In the West, atheism is growing. Nearly a billion people around the world are essentially godless. Yet, that burgeoning population faces an important challenge in the near future--the choice whether to support far longer lifespans than humans have ever experienced before. Transhumanism technology could potentially double our lifetimes in the next 20-40 years through radical science like gene editing, bionic organs, and stem cell therapy. Eventually, life extension technology like this will probably even wipe out death and aging altogether, damaging one of the most important philosophical tenets formal religion uses to convert people: the promise of being resurrected after you die.
About 85 percent of the world's population believes in life after death, and much of that population is perfectly okay with dying because it gives them an afterlife with their perceived deity or deities--something often referred to as "deathist" culture. In fact, four billion people on Earth--mostly Muslims and Christians--see the overcoming of death through science as potentially blasphemous, a sin involving humans striving to be godlike. Some holy texts say blasphemy is unforgivable and will end in eternal punishment.
So what are atheists to do in a world where science and technology are quickly improving and will almost likely overcome human mortality in the next half century? Will there be a great civil rights debate and clash around the world? Or will the deathist culture change, adapt, or even subside? More importantly, will atheists help lead the charge in confronting religion's love of using human mortality as a tool to grow the church?
Transhumanism vs. Religion -- Interview with Brian Rose of London Real
First, let's look at some hard facts. Most deaths in the world are caused by aging and disease.
Approximately 150,000 people die every day around the world, causing devastating loss to loved ones and communities. Of course, it should not be overlooked that death also brings massive disruption to family finances and national economies.
On the medical front, the good news is that gerontologists and other researchers have made major gains recently in the fields of life extension, anti-aging research, and longevity science. In 2010, some of the first studies of stopping and reversing aging in mice took place. They were partially successful and proved that 21st Century science and medicine had the goods to overcome most types of deaths from aging. Eventually, we'll also wipe out most diseases. Through modern medicine, the 20th Century saw a massive decrease of deaths from polio, measles, and typhoid, amongst others.
On the heels of some of these longevity and medical triumphs, a number of major commercial ventures have appeared recently, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the field of anti-aging and longevity research. Google's Calico, Human Longevity LLC, and Insilico Medicine are just some of them.
Google Ventures' President Bill Maris, who helps direct investments into health and science companies, recently made headlines by telling Bloomberg, "If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes."
Increasingly, leading scientists are voicing similar ideas. Reuters reports that renowned gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey, chief scientist at SENS Research Foundation and the Anti-aging Advisor at the US Transhumanist Party, thinks scientists will be able to control aging in the near future, "I'd say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I'd call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so."
Even smaller projects like the musician Steve Aoki supported Longevity Cookbook with its Indiegogo campaign have recently launched, in an effort to get people to eat better to live longer. All these endeavors add to a growing climate of people and their attitudes willing to accept the transhumanist idea that death is not fate. In fact, in the future, death will likely be seen as a choice someone makes, and not something that happens arbitrarily or accidentally to people.
Immortality Bus visits one of the South's largest megachurches to spread atheism and transhumanism -- Video by Roen Horn
Despite this positive momentum in the anti-aging science movement, changing cultural deathist trends for 85 percent of the world's population may prove difficult. Humans are a species ingrained in their ways, and getting fundamentally religious people to have an open mind to living far longer periods than before--maybe hundreds of years even--could prove challenging.
Recently, a number of transhumanists, including myself who is a longtime atheist, have attempted to work more closely with governmental, religious, and social groups that have for centuries endorsed the deathist culture. Transhumanists are trying to get those groups to realize we are not necessarily wanting to live forever. As science and reason-minded people, we simply want the choice and creation over our own earthly demise, and we don't want to leave it to cancer, or an automobile accident, or aging, or fate.
Of course, for atheists, the elephant in the room is overpopulation. If everyone lives longer, surely the world will become even more crowded than it is. The good news is that scientists generally believe Earth could handle a far larger human population than we have now, without destroying the planet. But we'd need better methods of resource distribution and laws that ensure equality among people. The key to handling a large population likely rests in new green technology, and using it to fix major environmental problems. Meatless meat is a great example. Much rainforest destruction comes from creating pastures for animal grazing. But we could regrow those forests (which would help the greenhouse and ozone layer problems) by creating meatless meat in laboratories and bypassing the need for livestock. I like this for more reasons than one; 150 million animals are slaughtered every day for our consumption. That's a lot of killing that could be avoided.
In the end, longer lifespans and more control over our biological selves will only make the world a better place, with more permanent institutions, more time with our loved ones, and more stable economies. People, including those who are atheist or religious, will always have the choice to die if they want to, but the specter of death from formal religion will no longer be able to be used as a menacing tool for growing a deathist culture and agenda.
For more information on Zoltan Istvan's atheism and transhumanism work, check out his Wakelet profile, where much of his media stuff can be found in one spot.