How will religious institutions cope with technological immortality?

This post by Jønathan Lyons originally appeared at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.”

–Alice Walker

Walker’s words ring profoundly true for me, at the moment. In my sci-fi course (which is actually all about science fiction becoming real-world, bleeding-edge science; personhood; and the technological Singularity; but sci-fi is better shorthand) we’ve just covered a number of approaches to concepts such as mind uploading and immortality.

I’ve wondered just how well religious institutions might rebound in the face of such technologies as mind uploading and radical life-extending technology, and the prospect that one may eventually need not necessarily worry about any form of the metaphysical afterlife scenarios that many religions trade in. Because, really, if one may upload oneself, then ze needn’t bother contemplating an eternity standing on streets of gold, singing praises to some almighty or another, or any other possible afterlife.

In the past, the Catholic Church has had to admit such inconveniences as the fact that the universe does not revolve around the Earth, and that the Earth is not flat. I mean, sure, throwing people in prison for actually saying such things was practiced for centuries, but eventually – with Vatican II, in 1965! – they admitted that the Earth is spherical.

So I suspect that they will adapt to the arrival of mind-uploading technology after a while. Maybe after quite a while, but I think they might. (On the other hand, they still denounce in-vitro fertilization, which leaves them cemented in Ludditeland.) My best guess is that the Catholic Church will go through a period of denouncing mind uploading, should the science ever come about, and that at some point decades later, they’ll find a way to embrace the practice. In my opinion, a religious authority that demands the deaths of its followers is – well – just not pro-life. In fact, the more pro-life position would be to embrace such technologies as might enable immortality. If one’s creator is infinite, He’ll still be around when a member of the flock is ready to go.

But a period of denunciation on the part of the Catholic Church – and many religious institutions – seems unavoidable. After all, if a religion can’t use its promise of an afterlife in Heaven and avoiding the threat of burning forever in the fiery lake, in exchange for followers’ submission to its stated beliefs, its orders, and their tithes, it will lose its sources of funding, along with its sway over its flock.

But as my classes – I’m teaching two sections this semester – tackle mind loading and technological immortality, I have witnessed as a surprising number of students were sent scurrying to their religious roots by the very ideas.

Discussing the 2045 Avatar Project, one had a metaphysical crisis: “The Russian mogul had a very good business method by asking the rich for their support. It is still a scary thought though. God created us and we are mortal. This world is full of sin and evil. If anyone sees that the riches that are built up her[e] on earth mean nothing in the end, why would they want to live ‘forever.’ It is important to remember that unless you are apart [sic] of the saved who will be blessed with the gift of eternal life in Heaven, there is no such thing as ‘forever’ here on earth. There is only until Jesus’ second coming.”

In fact, I received quite a few such religion-rooted freakouts in response to the idea of uploading the essence of who and what one is and living beyond one’s mortal body. I suppose that if ze were to wax metaphysical, ze could ask whether life becomes less precious without the spectre of death; whether one can truly understand pleasure without pain. (As many transhumanists have pointed out, though, even if uploading the essence of who we are radically extends our time as sentient beings, death in some form or another, whether with the end of the tech sustaining us or with the end of the world or the universe, would still be lurking at some probably-uncertain point in the future. The fear of death would remain; it simply would not end, necessarily, with our own, biological deaths.)

Instead of exploring such questions, though, zir response reminds me a bit of the man-on-the-street reactions some had a few years back, when possible fossilized bacteria had been discovered within a meteor that had originated on Mars. Some crossed themselves and refused to believe the report. One man smiled tightly and proclaimed, “God will have the last word on this!

And those reactions were triggered by the mere possibility that bacteria had once existed on Mars!

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, once some of the faithful connect the dots and realize that mind uploading would wrest one’s supposed fate away from a religious institution’s afterlife mythology, they would respond to the idea as a threat to their religious belief systems. They certainly have.

Perhaps in a few years they’ll come around. Perhaps not. But as an individual who does not like the fact that his lifespan is arbitrarily finite, I do not understand the rush some people insist on making toward death.

When and if uploading one’s mind becomes an option, I foresee a period of denial and rejection. But eventually, religious institutions doing the denying and rejecting will have to come around.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jønathan Lyons earned his MFA in writing at the California College of the Arts in Spring 2005, and earned his bachelor’s in English from the University of Iowa in Iowa City in 1997. He is a futurist parent, writer, and educator. He lives in Central Pennsylvania, where he teaches writing and literature (including science fiction/futurism) at Bucknell University. Lyons authored Burn which received the Wordweaving Award for Literary Excellence and authored Machina. His most recent book is Minnows: A Shattered Novel, published by JEF (Journal of Experimental Fiction) Books.

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