Personally, I’m not a fan of the whole religion as a virus argument set forth by Craig James for the very simple reason that he tries to boil down a rather complex psychological and societal phenomenon, and then turns it into a simple algorithm with a few fixed inputs and an output that’s almost always described as negative. Yes, there certainly are major, all too often violent downsides of religious fervor, but there’s more to religion than just a simple human impulse or an edict from an authority telling people what to believe and how. Of course, none of this means that there’s any validity in deities, but to simply call people’s beliefs a virus is reaching too far, even for an accommodationist-basher like myself. This is why when in the spirit of his approach to taking on religion James decides to go Singularitarian and argue that once we’re immortal, faith will be obsolete, I have to call for a time out for both oversimplifying why people join and stay in religious movements, and giving some of Ray Kurzweil’s overly bold and often inaccurate predictions a shout-out in the service of atheism.
Let’s start from the beginning. James’ thesis is that religion is like an entity which fulfills certain human needs and survives by mutating to appeal to our urge to feel special and mitigate our fears of death. Sounds fine so far, but what is he forgetting? If you think back to every introductory psychology class you’ve ever had, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was always mentioned, and one important part of that hierarchy was belonging. People all too often join religious groups not even so much because they have an unshakable faith in a certain deity or a polytheistic tradition, but because everyone around them belongs to the same churches, mosques, temples, covens, and what have you. We’re social mammals and a sense of community is important to us, which could explain one of the reasons religion evolved as a codified form of natural behaviors and radiated into all of its different forms. Were you to look at a map of religious affiliations, you’d find regions of Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists based on geopolitics and cultural hubs rather than a mish-mash of random religions scattered all across the world. A lot of faithful go to church because it’s expected of them by members of their community, and in places where church attendance is considered less important, less people go.
Another important issue is that we’re biologically inclined towards a vague feeling of belief in something that is greater than ourselves, which I would suppose is one of the brain’s adaptations towards living as a social mammal. Having to work with others to achieve big goals requires to view oneself as part of something much bigger and more important than your immediate needs and wants. Now, we’re not predisposed towards any particular faith per se, that’s something that’s usually up to the community around us or a community that we’d like to join, but we can change the level of predisposition towards belief with brain surgery and aggressive, intensive, nonstop indoctrination, often conducted for very selfish reasons. Simply put, we’re wired for some kind of belief that there’s more to the world than just us and have a need to propagate our views and opinions because we often end up investing so much time and effort into them. Again, this doesn’t make any religious view more valid than another, and certainly doesn’t mean that the view in question is even correct since much of religion is built on strong personal opinions and conformation biases rather than reproducible evidence. If we want evidence we can test in a lab and answers to big questions about nature, we have science. But there is that nagging sense of wanting to be a part of something big, a sense that has to be satisfied.
For atheists, neither desire has gone away. We try to form communities and gather into groups that share the same ideas, and we see ourselves as part of a vast universe, privileged to be here by chance and evolution. I would argue that we have good reason for how we see ourselves in the grand scheme of things and we have plenty of evidence to back up our position. But the point is that we still need to satisfy our basic needs to join a community and play a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even if one day we manage to live as long as we want and never have to fear death, these urges won’t go away and we’ll find something to replace existing religions. We may turn the idea of ancient astronauts and alien gods into a new, mainstream faith, although I’m really hoping that we won’t adopt the Scientology variant of it. We would also have to deal with those who would refuse to do whatever it would take to become immortal, protesting the very idea an abomination since their religion tells them we have to die at some point. But no, religion won’t go away just because we may one day have the privilege of unlimited lifespans through cutting edge medicine and technology.
Also, unlike James says, the odds of the first immortal being alive today are infinitesimal to nil. Life extension will thrive eventually and declaring it dead on arrival is premature at best, but the only place where humanity is even close to unlimited life is in Kurzweil’s fantasies and numerological charts, so invoking his ideas for some sort of rhetorical blow to religion is simply not sound in any way, shape or form. Actually, it’s countering religious tenets with almost pseudo-religious techno-utopianism based on wishful thinking and a belief that technology will solve all of our problems according to a timeline we find convenient. Really, there’s a reason why a number of prominent transhumanists are pulling back from Ray and his prognostications and James’ education in computer science should’ve rang a few alarm bells when he read the books…