Professor Beth Singler, Assistant Professor in Digital Religion(s), University of Zurich
Many academics have bugbears:
1. a cause of obsessive fear, anxiety, or irritation.
2. an imaginary being invoked to frighten children, typically a sort of hobgoblin supposed to devour them.
I am using the first definition, of course. Very few of us seek to scare children with pet monsters, though there may be metaphorical value in this definition as well!
We are, as academics, lovers of niche interests and that often means niche irritations as well. In the intersection of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and religion, where much of my research lies, one bugbear I have is the use of the term ‘secular religion’. Recently I was inspired to tweet about my irritation: a group I have done research on, the Longtermists, have garnered mainstream attention lately due to recent publications from experts on AI ethics. They have expressed concerns about the increasing social impact of Longtermist attitudes when so many high-profile and influential technologists and entrepreneurs seem to share them. And in these discussions the term ‘secular religion’ was being applied to this group.
In brief, Longtermism argues that an intervention that saves one human life is weighted as less important than an invention that could save billions of potential lives in the future. Sounds utilitarian, right? But traditional utilitarianism focusses on actual living beings in their calculations of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Longtermism makes space for the unborn. Even those of the distant future. As a prominent Longtermist, William MacAskill, author of What We Owe the Future (2022), put it in the New York Times in August of this year:
Future people, after all, are people. They will exist. They will have hopes and joys and pains and regrets, just like the rest of us. They just don’t exist yet.
This focus on the future might distract us from current dire impacts of the very same vaunted technologies – not only AI, but also gene and nano-technologies – they think will bring about such a better future. For instance, another issue with Longtermism is that those future lives are very speculative, with ‘future people’ for some Longtermists including even virtual humans and posthumans in an imagined technologically enhanced future. Moreover, Longtermism can also look like a project of eugenics, due to its transhumanist emphasis on maximizing the potential of these coming human generations through alteration and improvement. These issues have been pointed out by scholars and journalists such as Émile P Torres, Susan B. Levin, and Timnit Gebru. Like these scholars and journalists, I have also drawn out how these groups and their ideologies partake of religious shapes, narratives, and tropes. But where I differ, and where my bugbear lies, is in calling Longtermism – with its utopian eschatology, charismatic figures, and Pascal’s Wager-like existential bets – a ‘secular religion’ rather than just a religion.
Why does this distinction matter? First, let us return to definitions again and think about what we mean by a ‘secular religion’. Commonly, this is used to refer to a belief system that rejects or has no explanation of the world in terms of the transcendental; be it a god, gods, or other cosmological systems of explanation. Common examples of ‘secular religions’ include ideologies with distinct utopian aims such as Marxism, humanist groups that practice communal activities together, and media and sports that are the focus of intense interest and ‘fannish’ behaviour, such as football or fiction fandoms. The term originates in a view, originally from Durkheim and built upon by other scholars of religion since the 19th Century, that there is the sacred and there is the profane – the religious and the secular – and that these two things might be objectively viewed both separately, and in their mixing.
But, as I tweeted, “The oxymoron ‘secular religion’ bothers me. When its applied to groups that are antithetical to religion [which includes some Longtermist, Transhumanist, and Rationalist groups focused on emerging technologies], it buys into their own distancing narratives. Yes, there is ideological harm possible in both calling something a religion, or not. But ‘SR’ [secular religion] enables boundary work w/o [without] critique.” Furthermore, “established, self-proclaimed, religions, known for a very long time, can also operate without calls to spirits/gods”. And in calling something a religion, or not, or a secular religion, “The boundary work is done both internally and externally [to the group], but the boundaries are defined into being and every new encounter is placed into one box or another”.
This is a form of ‘Taking “Secular Religion” seriously’ to paraphrase an approach found among contemporary religious studies scholars who have recognized that, “What gets to count as religion is ultimately a question of power and the outcome of sometimes complex and contested negotiations” (Taira 2022: 2). Likewise, what is recognized as secular, or as a secular religion, is based upon how we organize ourselves “by using the category of ‘religion’” (Taira 2022: 2). Scholars, including myself in this very post I admit, draw these lines in our attempts at observing, categorizing, and writing down phenomena. As do the groups themselves; in this case, performing distancing from the category of religion wherein lies irrational supernaturality, et al. Is this a problem as well?
Moreover, as one Twitter respondent pointed out, if there is no boundary drawn between the religious and the secular, then either everything is a religion, or everything is secular. Doesn’t any discussion then become very difficult? We might think of this as The Incredibles Argument Against Contesting the Term Religion (or Secular Religion) – as Mr Incredible says in the first film of the same name, “If everyone is special then nobody is”.
My tweeted response, which I think addresses both these issues and complements Taira’s (2022) discussion of possible next steps, stated that: “The question should be, why this label at this time, not which label should I use? Why ‘Secular Religion’ and not just ‘Religion’? There is a motivation behind reinforcing distinctions between religious and secular, or even between religious and spiritual”. We both, I think, recognise the institutional drives that lead to the use of ‘religion’ (and ‘secular’, and ‘secular religion’). These might include the need to deliver teaching in a digestible form, or how the natural sciences are distinguished from the social sciences and the humanities by universities. Or people’s needs to locate an ideology or a phenomena within a recognisable and familiar category. But still, it is necessary to face up to our academic bugbears. We must bring the little ‘hobgoblins’ into the light of analysis and critique when we encounter them in the wild of public discourse.
Gebru, T (2022) Tweet about Longtermism as a Silicon Valley religion, 1.05.2022, available at https://twitter.com/timnitGebru/status/1520532465474883584 [accessed 11.11.2022]
Samuel, S. (2022) “Effective altruism’s most controversial idea” in Vox, available at https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23298870/effective-altruism-longtermism-will-macaskill-future accessed 11.11.2022
Taira, T. (2022) Taking ‘Religion’ Seriously: Essays on the Discursive Study of Religion, from Supplements to Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, Volume: 18, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, pp 1-19. Available at https://brill.com/display/title/61969 [accessed 11.11.2022]
Torres, E. (2021) “Why Longtermism is the World’s Most Dangerous Secular Credo”, in Aeon, available at https://aeon.co/essays/why-longtermism-is-the-worlds-most-dangerous-secular-credo [accessed 11.11.2022]
Torres, E. (2021) “The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’” in Current Affairs, available at https://www.currentaffairs.org/2021/07/the-dangerous-ideas-of-longtermism-and-existential-risk [accessed 11.11.2022]
Prof. Dr. Beth Singler is the Assistant Professor in Digital Religion(s) at the University of Zurich. Prior to this she was the Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge, after being the post-doctoral Research Associate on the “Human Identity in an age of Nearly-Human Machines” project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Beth explores the social, ethical, philosophical and religious implications of advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics.