Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Supreme atheist?

May have to leave it to Bernie...

Put an Atheist on the Supreme Court
Who should replace Antonin Scalia? On Monday, the Times reported that the Justice himself had weighed in on the question: last June, in his dissenting opinion in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, Scalia wrote that the Court was “strikingly unrepresentative” of America as a whole and ought to be diversified. He pointed out that four of the Justices are natives of New York City, that none are from the Southwest (or are “genuine” Westerners), and that all of them attended law school at Harvard or Yale. Moreover, Scalia wrote, there is “not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination” on the Court. (All nine Justices are, to varying degrees, Catholic or Jewish.) 
Scalia’s remarks imply that an evangelical Christian should be appointed to the Court. That’s a strange idea: surely, the separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution strongly suggests that court decisions shouldn’t be based on religious preference, or even on religious arguments. The Ten Commandments are reserved for houses of worship; the laws of the land are, or should be, secular. Still, I’m inclined, in my own way, to agree with Scalia’s idea about diversity. My suggestion is that the next Supreme Court Justice be a declared atheist. 
Atheists are a significantly underrepresented minority in government. According to recent findings from the Pew Research Center, about twenty-three per cent of American adults declare that they have no religious affiliation—which is two percentage points more than the number who declare themselves Catholic. Three per cent of Americans say that they are atheists—which means that there are more atheists than Jews in the United States. An additional four per cent declare themselves agnostic; as George Smith noted in his classic book “Atheism: The Case Against God,” agnostics are, for practical purposes, atheists, since they cannot declare that they believe in a divine creator. Even so, not a single candidate for major political office or Supreme Court Justice has “come out” declaring his or her non-belief. 
From a judicial perspective, an atheist Justice would be an asset. In controversial cases about same-sex marriage, say, or access to abortion or birth control, he or she would be less likely to get mired in religion-based moral quandaries. Scalia himself often got sidetracked in this way: he framed his objections to laws protecting L.G.B.T. rights in a moral, rather than a legal-rights, framework. In his dissent, in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas—a case that challenged a Texas law criminalizing gay sex—Scalia wrote that those who wanted to limit the rights of gay people to be teachers or scoutmasters were merely “protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle they believe to be immoral and destructive.” To him, religion-based moral objections seemed to deserve more weight than either factual considerations (homosexuality is not destructive) or rights-based concerns (gay people’s rights must be protected). Indeed, Scalia’s meditation on the Court’s lack of religious diversity was part of a larger argument that the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage did not reflect prevailing religious and moral values. An atheist Justice, by contrast, would have different intellectual habits. I suspect that he or she would be more likely to focus on reason and empirical evidence. 
In addition, the appointment of an atheist Justice would send a meaningful message: it would affirm that legal arguments are secular, and that they are based on a secular document, the Constitution, which was written during the founding of a secular democracy. Such an appointment would also help counter the perceived connection between atheism and lawlessness and immorality. That unfortunate and inaccurate link is made all too often in the United States. A Pew survey conducted last month showed that, once again, Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate than for a candidate who has no experience, is gay, was involved in financial improprieties, has had extramarital affairs, or is Muslim. Atheists are widely, absurdly, and openly mistrusted. 
That distrust has ancient roots: because religion long ago claimed morality as its domain, atheism has long been connected to immorality. To many people, religiosity confers an aura of goodness. In the U.K., when people who had listed their religious affiliation as Christian on the national census were asked by the Richard Dawkins Foundation why they had done so, most said it was not because they actually accepted the detailed doctrines of their faith but because it made them feel like they were good people. This is a two-way street on which both directions point the wrong way. By the same token, when good people openly declare that they cannot accept religious doctrines or question the underlying concept of God, they are often classified as “bad.” 
The prejudice against atheists has real-world consequences. In December, 2014, the Times reportedthat seven states—Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—still have laws on their books that make atheists ineligible to run for public office. And anti-atheist prejudice is shaping our Presidential race, too. Consider the case of Donald Trump in South Carolina. After Trump insulted Ted Cruz using a sexist slur, one voter responded by saying, “The way he speaks—that doesn’t sound like somebody who really believes in God that much. You want your children to look up at the President of the United States.” 
Implicit in that statement is the idea that a politician’s belief in God is, in itself, a reason for children to look up to him or her. Meanwhile, other aspects of a candidate’s character seem not to matter. If the opinions of Cruz’s colleagues in the Senate and elsewhere are any indication, he seems to be rather unlikable; his competitors in the Republican primaries have suggested that he is less than truthful, as well. Still, Cruz captures a significant fraction of the evangelical vote because his character seems to matter less than his open and pronounced invocation of God in discussing his policies. 
Our strange attitudes about atheism warp our politics and our laws. It’s time to remove the stigma attached to it. One way to do that is by appointing an atheist to the Supreme Court. Happily, such an appointment would be a tribute to the spirit, if not the letter, of one of Scalia’s last opinions. More than that, it would be a tribute to the secular principles upon which this country was founded.
New Yorker, 2.18.16

In the West, atheism is growing. Nearly a billion people around the world are essentially godless. Yet, that burgeoning population faces an important challenge in the near future—the choice whether to support far longer lifespans than humans have ever experienced before. Transhumanist tech could potentially double our lifetimes in the next 20-40 years through radical science like gene editing, bionic organs, and stem cell therapy. Eventually, life extension technology like this will probably even wipe out death and aging altogether, damaging one of the most important philosophical tenets formal religion uses to convert people: the promise of being resurrected after you die.
About 85 percent of the world’s population believes in life after death, and much of that population is perfectly okay with dying because it gives them an afterlife with their perceived deity or deities—something often referred to as “deathist” culture. In fact, four billion people on Earth—mostly Muslims and Christians—see the overcoming of death through science as potentially blasphemous, a sin involving humans striving to be godlike. Some holy texts say blasphemy is unforgivable and will end in eternal punishment.
So what are atheists to do in a world where science and technology are quickly improving and will almost likely overcome human mortality in the next half century? Will there be a great civil rights debate and clash around the world? Or will the deathist culture change, adapt, or even subside? More importantly, will atheists help lead the charge in confronting religion’s love of using human mortality as a tool to grow the church?
First, let’s look at some hard facts. Most deaths in the world are caused by aging and disease. Approximately150,000 people die every day around the world, causing devastating loss to loved ones and communities. Of course, it should not be overlooked that death also brings massive disruption to family finances and national economies.
On the medical front, the good news is that gerontologists and other researchers have made major gains recently in the fields of life extension, anti-aging research, and longevity science. In 2010, some of the first studies of stopping and reversing aging in mice took place. They were partially successful and proved that 21st Century science and medicine had the goods to overcome most types of deaths from aging. Eventually, we’ll also wipe out most diseases. Through modern medicine, the 20th Century saw a massive decrease of deaths from polio, measles, and typhoid, amongst others.
On the heels of some of these longevity and medical triumphs, a number of major commercial ventures have appeared recently, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the field of anti-aging and longevity research. Google’s Calico, Human Longevity LLC, and Insilico Medicine are just some of them.
Google Ventures’ President Bill Maris, who helps direct investments into health and science companies, recently made headlines by telling Bloomberg, “If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”
Increasingly, leading scientists are voicing similar ideas. Reuters reports that renowned gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey, chief scientist at SENS Research Foundation and the Anti-aging Advisor at the US Transhumanist Party, thinks scientists will be able to control aging in the near future, “I’d say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I’d call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so.”
Even smaller projects like the musician Steve Aoki supported Longevity Cookbook with its Indiegogo campaign have recently launched, in an effort to get people to eat better to live longer. All these endeavors add to a growing climate of people and their attitudes willing to accept the transhumanist idea that death is not fate. In fact, in the future, death will likely be seen as a choice someone makes, and not something that happens arbitrarily or accidentally to people.
Despite this positive momentum in the anti-aging science movement, changing cultural deathist trends for 85 percent of the world’s population may prove difficult. Humans are a species ingrained in their ways, and getting fundamentally religious people to have an open mind to living far longer periods than before—maybe hundreds of years even—could prove challenging.
Recently, a number of transhumanists, including myself who is a longtime atheist, have attempted to work more closely with governmental, religious, and social groups that have for centuries endorsed the deathist culture. Transhumanists are trying to get those groups to realize we are not necessarily wanting to live forever. As science and reason-minded people, we simply want the choice and creation over our own earthly demise, and we don’t want to leave it to cancer, or an automobile accident, or aging, or fate.
Of course, for atheists, the elephant in the room is overpopulation. If everyone lives longer, surely the world will become even more crowded than it is. The good news is that scientists generally believe Earth could handle a far larger human population than we have now, without destroying the planet. But we’d need better methods of resource distribution and laws that ensure equality among people. The key to handling a large population likely rests in new green technology, and using it to fix major environmental problems. Meatless meat is a great example. Much rainforest destruction comes from creating pastures for animal grazing. But we could regrow those forests (which would help the greenhouse and ozone layer problems) by creating meatless meat in laboratories and bypassing the need for livestock. I like this for more reasons than one; 150 million animals are slaughtered every day for our consumption. That’s a lot of killing that could be avoided.
In the end, longer lifespans and more control over our biological selves will only make the world a better place, with more permanent institutions, more time with our loved ones, and more stable economies. People, including those who are atheist or religious, will always have the choice to die if they want to, but the specter of death from formal religion will no longer be able to be used as a menacing tool for growing a deathist culture and agenda.
Zoltan Istvan is an atheist futurist, author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager, and the 2016 US Presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party.
Want to know anything else about Zoltan Istvan? Here is a collection of all his articles, interviews and plans for the future, which you can follow here: https://wakelet.com/@ZoltanIstvan

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