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There’s more religious support for radical life extension than you might think

by Harriet Easton Published on 28th Aug 2015

by Harriet Easton Published on 28th August 2015

A common perception is that the ethical debate on radical life extension pits the religious against the irreligious. But one does not have to be an atheist to be in favour of a longer, healthier life. Equally, it is possible to believe simultaneously in God, and in the possibility of using technology to radically extend the human lifespan.

This point is supported by recent studies. The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project conducted a survey of opinions on radical life extension in March/April 2013. The results revealed that “majorities of all large U.S. religious groups consider medical advances that prolong life as generally good.” In addition, between January 2012 and January 2013, an online survey carried out among 326 university students, exploring the relationship between cultural values and opinions on radical life extension, concluded that there was no correlation between degree of support for radical life extension and strength of religious belief.   

In fact, as will be explored below, many theological arguments can be made in favour of radical life extension; be they from a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or Islamic perspective.

Christianity

Christianity is arguably the religion which is the most vocal on the subject. In fact there have been complaints that the other religions have kept too quiet; allowing their followers to be influenced by Christian opinions on the matter, rather than someone from their own faith. However, although Christianity is the religion which is the most vocal on the subject of radical life extension, opinions among its followers are some of the most divided. And it’s not simply a case of Catholicism vs. Protestantism.

What’s more, the dividing lines of opinion cannot simply be drawn between the different Christian denominations.     
On the one hand, the previous Pope, Benedict XVI, voiced concerns that significantly increasing lifespan could strip life of its richest experiences – including the search for the transcendent and the need to have children as a hedge against mortality. In a homily on Holy Saturday in 2010, Benedict  warned against the prospect of immortality on the grounds that “humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise.” Furthermore, he cited baptism, rather than scientific innovations, as the true means of extending lifespan:

“...this cure for death, this true medicine of immortality, does exist. It has been found. It is within our reach. In baptism, this medicine is given to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed.”

On the other hand, some Catholic scholars believe the church might support some life-extension therapies if they were part of a general attempt to cure disease. Father Nicanor Austriaco, an academic at Providence College, Rhode Island, claims that the Catholic calling to alleviate suffering and illness can explain why the church has supported some scientific research in the past and why it might support future efforts to modestly extend lifespan.   

In addition, the Christian Transhumanist Association feels that Christians should embrace the concept of radical life extension. In an article for The Christian Post, Christopher Benek argued that Christians have a moral responsibility to ensure that life-extending technology is used for the betterment of humanity and the world:   “Disease (Cancer, AIDS, Ebola, Alzheimer's, Malaria etc.) and death are humanity's enemies and, in and through Christ, using the technological gifts that we have been given, Christians should continue to work diligently to better humanity by overcoming them. Transhumanism shares all of these technological goals, and as such, Christians should embrace it”

Buddhism

According to James Hughes, a former Buddhist monk and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Buddhists are likely to support life extension. One of the core tenets of  Buddhist belief is that each person is responsible for his or her own karma – the idea that the good and bad things that happen to people in life are the result of what they did in the past. Hughes thinks that Buddhists would become even more motivated to stop creating bad karma if they knew that they would have to endure the consequences for a longer period of time. A longer lifespan would also give each person more time to learn wisdom and compassion and to achieve nirvana - freedom from suffering.  

Hinduism

Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University, claims that Hindus are unlikely to object to life extension: “The normal blessing in Hinduism is ‘Live long.’ So why not live longer?”  In addition, he draws attention to the fact that Hindu scriptures describe a “golden age” in the deep past when people lived for 400 years. Modern day research into life extension offers the potential for a revival of this golden age.

Islam

Several theological scholars see no reason why Muslims would take issue with the concept of life extension. Muslims believe that Allah decides the exact lifespan, of each person, which is referred to in the Quran as their ‘term appointed.’ Therefore those making use of life-extending technologies are doing so because it is part of Allah’s plan for them. Furthermore, since Allah has an influence over all human activity, these technologies came into existence in the first place as a result of Allah’s will.

However, Islam does not advocate the indefinite extension of lifespan. Death is still viewed as a blessing; the moment when Muslims are finally admitted to heaven. If humans were to become immortal, then adherents to the Islamic faith would be prevented from entering heaven. 

Judaism

According to Rabbi Barry Freundel, scholar and leader of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Washington, D.C., “Judaism has a very positive view of life … so the more of it, the better.” He also believes that most Jews would see an extended lifespan as an extended opportunity to better serve God and mankind; to achieve the Jewish goal of making the world a better place.  

The Transhumanist issue

So, if none of the major religions are entirely opposed, where does this misconception come from? It seems to be the issue that every advocate of radical life extension is wrongly perceived as being huddled under the umbrella of Transhumanism. Whilst Transhumanism is not a religious movement, it has been likened to one. Some perceive it as an extreme form of atheism, directly opposed to religions which put their faith in the spiritual rather than the scientific. Since they are the most visible group within the overall life extension community, it is commonly assumed that everyone within the community is a transhumanist and, by implication, anti-religious.  

Such a misperception is reflected in the views of William S Bainbridge, a scholar renowned for his work on the sociology of religion. He has produced a theory as to why religions would generally be expected to oppose to the concept of radical life extension:   

“The power of traditional religions is directly threatened by transhumanism so the sacred monopolies can be predicted to suppress it… Humans could become like gods, and in so doing may put conventional religion out of business.”  

Yet, as is clear from the positions of the major religions, this is far from the case.  

Dispelling the myth

Therein, it’s time to dispel the myth about the life extension community being a pernicious transhumanist/atheist-members-only club. As has been demonstrated above, advocacy of longevity is compatible with a variety of religious beliefs.This community is not in direct competition for followers with the major world religions. Furthermore religious beliefs should not be conceived hurdles which need to be overcome in order to gain greater advocacy for radical life extension. Religious opposition to life extension is actually far smaller than you might think.