular transhumanists who don’t see him as a “viable member of their community” as well as from Christians who believe “because of our association with transhumanism we are ushering in the Antichrist.”

Christian Transhumanist Association director Micah Redding opens the Christian Transhumanist Conference in Nashville on Aug. 25, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Controversial science

Transhumanists envision a future in which one’s mind will be downloadable and life spans will be considerably longer, if not infinite. In biblical parlance, they imagine a time when the blind will receive their sight and the lame walk.

Neuroscientist Stephen Helms Tillery, associate professor of bioengineering and a fellow of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University, is developing some of the kinds of technology that transhumanists cite — namely, neuroprosthetics that interface the nervous system to computer systems.

Stephen Helms Tillery. Photo courtesy of Arizona State University

Helms Tillery’s work may soon allow scientists to create a robotic arm that can be controlled by thought or a prosthetic hand with sensors that could feel touch, and, he said, “There’s no reason to think they can’t be applied in a more broad sense for interfacing with computers.”

“The kinds of advances that transhumanists are concerned about are already happening, but in a much more prosaic way. They’ve been going on for 50 years,” Helms Tillery said.

Contact lenses, binoculars and telescopes already have profoundly expanded human capabilities, he pointed out, and Google allows people to quickly access information.

But, he added, “Are we going to have a quantum leap that allows us to download our brain into a computer? I don’t think so. Or to be able to live forever? I don’t think so. But I could be wrong.”

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, also is skeptical about the interface between transhumanism and Christianity, telling Religion News Service: “There could no more be a Christian transhumanist society than a carnivorous vegan society. The two are completely contradictory.”

That’s because, Moore said, the Bible begins with humanity made in the image of God and continues with that narrative through the incarnation of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be both God and man. Transcending humanity, then, is “contradictory to the biblical story at every point.”

“Scripture tells us how to transcend death, and it’s not through our own technological prowess,” he said.

Moore generally believes technology to be a good thing and doesn’t want to be an alarmist; he remembers Christians in the 1980s fearing that supermarket scanners somehow led to the “mark of the beast” described in Revelation. But, he said, ideas such as transhumanism present gray areas Christians need to be thinking through — before they’re reality.

‘Unusual’ conversations

Bringing these two views of transhumanism into conversation is exactly what the Christian Transhumanist Association director said he wanted to do at the Nashville conference, which drew about 130 attendees and speakers from diverse faith backgrounds. They discussed what it means to be human, whether humans can and should live to be 500 and whether humans actually are living in a simulation.

Those are “awkward” and “unusual” conversations, Redding admitted.

“If we’re not making you a little uncomfortable, we’re probably not doing our job. We probably haven’t brought enough weirdness into the room,” he said.

Like Redding, many at the conference embraced both transhumanism and faith unreservedly.

Blaire Ostler, a board member and former CEO of the larger and older Mormon Transhumanist Association, first encountered transhumanism four or five years ago, and “it was love at first sight,” she said.

Ostler, who writes and speaks on the intersections of her identities as queer, transhumanist and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said she was at a point where she valued her faith but was disillusioned by the institution of the church. Transhumanism gave her a way to put her faith into action.

Blaire Ostler, left, helps moderate a breakout discussion on transhumanism and redemption during the Christian Transhumanist Conference in Nashville. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

“Transhumanism really brought it to life: This is how we do it. This is what we do. We believe, now we do, and I really like that about it,” she said.

It fit well into Cheyenne Medders’ faith, as well. Medders, a member of the Church of Christ and a Nashville musician, came to the conference after joining Christian Transhumanist Association discussions online.

He doesn’t see the two beliefs as contradictory; in fact, he said, as humans and artificial intelligence become smarter, he believes they will converge on truth, and truth is of God.

“The more we discover about science, the more we discover about God,” Medders said.

Keynote speaker Aubrey de Grey is co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which is working to extend life spans by finding ways to repair damage caused by aging. De Grey identifies as agnostic, but issues such as radical life extension sound to him “like the type of thing the Bible tells us we ought to be fixing if we can,” he said.

“Aging doesn’t just kill you. It kills you slowly after this long, extended, ghastly period of decrepitude, disease, dependence and debilitation and general misery, following which you die. … It would be a cardinal sin not to work on defeating aging,” he said.

Other secularists seemed to leave equally open-minded about the Christian viewpoint. Javier Irizarry, of the Atlanta chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said he is an atheist, but he noted many Americans are Christians, especially among the Hispanic population he represents with SHPE, and “it’s important to know how to address this transhumanist subject with them.”

“It’s for everybody — religious and nonreligious — so we have to work together on this.”

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

(This story was written with support from a Templeton Foundation grant.)

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

47 Comments

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  • I don’t have any problem with Transhuman research. I would, however, point out that people of faith are typically called to value their quality of life more than quantity of life. The theology of death (thanatology) studies the process of dying, as well as its effects on those beings who know they will die and have to decide what difference that will make in their lives.
    I don’t think there’s any point in living longer if all one wants to do is live longer.

  • The fate worse than death is never dying. That is the curse of Count Dracula. As Anthony Trollope’s evil Mr. Slope, masterfully played in the movie version of “Barchester Towers” by the late Alan Rickman, said to Bishop and Mrs. Proudie after he got the sack, “May the two of you live forever,” leaving them puzzled in his wake.

    One of my favorite lines from the HBO series “Six Feet Under” from the early 2000’s was uttered by the character Nate when a funeral home client asked him, “Why do people have to die?” He thought about it a bit and then answered by saying, “to make life important.” If we lived forever, or even just 500 years, we might not appreciate the value of life while it lasts for us.

    The standard life expectancy is good enough for me. I wouldn’t want to be like Bilbo Baggins in “Lord of the Rings,” who said, “I’m old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it but I feel it – like butter spread over too much bread.” Bilbo lived an unnaturally long life because of the ring but his spirit was ready to go.

  • I look at a human life as an end unto itself, a valuable thing worth maximizing and nurturing for its own sake. For instance, I don’t know you, but I don’t think there is anything outside of you that needs to be your excuse for wanting to continue to live … your own consciousness / made-in-the-image-of-God-ness is reason enough for your life to be worth maximizing and preserving and cherishing. The point in living longer, then, is the same whether we’re 2 days old or 200 years old … it’s because life is something to be nurtured and preserved for its own sake no matter the age.

  • Hi, Josiah – Thanks for your comment. The Transhuman folks haven’t (yet) figured out what to do with 150-year-old people living with spare parts and hooked up to computers. I’m not sure that prospect can be reconciled with the Christian worldview, or how flexible Christianity would be if that prospect should develop. – Monica.

  • Sorry but one of my pet peeves was triggered. The term ‘quantum leap’ is misused. The quantum world is very small – subatomic. Such a leap would be insignificant..

  • What would it be like living day after day never knowing when the computer might accidentally chose 1 when it should choose 0?

  • Though it has been nearly 50 years since my three years of college physic…

    Quantum leap actually doesn’t refer to the size of the leap, but refers to an electron changing orbits without traversing the space in between- in other words, changing its energy level in a drastic way, not gradually.

    In that sense, the usage is correct.

  • Tithonus is the appropriate icon. Eternal life without eternal youth sounds horrible.

    But eternal life by itself sounds like a punishment. How ,any reruns of golden girls do you really want to watch?

  • “The fate worse than death is never dying.”

    Which was the premise of Torchwood-Miracle Day.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torchwood:_Miracle_Day

    The entire world ceases dying, leading to panic about consumption of resources, what to do with the undying but non-functional…

    Unfortunately much of it is undone by the fact that it suffers from the same character issues the series always had, the prior season was phenomenal, and it was an attempt to start an American version of the series.

  • Nobody is suggesting that a long life of decrepitude is desirable, so that’s a straw man. Or perhaps you are deliberately misunderstanding the thrust of this research ?

    Actually long life combined with such fragility is not a viable scenario. Old people die of fragility (eg broken hips which lead to rapid decline), so the Tithonus scenario doesn’t make sense.

  • You might think so, but nobody will (or can) force you to live a day longer than you want. But do you want to restrict the choices of other people because of your beliefs ?

  • Torchwood is a fantasy – remember that in that story, people were still alive after being dismembered. Back in the real world, even if the death rate were to fall to zero abruptly (which it won’t), the world can’t suddenly start filling up with people. The global annual population growth rate would increase by about 1 percentage point, from about 1% to 2%. Now this change is not something to be casually dismissed, but neither is it an instant catastrophe.

  • What is defeating death if not fantasy?

    The world doesn’t have to start filling up with people. It just has to stop losing them or drastically reduce losing them for resources to start to thin out.

    Plus there are the philosophical issues talked about in tons of SF and Fantasy literature of stagnation and decay caused by people who are eternally old and obviously set in their ways.

  • Look around you – people are full of spare parts (hips, knees, heart valves, prosthetic limbs, false boobs, hearing implants, dentures, artificial corneas, organ transplants) and they walk around all day long fiddling with and hypnotised by small computers. It’s not a “prospect” – your dystopia is here right now. So how is Christianity dealing with it ?.

  • 1) “Fantasy”: hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in research, early stage spin outs, and IPOs of longevity medicine companies. To find our more, search on: Google/Calico, George Church, David Sinclair, Juvenescence, Senolytics. And of course death itself can’t be defeated, as we live in a universe full of heavy, fast-moving objects, one of which will eventually squash you. But what can be expected to continue is the steady, incremental increase in life expectancy that started about 150 years ago.

    2) In my lifetime alone, world population has almost tripled. And yet not one resource has been exhausted; in fact the real price of many such commodities has fallen. Human ingenuity is the crucial inexhaustible resource, and it seems to be working. Poverty continues to fall, even as population rises (at an ever-slowing rate).

    3) I am a SciFi fan too. But SF authors, like the creators of all the stories referred to in these comments, need a source of dramatic tension. And so they must introduce conflict. I try not to base real world prognostications on Lord of the Rings or Greek mythology.

  • Good question. Transhumans speak about all of that, plus the possibility that humans may continue their existence indefinitely by downloading their brains/minds onto computers. I don’t think we’re at that point…yet.
    In answer to your question, I think Christianity is resisting cutting edge medical progress in areas like stem cell research, and would resist many other attempts at extending physical life, precisely because it would challenge their anthropology.

  • Christian resistance to advanced medicine: There’s only one country in the world where Christians have any material influence on the political process, and that of course is the USA. In those other countries that are Christian, at least in culture and heritage, the Church has little political power, and/or is sympathetic to the idea of ameliorating suffering and extending the gift of being alive.

  • As it turns out, the human brain appears to operate chemically rather than electrically, in an analogue rather than a digital process, which renders “downloading their brains/minds onto computers” logical gibberish.

    Christianity does not resist cutting edge progress in any scientific area. The Big Bang theory originated with a Catholic priest.

    What it does resist is mindless scientism without regard to the moral law.

  • There is no inherent moral issue in the use of hips, knees, heart valves, prosthetic limbs, false boobs, hearing implants, dentures, artificial corneas, and organ transplants to repair damage, correct illness, or enhance appearance.

    Why would Christianity “deal() with it”?

  • 1) The prevailing theory according to research is there are finite limits programmed in the genes for the living beings. So

    2) However, population growth of the developed world has scaled back dramatically in the last generation and in some places is negative. We owe the population growth to current levels on huge leaps of technology in agriculture. We are getting more out of what we grow and wasting less. But we are clearly exhausting natural resources such as fossil fuels at a recognizable rate. Which in turn affects agriculture (Fertilizer production is the 3rd largest consumer of petroleum). We are losing coastline and arable land. All it took was US and European subsidies to biofuels to cause massive spikes in world food prices in the early 2000’s. Poverty is on the rise in much of the world. We have the resources but much of it is locked up at the top. Human society is not even close to a post scarcity footing yet.

    3) In many cases fantastic fiction acts a way to discuss topics that seldom get discussed elsewhere in a serious manner or use metaphor to hold up a mirror to humanity’s foibles.

  • “There’s only one country in the world where Christians have any material influence on the political process, and that of course is the USA.”

    Oh, and Andorra, Malta, San Marino, Angola, Brazil, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mauritania, São Tomé & Príncipe, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Philippines, Tonga, Dominican Republic, Poland, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ukraine, Russia, and Suriname.

    Add the Islamic countries and the material influence of Islam on the political process, and the real world appears quite different than the world you imagine.

  • I was addressing Monica’s question: “prospect can be reconciled with the Christian worldview”, and observing that the future problem she posited has actually transpired, and so presumably we should be able to observe the Christian reaction in real time.

    Given that the various existing protheses pose no moral issues, then future longevity treatments should be similarly unproblematic, as they will also “repair damage” and “correct illness”.

  • I’m afraid that’s not true here in Italy, where I live, or in many formerly Catholic European states, as well as places in East Africa like Kenya, where the Catholic Church has effectively opposed UN and WHO vaccination programs because it’s considered “forced sterilization.” In many countries of Latin America, the Church is the primary provider of health care, and decides which methods are available and which aren’t. I think the secular influence of the Church is rightly diminishing, but it’s still there and in many places, it’s still powerful.

  • Her statement “I’m not sure that prospect can be reconciled with the Christian worldview …” indicates some confusion on her part as to what the Christian worldview is.

    Her very first post on this article demonstrated some confusion: “I would, however, point out that people of faith are typically called to value their quality of life more than quantity of life.”

    Well, in a word “no” if the faith is Christianity.

    Christians are called to value the next life more than this life, and in this life to value life itself, not quality of life.

  • I was trying to keep my comment brief, to avoid drifting off-topic. What I meant was:

    Countries that matter

    ie rich, advanced, technological societies, with substantial scientific bases and innovation activities. The countries you mention are small and/or poor and/or culturally stagnant. Whatever decisions their governments make with or without clerical input, These countries obviously exist, and their citizens attend to their daily lives (just as you and I do), but they are simply irrelevant in the context of this conversation.

    I should have said: “one significant country”.

  • Oy…Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Ireland…the Church has fought scientific advances in all these nations within the past decade. We think we’re still pretty significant….

  • Since the Catholic Church has no vote, in countries like Kenya the local population opposed the WHO program.

    Kenya is only 23.5% Catholic. 47.7% are Protestant, with the highest number of Quakers in the world (around 133,000), 11.2% Muslim, 1.7% indigenous religions, and 2.4% non-religious.

    There is a single synagogue primarily for non-Kenyans, and about 300,000 Hindus mostly of Indian origin who are largely in the merchant class.

    Latin America is a topic all by itself.

    I wouldn’t let your animus against the Catholic Church (the secular influence of the Church is rightly diminishing) color your comments and lead folks astray.

  • No, the Catholic Church has NOT “fought scientific advances in all these nations”.

    Had it done so, we’d be reading about examples, not your personal impressions as a former Catholic.

  • I don’t want to drift to far off-topic, but I’ll address the country you mention that I know best: Eire. The succession of scandals has devasated the Church and transformed the political establishment. During the Pope’s recent visit, the (gay!, mixed race!) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the country is more diverse, less religious and had modernised its laws on divorce, contraception, abortion and same sex marriage, and that the time had come “for us to build a new, more mature relationship between church and state in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st century”.

  • Twenty years ago a young man of my acquaintance, Catholic, now a physician in the United States spent an entire summer as a college student in Eire working with people in his own age group and tutoring high school students.

    He reported that after three months he found little impact of Catholicism on any of the young people he dealt with. Churches had superannuated memberships, catechesis neared zero.

    So, it is hard to argue that the “succession of scandals has devastated the Church” when one would expect what is happening to be the very fruit of what he observed.

    You cannot build a church community on high hopes.

  • 1) So… So indeed. Assuming the programmed mortality theory is correct, that makes things a little easier. Having a clear and specific target, actually simplifies genetic therapeutic approaches. The alternative, that ageing is mess of multiple malfunctioning genes, is much harder to address. Unless you are making the claim: programmed = unmodifiable

    2) Fossil fuels: actually there are centuries of coal stocks still left in the ground, and I hope we leave them there. Wind, solar and the associated battery storage are now price-competitive with fossil, and continue to get cheaper. New fission plant designs are coming to fruition in China. And further down the road there’s fusion and space-based solar power. There is no energy crisis.

    3) Arable land: I know most about Europe, where, thanks to improved productivity the area of arable land is falling as yields increase. “The amount of land used for agricultural purposes in the EU will continue to fall between now and 2030, as a result of increasing urbanisation in Europe. But this decline will not stop increased output of certain arable crops over the same period, according to the EU agricultural outlook report”

    Global poverty: Daily Telegraph, 23 Aug: “World Bank data show the number and proportion of people in dire poverty worldwide has plummeted over the past two decades. In 1990, 35.5pc of the world’s population (1.9bn people) lived below the equivalent of $1.90 (£1.47) per day. By 2013, this had fallen to 10.9pc, or just 782m. That’s the most rapid fall in poverty in global history.”

    Global Poverty Clock – current escape rate = 1.1 people per second
    https://worldpoverty.io

  • Very nice to see discussion going on about religion and transhumanist ideas, as well as relations between religious and non-religious people. Would like to see more progress on both in the coming years. “We have to work together on this” indeed.

    I see that there are still people wary about living longer due to common concerns (overpopulation, boredom, dictators, meaning etc.). I hope those also get further discussion, instead of being set in stone. Since some people (understandably) like to cite fictional stories to make their arguments, perhaps someday we’ll get ones that look at these issues differently.

    It should be noted that “immortality” or “living forever” isn’t really the goal here. The general approach to life extension is by tackling aging, not heat death (or whatever) of the universe (which there may not ever be a solution to anyway). Extending health along with life is very much important here, so you can dismiss the notion that you’ll end up like Tithonus (what Aubrey de Grey calls the “Tithonus error”).

  • I think the real moral question is for the society that wants to live for 150 0r more years, even good years, as you suggest. Such a Society would require an economy that could support some meaningful and non-exploitative employment for such superannuated citizens while also always ensuring equally meaningful employment for the rising generations.

    It is one thing to shudder at the thought of almost endless decades of re-boots of Friends, Will & Grace, or Buffy for some in hyper extended retirement but what about the thought of the daily grind that might arise from working 90 years as a bagger at Safeway? Of course the current trend towards self-service will take even those jobs away.

  • Technology of any kind can be used for good or evil. But our moral compass is from the spiritual non-material realm, not science which is, in and of itself, neutral. Both are needed and can and should be compatible.

  • Your first paragraph is false. Any analogue system can be digitally modelled…if you have enough information to do so at the level of resolution you require. Then it all about processing power. Of course the trick is also to determine what resolution is required. 🙂

  • Spiritualism does not hold the monopoly on morals or ethics. The choice to value humans and other animals and their wellbeing etc can come from ourselves and our own altruism.

  • I dont have a problem with full blown mind uploading. Envisioning a world beyond the flesh is a positive thing. If your trying to find the antichrist do not look towards the science that will make earth into heaven look into the hive minded tendency of hard left envious communism, and the in general hive minded we are legion one of many approach that all to many have

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