I frequently write and talk about things at the intersection of science and religion, spirituality and technology, and I am often asked if I am a believer.
I used to give complicated, intellectual answers, but now I prefer giving a simple answer. My answer is YES, I am a believer.
I used to give answers like:
- I guess I do. However…
- Not in a conventional sense. But…
- I am a scientist, and I subscribe to a materialist worldview. At the same time…
A few months ago, after giving a talk on Transhumanism and Religion at Manhattan College in NYC, a student asked me The Question. I answered “more yes than no,” but while saying so I was asking myself, why the fuck don’t I just answer yes.
I believe simple and important questions require simple and honest answers. Of course I know that reality is more complex than simple answers, but I believe the appropriate caveats and qualifications should come later. When others ask you simple questions that are evidently important to them, please don’t answer with a philosophy treatise. You can of course give them also a philosophy treatise, to read later.
If you are an American, you need to understand that Europe is another world. In the U.S., it is difficult for an atheist to be elected to public office. But here in Europe, intellectuals (I vehemently object to being called an intellectual, but that is what they call me anyway) are not supposed to believe. It is not kosher, it is not cool, it is not elegant, and it is not sophisticated enough.
Of course, what my previous “intellectual” answers really mean is: “I am not a moron like you, I have studied, I have a degree, I have read many more books than you, and therefore I don’t ‘believe’ like the rest of you little idiots.” This is not what I meant, but I realize that this is how elitist intellectualism sounds. So, no more of that.
Now when they ask me if I am a believer, I give the simple and honest answer YES. At the end of my last talk at the 2012 conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, I said it loud and clear. The religion field of my Facebook profile now reads Christian, with some qualifiers and extras (I am still a free thinker).
I am perfectly aware that most Christian Churches don’t like free thinkers. I have no respect for authority, don’t do what I am told, think with my own head, have zero tolerance for bullshit, and my religious ideas are unusual and unconventional to say the least (see below), so they would never accept me as a member if I wanted to join. A few centuries ago I would have been excommunicated as heretic, and probably also burned at a stake. (in passing, Mormons seem more tolerant of personal revelation and creative theology).
So why do I say that I am a believer? One, because I am.
Shorter version: See my Ten Cosmist Convictions, co-authored with Ben Goertzel, originally appeared in Ben’s A Cosmist Manifesto blog, published in Ben’s book A Cosmist Manifesto.
Very short version: The “manifest destiny” of our species is colonizing the universe and developing spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination. Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers. Future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Future Gods will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future.” Perhaps we will be resurrected in virtual reality, and perhaps we are already there.
I have written a lot about these convictions, without calling them “beliefs.” But, following William James, since I am persuaded that these convictions are scientifically plausible, and they give me happiness and drive, I choose to hold them as beliefs. As I say in a note to the Ten Cosmist Convictions, I am not using “will” in the sense of inevitability, but in the sense of intention: we want to do this, we are confident that we can do it, and we will do our f**king best to do it. You know that, if you really want to achieve a goal, you must firmly believe that you will achieve it.
Two, because I find militant atheists very annoying, and I am persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force.
New Atheists and New Believers
In a comment to George Dvorsky’s excellent article Why Humanists Need to Make the Shift to Post-Atheism, my friend and sometime opponent Hank Pellissier praises New Atheists as “annoying, militant, pissed-off, in-your-face god-hating getting-rid-of-religious-dogma-and-repression atheists.”
I agree that New Atheists are annoying, and I will add that I find them bigoted, self-righteous, intolerant, humorless, and hateful (not to mention boring). I have no doubt that, if they were in power, they would behave exactly like the Inquisition that they claim to despise: they would oppress believers, send them to gulags, and probably burn them at stakes. A few months ago, in a Facebook debate, a militant atheist fascist proposed to send believers to forced therapy (yes, really). And History shows that, when militant atheists are in power, that is precisely what they do.
I must, however, acknowledge that often militant atheists have their heart and mind in the right place when they point out that religions have been directly responsible for many bad things. Besides atrocities like the Inquisition and holy wars, the bigotry, self-righteousness and hateful intolerance of organized religions (I am intentionally using the same words that I used against militant atheists) have caused a lot of suffering. For example many have suffered from forced religious indoctrination at an early age, and many have been mistreated and abused in religious schools. I think many militant atheists react to bad experiences with religion, and I understand them.
But religious beliefs in themselves are not responsible for the flaws of organized religions. What makes people suffer, is other people. I know that religions attract many sadistic and power-hungry sociopaths and thugs… like all other power structures. The visionary thinkers and mystics who create new religious organizations are usually good persons, but the thugs who inevitably end up working for them aren’t, and they often achieve power. A related problem is that (the thugs in) organized religions often support authoritarian and oppressive policies. This is the problem to solve, not the beliefs of billions of peaceful people all over this planet.
In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations. I hope to be resurrected, with my loved ones, by benevolent entities in the future. I wish to offer my beliefs to other people, because I am persuaded that others can find in them the same hope, wonder, and drive.
I think religions can be powerful forces for good, and help steer our species toward our cosmic destiny. In Religion for a Galactic Civilization, William S. Bainbridge says: “Religion shapes science and technology, and is shaped by them in return. It has become fashionable to assume that religion and science simply are opposed, and that science has been winning the battle over the past century. But much historical evidence indicates that religion of a certain kind was instrumental in the rise of science and modern technology. Religion will continue to influence the course of progress, and creation of a galactic civilization may depend upon the emergence of a galactic religion capable of motivating society for the centuries required to accomplish that great project. This religion would be a very demanding social movement, and will require extreme discipline from its members, so for purposes of this essay I will call it The Cosmic Order.”
To conclude with a proposal, I wish to see movements of New Believers, in all religions, who embrace their visions of hope and transcendent wonder but reject intolerance, oppression, and hate. Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
(Picture: the author with the Cosmic Jesus, in the Mormon Welcome Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.)