I never thought that I'd spend a Thursday night watching churchgoers lighting candles to pay homage to cryogenically frozen people, but sometimes life surprises you.
Earlier this month I received a Facebook invitation from an immortalist church in Florida: it was going to hold a ritual called Remembrance of the Resurrectables, a ceremony to commemorate those who had decided to have their bodies frozen—cryopreserved is the proper term—after their demise, in hopes that technology would at some point allow them to be reawoken.
Over live stream, the liturgy looked like a hybrid between a small church service and a lackluster business event. The officiator uttered a short but inspiring sermon about his conversion to immortalism. Then Bill Faloon—the founder of the church and a much more managerial speaker—took the floor to give a presentation about the history of cryonics, using many PowerPoint slides in the process. The churchgoers rose and lit candles to pay tribute to those who had been brave enough to bet against death's victory.
Loudspeakers pumped out songs like Alphaville's Forever Young. A screen showed pictures, names, and facts about people who had been cryopreserved (information about the cryonites' "first life cycles" was the preacher's wording). Finally, the officiator thanked everybody, including three cryonics companies who were involved in the event, and said goodbye.
To be honest, the PowerPoint killed any real smidgen of solemnity. It's a shame, since the Remembrance of the Resurrectables is one of the few actual rituals of the recently-born Church of Perpetual Life. Established last year in Hollywood, Florida, the church offers a spiritual and religious take on the quest for radical life extension, interpreting the Silicon Valley-led attempts to crack ageing as ways to transform Earth into Eden.
Neal Van de Ree's sermon from last year's Remembering the Resurrectables ceremony (video of the 2014 edition is not online yet).
It has a symbol (a fiery phoenix) and a prophet (Nikolai Fedorov, a 19th century Russian philosopher who advocated immortality and resurrection of the dead), and holds a monthly service during which experts such as gerontologist Aubrey de Grey or entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt are invited to speak about longevity science. According to its mission, the church wants to help in the advancement of indefinite life extension not only because it's "desirable" but also because it's "what the Creator planned for humanity to accomplish."
I was skeptical about the possibility that transhumanism, with its let's-play-god attitude and tech-fuelled positivism, could ever be considered a religion. But the Church of Perpetual Life's officiator, Neal Van de Ree, thinks it's not so farfetched. Van de Ree was the tall, blond bloke who gave the initial sermon in the cryonics ceremony; for him, even science is a matter of faith.
"We have faith that we don't have to die," he explained to me in a phone call. "That we have, on this planet and at this time, people and technologies that will give us the opportunity to not have to die. But our belief is a faith [because] there's no proof in today's technology that we'll be able to extend indefinitely our lives."
Van de Ree told me the Church has about 500 members, some of whom attend services via live stream. They meet every month, discuss transhumanist themes, sing, and dine together, "like Jesus used to do with his apostles." It's quite a motley bunch: many have a secular background, but there are also Christian, Jewish, and a host of Buddhist members. As the church is a "supplemental Church," it doesn't prevent membership of other religions, and some immortalists attend other places of worship.
This growing community is, in Van de Ree's opinion, one of the church's biggest achievements.
"Statistics show that people involved in churches and big communities tend to live longer than other people. [People] who belong to large family group, a church if you will, or have large extended family who watch over them and take care of them in time of need, tend to live longer for obvious reasons." he said.
Immortality-seekers used to have no such life-elongating congregations to attend. "Immortalists haven't attained immortality yet, but are looking to attain it," he added. "Then it's important to them to have an extended family, and that's what we offer them."
William "Bill" Faloon, the founder of the church and the man who gave the PowerPoint-laden speech, is a well-known transhumanist personality, and the church is not the first transhumanist venture he's been involved with.
Once a mortician, in 1982 Faloon set up a tax-exempt charity called the Life Extension Foundation together with cryonics activist Saul Kent. LEF's mission was (and still is) to spread knowledge about potentially life-extending products and therapies including cryonics and drugs that may not be available in the US, and to sell "science-based supplements"—available at lower prices for its paying members.
I reached out to Faloon by phone several times but was unable to get a response; Van de Ree was also unable to reach him on my behalf for the purpose of this article.
But as one of his bios puts it, "being controversial carries a heavy price." The LEF was involved in a nasty row with the FDA, which in 1987 began investigating Faloon and Kent for illegal distribution of unapproved medicines, which led to a federal grand jury indictment in 1991. The LEF duo reacted by turning into anti-FDA crusaders, and building an "FDA Holocaust Museum" to denounce how authorities prevented access to life-saving drugs.
The FDA's charges were dropped in 1996 after a protracted legal battle and, since then, the LEF has thrived, with the non-profit organization reporting assets of over $25 million in 2008. That was frowned upon by the US tax authority, which in May 2013 revoked the tax-exempt status of the LEF on the basis that it engaged in for-profit activities.
This happened just one month before Faloon and Kent bought the building that now hosts the Church of Perpetual Life, an organization that relies on its members' donations ("sometimes very generous donations," Van de Ree said) to keep going—and which, like every American church, is tax-exempt. Van de Ree also said the LEF was not linked to the church, but that Bill Faloon and Saul Kent were "big in terms of funding the church, [by means of] action and resources."
Watching the videos of Faloon's monthly addresses from the altar, one gets the impression that he's using the COPL to carry on with what he has been doing since the 1980s: promote cures and products that are not available—or not regularly prescribed—in the US. In one video, he thunders that "People are needlessly dying today […]because they're not accessing information that's available in academic peer reviewed [studies], but it's either suppressed or repressed by pharmaceutical or academic authorities," before giving a long speech about the anti-cancer properties of substances called Cimetidine and Metformin. The whole thing sounds more like a sales pitch than a homily; the church comes across as a funny compound of sacredness and promotion.
But beside this business-fair atmosphere, the church does show a spiritual facet: it lurks in the inspiring songs, some of Van de Ree's remarks, and in the reading of passages by the church's prophet, Nikolai Fedorov.
Fedorov is the brain behind the "common task " theory. According to this doctrine, people should not wait for a Messiah, but rather "be the instruments of God in the task of returning our fathers to life […] and make the forces of nature into an instrument of universal resuscitation and to become a union of immortal beings," by means of science and peace-building. There is something undeniably compelling about the idea of a divinity expecting humans to crack death. And the "common task" could be the religious veneer to make transhumanism more palatable for spiritual people.
"Transhumanism is considered aggressively atheist, and this, in a very religious country like the US, is quite unpopular," Zoltan Istvan, founder of the Transhumanist Party (and an occasional contributor to Motherboard), told me over Skype. "The Church of Perpetual Life wants to win religious people to the transhumanist cause combining spirituality and science. They've been quite successful at that."
In his novel The Transhumanist Wager, Istvan envisions a future where transhumanism and religiosity clash in worldwide wars. He thinks that's no fantasy. "As the technology catches up and people realize that a new kind of human beings would walk the planet, there'll be clashes," he said. "There will be a showdown, a battle between religion and transhumanist aims. I'm 100 percent sure of it."
Where will an immortalist church stand if it happens? It's hard to tell—mainly because I'm still skeptical that COPL is really about religion. This fledgling church of the phoenix may end up being a staple of the history of transhumanism. But right now the tension between the PowerPoint spiels and the Fedorovian creed makes the Church of Perpetual Life difficult to pin down.