The rapture of the nerds

It's rare that I have a chance to expose my truly geeky interests here on TC, so when something semi-relevant crosses my RSS reader (like the old Klingon version of the Bible chestnut), you'll have to forgive me for indulging. So file this under strange but interesting:

If you read a lot of science fiction, you may have come across the concept of the Singularity, a hypothesized point in the future when computers become smarter than humans, and continue to grow smarter at an exponential rate until it becomes impossible to even guess at or comprehend what the world would be like. It's got some links to transhumanism and other sort-of-scientific ideas about where humanity might be headed, existentially speaking.

Well, in an article at, John Horgan has a lengthy (and technobabble-filled) article about the Singularity... and he points out its suspicious resemblance to a certain evangelical belief about the end of the world. Specifically, he sees it as a scientific version of the Rapture:

Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.

Such yearning for transcendence, whether spiritual or technological, is all too understandable. Both as individuals and as a species, we face deadly serious problems, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, poverty, famine, environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, and AIDS. Engineers and scientists should be helping us face the world's problems and find solutions to them, rather than indulging in escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies like the singularity.

Ross Douthat has some good comments. I don't have much of an opinion about the plausibility of the Singularity or a transhuman future, but two things struck me as amusing about this: first, it's just interesting that out of a largely mechanistic (maybe even atheist) worldview has emerged an idea with clear religious overtones, and specifically Christian-sounding ones at that. And second, Horgan is leveling the same criticism against Singularity-yearners that I've seen leveled against Rapture-obsessed Christians: stop thinking so hard about the next world and try to do some good in this one.

Like I said: no overarching theological point here; just something a little off-the-beaten-path to think about.

(Bonus reading: The Techno-Sapiens Are Coming over at Christianity Today.)

Comments (8)

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Don’t laugh, but as a teenager obsessed with all things sci-fi (Issac Asimov was a favorite), I used to defend my reading material on a regular basis by pointing out the deeper social and spiritual meanings.  Of course, this did not go over very well in the rural area where I grew up. 

Having grown up Catholic, I had never heard of the Rapture.  I always looked at things from the perspective of “what can we do now” instead.

CMF, I wouldn’t laugh at such a thing—I did it myself growing up. I actually think sci-fi offers a great way to think about Serious Topics, including religious ones, from a slightly different angle than a church or classroom setting. And it is a way to explore religious and spiritual ideas without scaring people off with too much Church Talk, if you know what I mean.

I’ve never read much Asimov. Any particular favorites of his that you’d recommend to someone who wants to try out a few of his writings?

I still defend sci-fi on those grounds.  And if it helps, I didn’t have much support growing up in the suburbs either.  Something about space ships on the covers of books just makes people wary…

I too think that one of the best reasons for reading sci-fi is the exploration of religious and philosophical topics.  There really are a ton of good writers that write for a fairly deep audience.

I never meet anyone who takes me seriously about the value of science fiction and fantasy as a way to explore complex topics - even when I took a class on the topic in college !  Thank you for making my morning a little brighter before I’ve even had a cup of coffee.

I think the best place to start reading Asimov is with I,Robot (very different from the recent movie) and then going to the robot novels.

Not one, but two people, Christians even, who understand how sci-fi can be used as a communication tool; I think I need to pinch myself.  I don’t know of a single person in my church who would understand this idea.  At best they would just give me a glazed look or tell me I need to be reading my Bible more.  At worst, I’d end up in an argument.

I’m actually surprised people DON’T see sci-fi as a way to explore complex topics—I thought that was obvious!

I am a superficial reader of sci-fi (in that I have only skimmed the surface of the genre, reading a few of the most well-known books and authors), but I first picked up The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in college because all my religious conversations with atheist friends ended up with them citing it as the source of their beliefs about God and the meaning of life.

Maybe my friends were nerdy, but if I wanted to talk with them about faith, I had to understand where they were coming from.

This does not surprise me at all. There are many pseudo religious beliefs that come from the scientific community, which are VERY interesting, and it’s an interesting discussion. These beliefs include:
- The belief in aliens, and their genius and benevolence; including the idea that they created us, somehow, and are watching over us
- The belief in evolution in that our species needs to evolve to a higher conscienceness, the faith that we will evolve and become better people to one another
- The vague belief in technology to save us: the idea that computers can become smarter than us, that artificial intelligence is possible and will bring about a new age.
- The idea that by not eating animals and living organically, this is your higher morality and calling - what you live for.

Scientific atheists may not believe in God, but they do believe in some weird things too. I think it’s our nature to look for that transcedence.

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