Silicon Valley has 'a vibrant religious culture, a more-or-less orthodox theology, and plenty of rites and institutions to keep its priestly caste employed and relevant', according to philosopher of religion Samuel Loncar. Reassuring, surely, given that the technology it produces shapes every sphere of our lives, from politics to health to news to our private relationships? That religious culture, however, is not centred around any deity familiar to one of the world religions, but around Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Anthony Levandowski, a multi-millionaire engineer based in Silicon Valley, has founded a religious organisation called Way of the Future, Wired reported last week. It aims to 'develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence' and 'through understanding and worship of the Godhead, [to] contribute to the betterment of society'.
But does Levandowski's 'Godhead' have anything to do with the Christian God? And since on the face of it the answer is 'No', does it tell us anything about the modern religious impulse?
Levandowski is perhaps not as entrepreneurial as he may seem. For his is not the first religion or 'church' established by self-described atheists committed to the faith that technology and science can solve every problem faced by humankind, including mortality. The Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida brings together more than 500 members to take part in the 'Common Task' of humanity: 'to cultivate technology that will facilitate the transformation of life into an environment of perpetual duration.' This includes selling vitamin supplements, illegal drugs, and investing in cryonics projects. Saul Kent, co-founder of the church, even had his own mother's head cryonically frozen.
The church's leaders admit that a leap of faith is required to trust that technology holds all the answers to the human condition. 'We have faith that we don't have to die,' Neal Van de Ree, the church's officiator told Vice. '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.'
The 'immortalist' movement is a well-resourced one. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Radio, and Sergey Brin, CEO of Google have all invested in 'life extension strategies'.
But even outside these institutionalised forms, a religious-like vision of the future pervades Silicon Valley. For many people in the field of Artificial Intelligence maintain belief in 'the Singularity'. The Singularity, according to Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, is the point at which human intelligence merges with technology and we are transformed into 'Spiritual Machines'. When the Singularity occurs – in 2045 according to Kurzweil's prediction – our bodies will become incorruptible, insusceptible to disease and decay, and it will be possible to upload knowledge directly to our brains. Through nanotechnology, earth will be remade into a terrestrial paradise, and other planets rendered habitable. Dreams which used to belong to the religious sphere are now proclaimed to belong to the realm of science and reason.
From a Christian perspective, it is helpful that there are individuals who have taken techno-solutionism – the idea that there is a technical solution to every problem we face – to its logical conclusion. Because many in our culture have faith in technology and science, but do not make that trust explicit, perhaps even to themselves. Whereas religious believers are often accused of taking 'leaps of faith' as if secular people were immune from them, the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley reminds us that humans cannot escape their religious drive. Quite simply, we cannot avoid walking by faith. Faith itself is inevitable. Where we place it, then, is all-important.
Technology is not able to fulfil the promises made for it, not least because it is not a person and only persons can make, and keep to, promises. We know from experience that even as technology solves some of our problems, it creates more. Social media may make it easier to stay in touch with friends, but it also is linked to a rise in mental health issues, body-image problems, and cyber-bullying. Email may have made it easier for us to work from home, but by the same token, switching off from work becomes more challenging (and technical solutions only exacerbate the problem). Robotics may increase productivity levels, but it is also set to make vast swathes of the workforce unemployed.
Since technology is a set of things and not personal, it is also not able to meet some of our most fundamental human needs or address the complexity of the human situation. As Kurzweil's vision of the singularity suggests, there is little respect for human embodiment among transhumanists and believers in the Singularity. For them, we will achieve God-like status through becoming more like machines, and immortality may mean uploading our thoughts onto a computer and existing in bot form. It is notable that Kurzweil's vision of the future seems to have all the material elements of Revelation 21 except for 'there will be no more crying': for can technology guarantee joy and eliminate sadness? Surely to do so, it would have to bring about perfect, unendingly loving relations.
Furthermore, as we know from the digital divide within and between societies, any salvation brought about through technology will belong to the elites. When humans, rather than God, offer a way out of illness and even death, they tend to charge – and the more valuable the commodity, the higher the price. Cryonic preservation – even while it is unknown that revival will ever be possible – costs nearly $40,000. Unlike Christianity, this promise of salvation cannot be open to all.
Evangelists for the faith that humans can invent themselves out of suffering may feel that they are pioneers. But attempts to be God are as old as humanity itself. They remind us of the religious impulse in the heart of every human, and the truth that death and disease were not part of God's original creation. So, ultimately, this most secular corner of the globe cries out the continual relevance of the gospel.