Easter celebrations. The swearing in of President Obama with a bible. The Pledge of Allegiance's "One nation under God." Ted Cruz's freakish evangelism. Even when we sneeze, many Americans still reflexively say: God bless you.
American society exists in an engulfing religious framework—and that inescapable Abrahamic point of view leads to one ultimate goal: an eternal afterlife with the maker.
For the majority of Americans—about 70 percent—that is what they believe and how they live in this world.
Whether you like it not, America is a culture mired in deathism—the idea that human death is natural, inescapable, and ultimately desirable because it unites one with God.
Lately, though, the burgeoning transhumanism movement is challenging all that. Gerontologists, crynocists, singularitarians, biohackers, roboticists, geneticists, futurists, and anti-aging activists—all considered part of the transhumanist platform—are standing up and demanding humans conquer biological death.
Once seen as fringe, but now increasingly seen as potentially visionary, transhumanists are challenging the very nature of what it means to be a human being.
Motherboard recently featured a part of the transhumanism movement in an exciting and informative short documentary called Forever Young. The show focuses on the eclectic Church of Perpetual Life—a nonprofit transhumanist organization in south Florida aiming to combine spirituality, community, and hard science research. I recently spoke at the Church of Perpetual Life while on tour with my Immortality Bus. The church is a unique place, to say the least.
Forever Young explores the transhumanist and spiritual beliefs of some of the church parishioners, including businessman Bill Faloon, who co-founded the church in 2013. Faloon and the parishioners—nearly all who doubt the existence of an afterlife—are people bent on using the latest anti-aging science to live indefinitely.
In my mind, the 21-minute show is not really about the Church of Perpetual Life or even any of its members. It's about the quest to achieve indefinite lifespans—and how one community within the much larger transhumanist movement is attempting that. Some of the best parts of the video are the appearances of famous transhumanists: Dr. Aubrey de Grey, Chief Scientist at SENS Research Foundation and Transhumanist Party anti-aging advisor; Martine Rothblatt, transgender entrepreneur and CEO of United Therapeutics; and Bernadeane Brown, co-founder at People Unlimited. The documentary also briefly features cryonics, mind uploading, robotics, and oncology. The appearances of the celebrity transhumanists and the technology people want to use to live indefinitely are my favorite parts of the show—and they also hint at how large and diversified the transhumanism movement has become.
Government regulations, the US military, and the FDA are simply part of an overarching culture that indirectly facilitates the death of human beings
Near the end, the film focuses on Bill Faloon and examines complexities he's had with the FDA and IRS regarding his life extension pursuits. With tough investigative journalism, the Forever Young host Claire Evans challengingly questions some of his methods.
I feel compelled to rush to Faloon's defense—and to all transhumanists whose methods are potentially unconventional. Viewers need to understand that transhumanists like myself and Faloon believe we are fighting for our lives. Similar to how the HIV-stricken community and its citizen scientists battled the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when the US government and big pharma companies wouldn't help—made famous by the documentary How to Survive a Plague—transhumanists are literally battling death right now.
I speak for most transhumanists when I say we don't have time to follow all the damn laws and regulations of the bloated government when 150,000 people a day are dying in the world—and many science experts in the world believe we will conquer death in this century.
We are in a desperate race to find those life extension technologies and save hundreds of millions of lives. And if transhumanists appear to sometimes make decisions as if they were living in the Wild West—both in the documentary and in the real world—it's because we are involved in the most important crusade humanity has ever faced. There's no time to lose. We are in a war against death. The difference between humanity overcoming death in 2030 versus the year 2050 is the difference of saving 1 billion human lives. Chew on that for a moment. This is a race.
If I weren't an atheist and believed in afterlives like most people in America, I'd be a very different person. I wouldn't need to be a transhumanist, because death would just be a transition into another living realm. But transhumanists don't feel that way. Death means the loss of consciousness forever and the physical cellular breakdown of the body. It means never ever having another thought, and becoming dirt and food for bugs.
Ask nearly any transhumanist what they most want out of life, and they will tell you they want to escape the expiration date of their existence. And they'll also tell you that government regulations, the US military, and the FDA are simply part of an overarching culture that indirectly facilitates the death of human beings—especially since the US Congress, the President, and all Supreme Court members believe in an afterlife. If America is not a culture of monopolistic fundamental religiosity and fatalism, than I don't know what is.
Realizing you don't want to die, and that you also don't believe in an afterlife, usually takes a personal epiphany. Every transhumanist has a conversion moment—an instant when they make a Transhumanist Wager and decide dying is not acceptable. Mine happened when I almost stepped on a landmine in Vietnam while working for National Geographic. Afterward, I thought: What the hell? I almost died and had my body blown in half. Death is the stupidest and most tragic experience ever. Something must be done about it.
Sadly, it's almost impossible to tell people the follies of dying—even if they love life. Every single person must arrive at this understanding for themselves. It's a very personal revelation, and not one that can be taught or forced. Becoming a transhumanist—becoming dedicated to overcoming death with science and technology—must be experienced personally in a heartfelt and deeply philosophical way.
That said, an entire international science movement has now sprung up to help this process along of wanting to live indefinitely—to defy the culture of death we are all surrounded by. Cryogenic facilities are out there like Alcor and the Cryonics Institute. Nonprofits like SENS Research Foundation do amazing work. Singularity University educates young science and life extension entrepreneurs. Private companies like Insilico Medicine which uses big data to figure out how live longer now exist. And of course, communities like the Church of Perpetual Life have recently sprung up. Even what is being billed as the largest life extension gathering of its kind, the RAAD Festival, is happening this August in San Diego—with a hoped-for 2,000 participants.
To wage war against death, transhumanists are starting new life extension enterprises more quickly than ever before. Some of these projects and organizations are brilliant and some are wacky—and some surely will fail and disappear. But the more partners and allies transhumanism has, the better. And greater chances of overall success will come from putting our hopes into visionaries like Bill Falloon and the many other controversial and colorful figures in the life extension movement.
If transhumanists appear to sometimes make decisions as if it's the Wild West, it's because we are involved in the most important crusade humanity has ever faced
The alternative is putting our hope into someone like the Pope, who maintains that condoms are sinful—and the result is that millions of people in Africa will likely die from AIDS as a result because they contract HIV. Or in George W. Bush, who stopped life-saving stem cell research for seven years in America because of religious beliefs. Or in presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who makes decisions about science and medical policy based on a 3,000-year-old book that says Jesus needs to forgive us our sins so we can live with him forever in bliss. Pure insanity. (But very useful for the power hungry conservatives who use religion to control America's moral, cultural, and philosophical outlook.)
Sometimes I think we ought to have glass coffins for our loved ones who die, and keep them in viewing rooms, so we can watch them decompose—so we can see all that we loved about people close to us slowly disappear into nothingness. It would force us to realize something quintessential—that if we're wrong about the afterlife, we forever lose this precious miracle called life.
If America cares about the health of its people, it needs to join the war on conquering aging and death. Many gerontologists believe we could stop or reverse aging within 25 years if enough funding is put into it. With that in mind, America needs to recognize that in the twenty-first century, dying is a public safety issue—that people deserve a universal right to indefinite lifespans, as put forth in the Transhumanist Bill of Rights. And the government must take a leading role in establishing the science and forming the culture to offer people their maximum longevity—in the same way it offers vaccinations to avoid disease.
Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of people around America are starting to get it. Google's life extension company Calico was recently formed to battle aging. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's recently made positive statements about trying to cure disease and live much longer. Billionaire Peter Thiel generously supports life extension research. And Ray Kurzweil's dedication to overcoming involuntary death is in the media all the time. It's all proof that some of the best minds of the world are joining the battle to conquer death.
When people look back in 50 years—and we all hopefully have the choice to live indefinitely because of modern technology—the world will understand that things that seem strange and fringe now, were done to fight a system of anti-science culture bent on dying. Thankfully, transhumanists saw it didn't have to be that way, and pushed back against those that believed the grave was our destiny.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and US presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.