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Religions in the World of Genetic Engineering by Asif Zaidi

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In today’s world there seems to exist no credible substitute for liberalism’s creed comprising freedom of speech, human rights, free market, democracy and individualism.

Even the social protests in the West in recent years –like the outpouring of support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn or the popularity of Indignados Movement- that have swung the political discourse to the left are, in truth, a reinforcement of liberal values. They have nothing against the liberal values, including free markets, instead they rebuke the governments for not verily living up to the liberal ideals. They demand the market to be entirely free instead of burdening the taxpayers with bailouts of large corporations that are abetted by their influential lobbyists to dominate the markets. A few anarchists apart, anyone of these leftists who has a credible idea to restrain capitalism from being blatantly self-seeking veers towards liberalism. Similarly, while Islamists and Marxists like to harangue liberalism, they too have not been able to come up with a better alternative despite having had numerous opportunities to experiment. Some may cite the example of China which has achieved considerable economic success without embracing democracy. However, in clearly prioritizing creation of national wealth over the burdens of any ideology, China doesn’t boast a coherent ideological model that it can sell to the world.

Socialism has already changed the world in a profound manner. If you live in the West and rely on national health services, free education, and retirement benefits etc., you owe a bit of gratitude to Marx and Lenin. Marx and Lenin flourished where clergy failed because they were more attuned to the technological and economic world order of their time rather than archaic texts and oracular conceptions. Communism could not have existed without the advances –like railroads and electricity- in technology. Marx and his followers appreciated the new technology and tried to propose solutions to the problems the industrial society posed to its urban cohorts. They thrived because they offered answers using technology and economics. They changed the discourse of their times from the challenges of afterlife to production methods hereunder. Even the severest detractors of Marx and Lenin accepted their fundamental outlook towards history and society that focused more on technology and production than on scriptures and afterlife. However, having made an indelible mark in the twentieth century, Socialism is now in the throes of a seemingly terminal decline because it failed to keep pace with the new technology. The likes of Leonid Brezhnev and Zhou Enlai failed to appreciate the change ushered in by computers and hung on to the ideas of Marx that were framed in the era of steam. Liberals, on the other hand, acclimatized well to the new age of technology and continued to prosper.

Traditional religions also do not pose any abiding threat to liberalism as they do not offer any tangible alternative. Their leaders have no answers for the questions posed by the advances of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. The world has moved on too fast and the religious thought-leaders are at a loss to make sense of it. They have nothing pertinent to profess about the threats and prospects being unleashed by new technologies in the world of the twenty-first century. The days of both religion and technology incessantly playing a balancing act to stay relevant to each other are ebbing away. In the new world technology will shape the space and edges of our religious ideas. In fact, technology has always played an instrumental part in the emergence of religions. Hunter-gatherer deities were quite different from the ideas of divinity engendered by agricultural societies. Then in the industrial age the religious whims of plant workers were quite different from those of farmers. Similarly, the future technologies are bound to give rise to religious beliefs that are entirely different from the ancient and medieval creeds of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc.

Radical forms of all the current major religions (including Islam) are doomed. Radical Islam is, in fact, in inferior position to even socialism as it is still grappling to come to terms with the industrial revolution let alone being fully attuned with genetic engineering. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and other major religions still remain dominant social forces on world stage, but they are now reactive forces fighting to preserve status quo rather than being agents of change as they once were. These religions not only wrought social and moral reformation of their societies, but they were also creative in other domains like governance, social equality, administrative systems, economic management, record-keeping, legislating, literature, history etc. For centuries religious schools were the most important learning centres of their societies with cathedral schools in Europe spawning many of today’s great universities. Not anymore. They are at a loss in the face of every new invention from the contraceptive pill to organ transplant, from television to internet, and from liberalism to feminism and, now wonder, it takes them decades to respond in any coherent manner. What did priests, monks, muftis, and rabbis change in the past few centuries that can match the influence of steam engine, automobile, internet, antibiotics, liberalism, or feminism?

When religions fail to resonate with the technological experience of an age they lose the ability to connect with the reality of their world. None of these religions, for example, is prepared for a world where the artificial intelligence will outclass mere human performance in most spheres of life in a society that will allow us to design babies and live healthier and better planned lives than ever before. No scriptures offer answers to the problems that will arise from longevity, large proportions of economically inactive people, humans losing their military utility, and huge gaps between the means and lives of rich and poor as these texts and their readings were not made compatible with genetics and nanotechnology. These religions have been useful because they served as moorings of stability in the face of turbulence of the practical world but they are approaching the end of their charted territory and may find themselves clueless when confronted with the challenges of life in future.

It does not mean that Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam will disappear. In fact, billions of people may continue to adhere to them. However, as the history shows, numbers don’t determine the course of the world. More often than not the world is fashioned by a small number of avant-garde modernisers instead of conventional multitudes. These modernisers are the likes of the ones who brought about the agricultural revolution in a world of hunter-gatherers and then the industrial revolution in a world of peasants. The millions teeming in alluvial plains of Amazon, Congo, Nile, Niger, Indus, Ganges, Euphrates, Yangtze, and Amur rivers in the late nineteenth century had no idea about steam engine, telegraph, telephone, electricity, and petroleum. Yet the future of their world was by this time already decided by a few engineers, innovators, and financiers in faraway places like Manchester – a future that belonged to the lightly populated industrial powers. As the industrial revolution made its way across the world there was no dearth of mullahs, priests, and monks who professed the industrial revolution to be destructive and maintained that only they and their respective scriptures could offer a solution to the world’s problems including those brought about by the industrial revolution. Today the same clergy is at it again in the face of the cyber revolution. Faced by the challenge of modernity, Pope Pius IX instituted drastic reforms in Catholicism, also introducing the belief in papal infallibility that had never existed before. Eleven years after Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, the church countered by inculcating the code of faith that the Pope can never make a mistake in matters of religion. At around the same time Hong Xiuquan in China declared himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ and garnered enormous allegiance among the masses. He led his followers into a war against Manchu Qing dynasty in the Taiping Rebellion that accounted for the loss of well over 20 million human lives. At the same time, faced by the British occupation, the religious leaders of Muslims in India were swearing allegiance to the by then fading Ottoman Caliphate and were prohibiting their followers from learning English and studying science. Simultaneously, a Hindu revivalist campaign led by Dayananda Sarasvati was stirring Hindus in India. Dayananda reinforced the belief that Vedic scriptures could never err and founded a highly popular Hindu revivalist movement called Arya Samaj.          

As industrialization, railroads, and electricity continued to infiltrate the world, hundreds of millions held on to the religious doctrines of the Priests, Hong, Dayananda, and Muftis. However, history does not define the nineteenth century by their retrogressive ideas in the face of modernisation, it defines the nineteenth century by its greatest inventions –steam engine, locomotive, telegraph, telephone, electricity etc.- and its foremost thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Pasteur, Mendel, and Faraday. The countries that embraced rapid industrialization in the nineteenth century conquered the world, whereas the societies that were unable to appreciate what was happening missed out on the volley of growth and development. Giants like India and China were easily exploited by the tiny Britain through either occupation or trade. Similarly, today billions of people may adhere to religious texts as authority for their ethics, but these scriptures are not a fountain of ingenuity any more.

We are now at another watershed moment in the history of human progress. This will be a revolution fuelled by biotechnology and computer algorithms. These technologies are far more powerful than any of the vaunted inventions of the past two centuries. Their products will be life, cognition, bodies, and brains. And the break between those who know how to create or modify life, body, and brain and those who don’t will be much greater than that between Darwin’s Britain and Dayananda’s India. Sapiens will acquire divine proportions of creation and destruction and those who don’t will, like Neanderthals, stand still, facing extinction. The successful liberal epitomes are now impelling humanity to aspire for immortality, happiness, and godliness. However, that triumph also likely bodes the beginning of the end for liberalism as the twenty-first-century science undercuts the fundamentals of the liberal code. When the still nascent genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reach the peak of their prowess, liberalism and free market will also seem as archaic as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and socialism do today. Liberalism will find it extremely daunting to muster a response to post-humanist technologies that will spell the end of free will, as human experience becomes designable on order. In such a world system will find value in humans collectively but not in individuals except a small elite of individuals with the means for being upgraded to superhuman levels. That will be a world in which liberalism and other religions will not be relevant as the technology of living. What then will be the religion of that world when rich and poor will be separated not just by affluence but also by real biological gaps - a world where rich will have no vested interest in the masses for labour, for military, or for votes?

The new religions are not likely to arise from the Fertile Crescent or from India, the two main breeding grounds of theistic religions. Just as the major ideologies of the past two centuries -socialism, liberalism, feminism etc.- sprouted from the bosom of the industrial revolution; this new religion will most likely emanate from Silicon Valley, promising the same old ingredients of deliverance -contentment, peace, luck, health, success, wealth, and a shot at eternity- through computing and chromosomes. That now is the most interesting place on earth for new ideologies and religions.

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