Radical Life Extension and Religious Evolution

New data released this week shows that human evolution is speeding up — an interesting development given that many in the scientific community are hopeful that humans can take greater control over the process. At a recent conference in San Diego, scholars discussed how various religious orders may perceive radical life extension, one potential path of human evolution.

Dr. Calvin Mercer, professor of religion at East Carolina University, opened the discussion at the American Academy of Religion’s wildcard session. Assuming great scientific advances towards radical life extension, Mercer asked panelists to opine on whether the future will “be heavenly or hellish.”

Science and Faith

In order to clarify what radical life extension means, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey showed up to repeat his well-covered prediction that there is a 50/50 chance that in 25 to 30 years it will be possible to continually repair humans so they can live indefinite life spans. Of course, even if de Grey’s predictions are off, it is still the case, as Professor Mercer points out, that researchers working on areas such as genetic and tissue engineering, stem cells, telomere research, and nanotech will be pushing the human life span into the triple digits, making this particular conversation a matter of “urgent public debate.”

Scholars of each religious order took different approaches, reflecting the diversity of thought on the reality of human life. Professor Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University discussed the Daoist outlook, which has sought to lengthen life for more than 3,000 years. Arthur explained that while modern Daoists believe that longevity is a natural result of balancing chi, or natural energy, the “poking and prodding” of science is not the way to gain immortality because it unbalances chi and disregards morality. That is, Daoists only believe you can achieve true immortality with time and massive amounts of willpower.

The Catholic and Protestant scholars predictably delivered their messages with stark differences in tone, although ultimately they both came to the conclusion that any quest for immortality is based on hubris and dangerous for humanity. According to Catholic scholar Paul Neskan, this is because the threat of imminent death helps people stay moral. Therefore, professor Neskan argues that Aubrey de Grey’s life extension plans are bad for humanity as “people will put off preparation for the afterlife until it is too late.”

‘Inject Competition Into Religion’

However, not all scholars saw radical life extension as a negative development.

Professor Ron Cole-Turner of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary discussed how life extension could benefit many religious orders. “Technology will inject competition into religion and force religious authorities to clarify what they mean by immortality.” This is important, according to Cole-Turner because “there is currently a lot of evasiveness about what immortality means.” This is a good point and, of course, the conversation is not a one-way street.

Religion will also serve to inject ethical competition into technology circles. If the future of evolution is now more in human hands, the religious question is: toward what end? In other words, if humans could live longer, what good should result? Perhaps the Buddhist scholar had the most clear and concise answer.

Professor Derek Maher explained that in Buddhism each person is responsible for their own karma which, taken care of properly, can bring one to a state of nirvana, which is the cessation of suffering. Buddhists, he explained, already embrace the idea of radical life extension because it “gives you more time to attain wisdom and advance spirituality.” Essentially, it gives you more time in this life to improve your karma so you can reach nirvana.

Humans may be evolving faster, but it remains unclear if our culture is keeping up. This Christmas, the prospects deserve careful consideration. If humans could live an extra hundred years, what is the purpose, and would current religions help guide us through the change?

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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