Cryonics As Religion
by George Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A few weeks ago, Professor Ettinger reviewed a "portion of the discussion" regarding the concept of using religion as a model for "outreach", to help grow the cryonics movement.
The concern I have read in the Cryonet regarding the issue of avoiding the appearance of legal fraud and not misleading cryonics prospects with imbalanced information is valid. But, as Professor Ettinger wrote, "A religion is free to make dogmatic assertions without objective evidence."
These words bear deep consideration, in my opinion.
The promise of life after death has been a part of many religions. The ancient Egyptians seemed almost obsessed in regard to preparing for death. As Christianity (and more specifically Roman Catholicism) today has the largest number of members of any religion in the world, and as it has survived for two millennia and, finally, as it remains accepted as the cultural "backdrop" to most Western modern societies, Christianity is worthy of careful attention as a model or "underpinning" for a successful religion of Immortalism. I will have more to say shortly regarding this issue of "underpinning".
The message in brief? Many people fear death and Christianity offers them hope.
Yet life after death is not a necessary component in a successful religion. Buddhism in at least three of the four major popular versions of that religion (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana versus Heavenly Realm forms of Mahayana) does not posit that the individual self even exists.
Theraveda "enlightenment" consists not of "salvation" through personal survival, but the realization that the concept of a separate individual self is a psychological illusion (much as there exist optical illusions). Most Mahayana and Vajrayana versions include this view but posit a wider attainment for the individual personality (not individual "self") which is transhuman in nature. Nevertheless this is just one traditional example of a successful religion based upon personal transcendence without any promise of personal survival. Buddhism shows us that personal transcendence can be a successful motivation as well.
The message in brief? Many people want to grow and become more than they are and consider this to be "spiritual".
Both dealing with fear of death and personal transcendence are issues which cryonics deals with in a slightly different manner because of the scientific hope it relies upon, but these are not unique in human history. The Egyptians seemed to hold that by properly preparing the mind before death and the body after death, not only would the individual survive death but would become one with the gods (transcendence), rising to the stars to join Osiris (later seen as the constellation Orion).
There is the attraction of the exotic in the spread of most successful world religions. The popular author, Robert Ringer (Winning Through Intimidation and Looking Out for Number One), referred to this phenomenon as the respect almost always given to "the expert from afar". Or to take the opposite tact, to quote Christ, "A prophet is without honor in his own country". Or again the old saw, "Familiarity breeds contempt".
The trappings of the exotic (which is whatever is foreign to your culture) cause the masses to generally treat with special attention what is offered in such trappings. In this regard, any religion of Immortalism might be best served by assuming at least some of the symbology of ancient Egypt. The symbol of the Egyptian "ankh" seems to be one of the oldest in this regard and resonates quite well with the Christian cross. I would propose that the ankh be the symbol of Immortalism for this reason alone.
Earlier I mentioned Christianity as being perhaps used as an "underpinning" for a religion of Immortalism. By this I mean that Western culture, especially in the United States, tends to accept unthinkingly many of the precepts and mores of general Christianity. Yet there are thousands of varied sects and differing church theologies everywhere.
For example, when Spiritualism was all the rage in Europe and the United States in the 1930s, you would see it presented almost universally as "Christian" Spiritualism. Spiritualist churches sported crosses and portraits of Christ, ministers wore standard clerical garb and church services were virtually indistinguishable from what one would find next door at a more conventional Protestant house of worship. People then felt more comfortable superimposing their "new" beliefs (mediums can speak to the dead in seances) upon the underpinnings of their cultural upbringing.
Today, the situation is quite different. Fewer people go to a church (especially if we include Europe). Secular life is the norm and not the exception, as in earlier generations. To better grasp the difference, I would suggest that the so-called "New Age" movement demonstrates the changes better than most. New Age churches (such as Unity) retain most of the Christian underpinnings, but tend to be more open to lectures, open meetings and study groups, rather than the more traditional Sunday sermons and prayer meetings.
Along this line a recent phenomenon has sprung up with the "Art Bell Chat Clubs". The New Age radio host personality, Art Bell launched this year a coordinated effort to line up speakers to travel the country (and world) going to locally-based "Chat Clubs" to give talks on everything from the coming destruction from "Y2K" to "The Mars-Egypt Connection" (with UFOs thrown in, of course). I attended recently just such a meeting and saw what I feel to be the future of modern religion. The personal touch of having a local "fellowship" group is balanced with contacts with "experts from afar" (national speakers). The feeling was absolutely religious also in that there was no questioning of facts, but acceptance of dogma (mostly that the earth is about to undergo some enormous apocalyptic crisis killing some/most of the people).
(And, I might add, they were selling rather expensive survival equipment and supplies. Not too different from selling a technological answer to survival and transcendence called cryonics, it seems to me).
My point is that a religion of Immortalism would be well-served to model this approach. No need to buy or build expensive church buildings. Rent hotel rooms for meetings and form local "chat groups" (the resonance to Internet chat groups is clear here). I would suggest that members of Immortalism could keep their "basic" religious beliefs but add the promise of survival and transcendence. The New Age is thrashing around for something solid to lean on. The New Age movement shares only a few themes, and I find these themes to be shared by Immortalism through cryonics. These themes include reincarnation, guidance from transhuman beings (via channelling and prophesy), coming transformative earth changes, taking personal responsibility as a part of the world community and human transcendence as a spiritual goal.
For example, take the New Age belief in reincarnation. Immortalism can offer CONSCIOUS reincarnation. The sense I have is that personal responsibility requires that the usual amnesia of "traditional" reincarnation be bypassed. In this sense alone, cryonics can be seen as a part of personal spiritual development or, if you will, a "spiritual path".
The issue of the NDE (near death experience) was treated by James Halperin in an evenhanded way in his brilliant novel "The First Immortal". (I kept feeling that he had intended to do something a bit different with the NDE, just as Arthur C. Clarke led us on in his film 2010 to expect something "wonderful" and then only ended up offering mankind more real estate near Jupiter). Yet what I don't see being dealt with in the New Age community is a very simple issue. A five-minute NDE produces profound psychological changes according to some very serious scientific investigations. What would be the changes we would find in someone restored to life after a 25-year NDE?
I have no intention of arguing this issue with skeptics nor 19th Century-style materialists. I am discussing here a theological issue regarding the concept known in Hinduism as the "avatar" - the incarnation of a god-being as a human. Those who embrace Immortalism could well expect as an article of religious faith that the NDE is a cumulative experience which produces change in those who pass through its doors. Today's under-one-hour NDE subjects testify that their lives are changed - and careful psychological studies back up their claims. Would it be so strange to expect that years, decades of "NDE" would produce change even more than a few minutes?
The dead shall return to earth and, finally, tell us about the beyond. Up until the recent years of the NDE, no one was "supposed" to be able to tell us anything. The dead do not return, we were told for years. Yet with cryonics, they will. What will they tell us? The ten-minute NDE-ers already write volumes on their few minutes of experience. What will 25-year NDE- ers say and do? (As with everything connected with the future of cryonics, it is hubristic to assume that they will all return from an experience of nothingness. You can't prove in advance of the fact that this will be the case. As an issue of faith, I find it easier to accept that the ten minute NDE experience won't hold a candle to a ten-year NDE.
Christianity is based upon not merely survival and redemption (whether through "absolution" or "salvation"), but upon the promise that the Messiah will return and the earth will be transformed "in the twinkling of an eye". This is the aspect of transcendence which is often overlooked when we consider Christianity. We forget that it is a religion based upon an expectation for not merely a better future, but a transcendent future when the "Kingdom of Heaven" arrives on earth. This is treated in the Bible especially in regard to "the Elect" - a specific number of human beings who will be taken up by Christ at his return, removed from this world entirely, and then returned empowered to institute the transformation of all life on earth.
It does not take a great deal of thinking to note how an extended NDE due to cryonic suspension matches the above scenario remarkably well. The individual dies and yet, because he will be restored to life, he will return with the changes of a "super-NDE". And/or he returns because nanotechnology (or its equivalent) has transformed the world such that there is now "a new Heaven and a New Earth" (space travel and a restored home world).
I realize that many who read these words will feel distaste regarding the issues of spirituality and religion. Yet, like it or not, your perspective is unpopular and your numbers are few. The masses of the world seek survival and transcendence, right or wrong. And I find that the prophesies of several current and historical world religions remind me in very strong ways of the same future which technological futurists like Eric Drexler and Hans Moravec have projected. It is as if primitive people were trying to describe a future we are only now approaching through technology while they had only the metaphors of their primitive world to draw upon in describing it.
But, it is pointless to proselytize for a religion not yet created. (Besides, if you are signed up for cryonic suspension, this is quite literally "preaching to the choir"). What I wanted to do here was to point out that Immortalism could, with relatively little effort, come out of the scientific closet and function as a rather powerful religion.
Professor Ettinger suggested in his message (#10356) that such a religion would require "fellowship, dedication" and "symbolism/liturgy".
Fellowship comes out of the united vision of a future which is coming. Not everyone will join "The Elect" but all are welcome to do so. Dedication results from social commitment to the movement. We stand together to open the new future for all. We renounce personal transcendence until it is available to all (the oath of the Boddhisattva, the being who forestalls personal enlightenment to work for the enlightenment of all other living things first). The symbol? The ankh, the cross whose head(piece) is open, the single eye through which we can gaze into the future, that ornament worn over the head and above the heart, the symbolic promise for five thousand years of eternal life, the key to immortality held in the hands of ancient gods and goddesses restored to its rightful place on the breasts of their children for whom "death will have died".
The theology of immortalism could be embraced by a single quote, brought into light after two thousand years of waiting, "I come not to destroy, but to fulfill." Immortalism as a religion could be seen as the fulfilment of all the major religions of the past. Only now we can see the shape of things as they come, and the prophesies of the ages shortly to be fulfilled. The Extropians refer to this time, I believe, as "The Omega Point". How curious that the founder of Christianity said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega."
Religion comes from the Latin "religare" (ligament), meaning to bind back to strongly, to powerfully return. Those of us who take the liquid nitrogen plunge will return and we will be different. I feel that this is the essence of religion. Immortalism. Eternal return and powerful transcendence.