Can salvation, immortality come through science?
By Chris Mulherin
November 14 2018Renowned UK scientist Dr Denis Alexander explores this question in conversation with Dr Chris Mulherin. Dr Alexander has conducted research in human genetics, molecular immunology and cancer for forty years. In 2006 he founded the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge, where he was director until 2012.
Chris Mulherin: Denis, a lot has happened in the last fourteen or fifteen years in genetics since the sequencing of the human genome. Tell us what the significance of that is?
Denis Alexander: Genetics has been advancing at a great rate and, as with many sciences, it’s marked with several transitions where new technology comes along or new discoveries or advances are made. A new technique now used in genetic engineering can be used to change any DNA of any organism in the world, including the human.
DNA is like the code that controls our physical development; does this mean that we can cut out diseases?
Potentially. There have been a number of papers out now on what they call ‘embryo editing’ – so, taking a very early embryo – they’ve been utilising embryos to carry a particular genetic defect for a particular disease such as thalassaemia, for example. So, in principle and in practice it’s possible to do it. It’s still a research technique, it’s illegal to then implant the corrected embryos back into a mother; that’s still illegal in pretty much all of the countries of the world where this work is going on. But that’s the end goal.
In terms of the ethical considerations, does this mean that we will be able to make human beings in whatever image we want to make them and keep on making them “better?” Beyond healing, what happens if somebody wants a taller, faster, or blonder child? Could we also reprogram the genetics in order to bring that about?
If we take something even more complex, like intelligence, educational attainment, or sporting prowess, these are very complex traits that vary between humans. There are probably thousands of genetic variants with regards to education attainment. So, the human genome is its own best protector against meddlers because it’s just so complicated. And so, I think it’s a little bit naïve to think that we can mess around with the human genome and create super-intelligent people. In theory it looks like you could do it but in practice we’re talking here about thousands of genetic variants.
Isn’t that the sort of thing the transhumanist movement is up to?
Transhumanists want to create humans beyond the human. They have a very low view of our current biology and think we should use all the technology that we can to enhance human capabilities. They hope that one day we will create machines that will actually think for themselves and then we’ll be so intelligent that it will be possible to download our own human minds into digital space and then our minds will live forever. That is the sort of rather wacky eschatology that they have. I think sometimes technology is a bit divorced from reality. There’s quite a bit of naivety there and I think it’s because many of them are people who are much more used to working with machines and with artificial intelligence, and much less used to working with biology.
What parallels do you see between transhumanism and Christian faith?
In a sense transhumanism is a highly secularised form of Christian doctrine, since they believe in a parallel of sin. Sin for the transhumanist is being stuck in a biological body we should want to get out of. So, salvation for them lies in machinery, robots, artificial intelligence and all that science can bestow upon us – it’s a techno-scientific salvation. They also have an eschatology where they’re looking forward to immortality, but an immortality expressed not in a resurrected body, as in the Christian faith, but in a very platonic digital mind without any bodies in sight.
So, despite those parallels, they don’t have a god do they? Or is their god the super-human, the scientist even?
Everybody has a god, and the transhumanists generally worship technology as their god. Beyond that they worship themselves because their goal really is the transformation of me. It’s strikingly non-relational. This whole project is much more to do with my transformation and my enhancement and my future in digital space. Their future for people is made in their own image. But when they make it in their own image it takes with it all the shortcomings of humanity.
Western culture and Christian faith
Denis, you travel a lot and speak with people about these cultural issues; what do you see as the place of Christian faith in countries like Australia? The New Atheism movement, which was strong a number of years ago, seems to be fading, so what’s going on in Western culture with respect to Christian faith?
Western culture is very fragmented at the moment, particularly in the USA, where it’s highly polarised, partly for political reasons. When politics gets mixed up with religion it doesn’t help sensible, coherent discourse unfortunately. But the need that I see, which is happening to some degree in the churches in the Western world, is to not only generate, but propagate, a Christian vision that encompasses the whole of life.
This will show how the Christian alternative to things like humanism, transhumanism, and all those sorts of ideologies, is a far richer and more encompassing worldview than the one they can provide. Human flourishing doesn’t seem to happen through technology. Once you get people out of poverty and out of the grind, more and more technology doesn’t seem to make us happier.
So Christians can offer something different?
I think Christians can come in with a message here that human flourishing is much more likely to come as people find the ultimate goal in God who has the plan for the whole of the universe. This gives a more all-encompassing world view than some of these worldviews that are restricted to technical answers. There’s a great opportunity as Christians to engage with these other worldviews.
However, because of the secularisation of Western society in the past half a century, to some degree the church has had a tendency to go into its spiritual castle and pull up the draw bridge. It hasn’t always engaged other ideologies or put forward its perspective robustly and carefully in the public domain. I think there’s a great need for the church to do that.
I was in Sydney recently with the Centre for Public Christianity and I thought that’s exactly what Christians should be doing: communicating – through podcasts, magazines and so on – a vision for the world that is within the Christian worldview. It’s not preaching to people. It’s simply mapping out that this is what a Christian worldview looks like, and these are its impacts on science, technology, the arts, humanities, and so on. I think that that’s where we should be heading.
Science and Christian faith
You’ve been very involved in Christians in Science in the UK and the Faraday Centre. What is the place for organisations like that – here in Australia ISCAST, also known as Christians in Science – in this cultural discussion?
I think they can play a very important role because, in terms of Christians in Science and ISCAST and so forth, they can gather together Christians in the community to discuss the science–faith relationship, and also to show secular culture that it’s very normal to be a Christian in the scientific community. I think that’s a point frequently missed by scientists, because they don’t often know the history of science, including that modern science was basically started by Christians. So, I think that’s a very important role that Christians in Science and ISCAST can do. That is what we’re seeking to do in the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
At the Faraday Institute, what are the things that you were most happy to achieve?
One of the things is to engage with the scientific community in ways that they find interesting and attractive, and that bring a lot of scientists along to our activities. Sometimes that’s been through large public events, and other times it’s been through workshops or conferences. We had a workshop a few years ago to mark the life of George Lemaître, the Belgium priest who was the first one to describe what we now call the ‘big bang’. A lot of people came along and it made quite an impact more broadly within the field of mathematical physics.
Some years ago we sponsored a play to help celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the founding of Cambridge. We wanted to contribute something that was relevant to science, religion and Cambridge, so we sponsored a new play on Isaac Newton, called ‘Let Newton Be’. We had the premier performance in Trinity College, which is Newton’s old college, and we had Stephen Hawking and master of the college Lord Martin Rees give welcomes.
So, that kind of thing, we like doing that. We don’t want to huddle away with people around the table talking to themselves. We want to talk to the wider community through the arts and through science to get the message across that science and religion is a very positive discussion and there has always been a positive relationship between the two.
Another thing that we were very happy about in the Faraday Institute is that although we don’t do public debates, we do from time to time hold public discussions where we allow people to stand up and express their different views in a public domain. We held one in 2009, when New Atheism was still quite prominent, and got the Archbishop of Canterbury in discussion with Professor Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is a well-known English literature professor and literary critic, and we thought he was an atheist, that’s why we invited him.
So, Rowan Williams did the religious response to New Atheism and Professor Eagleton did the political response to New Atheism. We held it in Great St Mary’s, which is the university church in Cambridge. It takes 1400 people and it was absolutely packed, including a huge number of atheists. I was chairing the meeting and Professor Eagleton stood up to give his ten minute presentation and talked more about Jesus than the archbishop. It turned out that Professor Eagleton had returned to his Catholic roots and was no longer the stringent atheist that we had imagined him to be.
Those are the sorts of things that we are quite happy about because they bring a lot more people into the discussion and help different people to come along and get engaged.
Dealing with the conflict myth
We’re driving through the streets of Melbourne at the moment and there are thousands of people around us. This is where the rubber meets the road; many or the majority of people think there is a fundamental conflict between robust science and serious Christianity. How do we deal with that at the popular level?
First of all, it’s a strange thing that this idea is a part of our culture. I think most historians would see the so-called conflict between science and religion as emerging through the latter decades of the 19th century with the growing professionalisation of science. The idea is that as science became separate from the rest of the academic disciplines, scientists went their way and theologians went their way as they lost the art of talking to each other.
There are many different ways to change that. One really important way is that the scientific community needs to be aware that there are top scientists who are committed Christians. As an illustration, Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University led a study of the religious beliefs of scientists in the USA and compared them with the religious beliefs of scientists in other countries. During the interviews in the USA, quite a number of scientists said, ‘Well I know it’s possible’, or, ‘I know I’m not a religious person myself but I know it’s possible to be a Christian because Francis [Collins] is’. They all know that the Director of the National Institutes of Health – the top science job in the United States – is a committed Christian. Collins is quite public about his faith, and that fact alone has helped many scientists to say, ‘Well, I’m not religious, but I know you can be religious and a good scientist because look at Francis Collins’.
I think we in the Faraday Institute have played a small role in giving Christians who are quite well known in the scientific community a public platform on which to share their ideas about what it means to be a Christian in the scientific community.
The full interview transcript and audio is available on the ISCAST website: www.ISCAST.org
The Revd Dr Chris Mulherin is the Executive Director of ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology), and the Archbishop’s Adviser for Science-Faith Education.
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