TIME Religion

What Americans Don’t Know About The Central African Republic

Most Americans know nothing about the Central African Republic. They guess that it must be in the middle of Africa, but that’s about it. When told where it is and the societal chaos and slaughter in CAR, they always ask why it’s not more in the news.

Although I’ve traveled to much of the world including Africa, I had never been there until this month. The U.S. State Department invited a trio of American religious leaders to travel to the capital city of Bangui to see for ourselves and to talk peace. The three included Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Muslim Imam Mohamed Magid (President of the Islamic Society of North America) and me. Why us? According to TIME Magazine, the religious composition of CAR is 52 percent evangelicals, 29 percent Catholics and 15 percent Muslims.

We met with our counterparts in CAR, Catherine Samba-Panza (the transitional president of CAR), members of her administration, and representatives of the conflicting military groups. Our meetings were at a closed mosque, the Cathedral, the president’s residence and the home of the U.S. ambassador (although there is no current ambassador since our embassy has been suspended).

It’s not easy to explain what’s been happening. And, not everyone agrees to any explanation. The best chronology begins with a corrupt and failed central government that has been accused of injustice and incompetence. A rebel group called Seleka swept across the country with brutality and established a new government with a new president. The new president didn’t last long. An anti-balaka militia organized for protection and retaliation against the Seleka and have been accused of further brutality. A transitional government has been established, but it is poor, weak and often overwhelmed.

We heard stories that break your heart. Thousands killed, often with machetes. Widespread rape. Destruction of homes, shops and villages. There were 36 mosques in Bangui; now there are seven. One man told us that 13 of his brothers were burned to death the same day. Another told about a hand grenade thrown into a group of people while they prayed.

The National Highway was closed by all the unrest, so trucks and supplies can’t access the country. Villagers have fled into the bush out of fear; their villages are empty, and no crops are being planted. One million people have fled the country or are internally displaced. There is a refugee camp at the little airport that swelled to 100,000.

Seeds for planting are not available; some will be imported from Cameroon, but they are also in short supply and giving priority to their own farmers saying that any surplus will be sold to CAR. There is threat of wide-scale famine. Before all this CAR was one of the poorest nations in the world with people living on less that $2 per day. Current shortages are inflating food prices. In Bangui, the capital of CAR, chickens are selling for $12 each. (To make a comparison: If you earn $50,000 a year in the United States, it would cost you over $800 to buy one chicken for your family.)

We were in Africa on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. There were repeated testimonies of foreign nations apologizing for not going to Rwanda and stopping the horrors before they turned into genocide. We need to take our own apologies and advice to do more in the Central African Republic.

Some say that this is a religious battle between Christians and Muslims. It is a common assertion in our western press. I can see why they say this, since there are similar lines politically, demographically and religiously. However, the leaders we talked to in CAR insist this is not a religious war. To the contrary, the religious leaders are the loudest most courageous voices against the violence and the strongest promoters of peace.

The word needs to get out. The whole world knows about the missing Malaysian airplane with 239 passengers and crew. Forty four million dollars have already been spent on the search. But, there are thousands missing in CAR, and it barely makes the news. International troops under United Nations leadership need to establish order and rebuild infrastructure. And relief and development assistance should be immediately deployed.

As we sat in the ambassador’s residence, one of the militia representatives said that the people of CAR have not made God the priority. He said that most important in the Central African Republic is for the people of the nation to turn their hearts and actions to God. His prayer was that human tragedy would turn into spiritual renewal.

Leith Anderson is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Prays for Peace on Easter Sunday

Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica where he delivered the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for to the city and to the world) at the end of the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the the Vatican, April 20, 2014. L'Osservatore Romano/AP

In his Easter address to more than 150,000 at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis called for an end to the recent conflicts in Syria, Nigeria and Ukraine and advised Catholics to help "those crushed by life’s troubles"

Pope Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine during his Easter mass in Vatican City on Sunday.

“We ask [God] to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine, so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence,” Francis said in front of a crowd of more than 150,000 visitors at St. Peter’s Basilica.

This year, the Catholic church’s celebration of Easter coincides with Easter in the Orthodox churches, which have a sizable presence in Ukraine.

The Pontiff also prayed for peace in Syria and the Middle East at large, an end to the recent Nigerian terrorist attacks that have targeted Christians and an end to the deadly Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa, the Associated Press reports.

Pope Francis said the hopeful spirit of Easter means “leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast.”

[AP]

TIME faith

Beyond Death: The Science of the Afterlife

TIME Inc.

If you’ve seen heaven, does that mean it exists?

This question is more than a mind-bender. For thousands of years, certain people have claimed to have actually visited the place that, Saint Paul promised, “no eye has seen … and no human mind has conceived,” and their stories very often follow the same narrative arc.

A skeptic, a rogue or an innocent suffers hardship or injury: he is hit on the head, he suffers a stroke, he sustains damage in a car crash or on the operating table. A feeling of disconnection comes over him, a sense of being “outside” himself. Perhaps he encounters an opening: a gate, a door, a tunnel. And then, all at once, he is being guided through other worlds that look and feel to him more “real” than the world in which he once existed. These realms are both familiar and strange, containing music that doesn’t sound like music and light brighter than any light, and creatures that may or may not be angels, and the familiar faces of loved ones lost as well as figures from history and sometimes—depending on the narrator—even Jesus himself. The tourist is agape. Words fail. He leaves reluctantly to reoccupy his body and this earth. But the experience changes him forever. Convinced as he is of a wholly different reality, he is calmer, more self-assured, determined to persuade the world of heaven’s truth. He tells his story to the masses. “Heaven is real!” he proclaims.

The Book of Enoch, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, tells a version of this story and so does the Book of Revelation, Christianity’s most foundational description of the sights and sounds of heaven. So do the medieval visionaries whose accounts were to the Middle Ages what reality TV is to the 21st century: “real” events marketed as popular entertainment (with an edifying Christian message thrown in). And despite—or perhaps because of—the increasing rationalism of our times, this narrative genre thrives today. Ninety Minutes in Heaven (2004), about a Christian pastor who ascended to God after a car wreck; Heaven Is for Real (2010), about a child who sees heaven during surgery; and Proof of Heaven, by a Duke-trained neurosurgeon who traveled to heaven in 2012, have all been bestsellers, all following the same storyline. The neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, said in Newsweek in 2012 that his experience convinced him that his consciousness (the soul, or the self) exists somehow separate from or outside the mind and can travel to other dimensions on its own. “This world of consciousness beyond the body,” he wrote, “is the true new frontier, not just of science but of humankind itself, and it is my profound hope that what happened to me will bring the world one step closer to accepting it.”

Tales like these are thrilling in part because their tellers hold the passionate conviction of religious converts: I saw it, so it must be true. According to a Gallup poll, about 8 million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience (NDE), and many of them regard this experience as proof of an afterlife—a parallel, spiritual realm, more real, many say, than this one. Raymond Moody, who wrote Life After Life in 1975, one of the first popular books about NDEs, told CNN in 2013 that among people who have had such experiences, conviction about an afterlife transcends the particulars of religion. “A lot of people talk about encountering a being of light,” he said. “Christians call it Christ. Jewish people say it’s an angel. I’ve gone to different continents, and you can hear the same thing in China, India and Japan about meeting a being of complete love and compassion.” Moody was one of the founders of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a group devoted to building global understanding of such experiences.

It’s an inversion, almost, of the old philosophical puzzle: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you are certain that you saw something (or felt something or heard something), does it mean that it’s empirically proven? And if you are predisposed to want to see something, are you likelier to see it, the way Harry Potter saw his dear departed mother in Hogwarts’s magic mirror? And finally, if you see something while you are stressed or unconscious or traumatized in some way, does that circumstance delegitimize the veracity of your vision? This is the trouble with NDEs as a field of scientific study: you can’t have a control group. Most people on the brink of dying do die (and so cannot describe what that process is like), and those who survive approach the brink in such different ways—car accident, stroke, heart attack—that it’s impossible to compare their experiences empirically. But over the years, science has posited a number of theories about the connection between visions of heaven and the chemical and physical processes that occur at death.

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist and professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital and has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people (nuns and monks) who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. He believes the “tunnel” and the “light” that NDE-ers so frequently describe can be easily explained. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he points out. “That’s why you’d have a tunnel sensation.” If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last.

Newberg puts forward the following scenario, which he emphasizes is guesswork: When people die, two parts of the brain that usually work in opposition to each other act cooperatively. The sympathetic nervous system—a web of nerves and neurons that run through the spinal cord and spread to virtually every organ in the body—is responsible for arousal or excitement. It gets you ready for action. The parasympathetic system, with which the sympathetic system is entwined, calms you down and rejuvenates you. In life, the turning on of one system promotes the shutting down of the other. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you’re falling asleep. But in the brains of people having mystical experiences, and perhaps in death, both systems are fully “on,” giving a person a sensation both of slowing down, being “out of body,” and of seeing things vividly, including memories of important people and past events. It is possible, Newberg asserts—though not at all certain—that visions of heaven are merely chemical and neurological events that occur during death.

Since at least the 1980s, scientists have theorized that NDEs occur as a kind of physiological defense mechanism. In order to guard against damage during trauma, the brain releases protective chemicals that also happen to trigger intense hallucinations. This theory gained traction after scientists realized that virtually all of the features of an NDE—a sense of moving through a tunnel, an out-of-body feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, intense memories—can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilizer frequently used as a party drug. In 2000 a psychiatrist named Karl Jansen wrote a book called Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, in which he interviewed a number of recreational users. One of them described a drug trip in a way that might be familiar to Dante, or the author of Revelation. “I came out into a golden Light. I rose into the Light and found myself having an unspoken exchange with the Light, which I believed to be God … I didn’t believe in God, which made the experience even more startling. Afterwards, I walked around the house for hours saying ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’ ”

For some scientists, however, purely scientific explanations of heavenly visions do not suffice. Emily Williams Kelly is a psychologist who works at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which treats the study of NDEs as legitimate science. Her résumé is impressive: she has degrees from Duke, the University of Virginia and the University of Edinburgh—not institutions one usually associates with the study of the supernatural or paranormal. Kelly has spent her career researching, as she puts it, “the interface between the brain and the mind.” Practically speaking, she interviews dying people and tries to find patterns among their similarities. Kelly believes the experiences of people who have had near-death visions demonstrate that consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases. (She would seem to provide some corroboration for Eben Alexander’s claims.) This theory, she argues, could suggest explanations for the afterlife: “If our conscious experience totally depends on the brain, then there can’t be an afterlife—when the brain is gone, the mind is gone. But it’s not that simple. Even when the brain seems to be virtually disabled, people are still having these experiences.”

What is she saying? That upon death, people really go to another realm? And that science can prove it? Kelly shrugs. NDEs “tell us to open our minds and think there may be a great deal more to mind and consciousness—that’s as far as I’m willing to go.”

When Alexander published his book in 2012, drawing on the work of Kelly and her husband, Edward, he drew derision, as he knew he would, from broad segments of the rationalist and scientific communities. Having fallen into a coma after contracting bacterial meningitis, he saw incredible things. “I was a speck on a beautiful butterfly wing,” he said in an interview, “millions of other butterflies around us. We were flying through blooming flowers, blossoms on trees, and they were all coming out as we flew through them…[There were] waterfalls, pools of water, indescribable colors, and above there were these arcs of silver and gold light and beautiful hymns coming down from them. Indescribably gorgeous hymns. I later came to call them ‘angels,’ those arcs of light in the sky.” This experience convinced him beyond any doubt of the existence of a loving God and the ability of souls to travel to the realms where God lives. The idea of a godless universe “now lies broken at our feet, ” he wrote in his book. “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more than our physical brains as clear as I can.”

The rationalist author Sam Harris, who is also a neuroscientist, aimed a fierce critique at Alexander’s account of his NDE. On his blog, Harris wrote that while he had no particular convictions about the essence or origins of consciousness, he was quite sure Alexander’s argument was specious. No one’s cerebral cortex shuts down entirely during coma, Harris pointed out. Additionally, the doctor showed no understanding of the kinds of neurotransmitters that can be released by the brain during trauma, including one called DMT, which produces hallucinations. “Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about, ” Harris concluded.

My own concern is somewhat different, relating back to the tree-in-the-forest conundrum. I believe Alexander (and all the others who testify to having visited heaven) saw what he says he saw, but one person’s vision, seen during trauma, does not add up to proof. Further all the emphasis on Alexander’s scientific credentials that accompanied the marketing of his book is disingenuous and entirely beside the point: the veracity of a vision of heaven would have nothing to do with where one went to medical school.

Adapted from Visions of Heaven: A Journey Through the Afterlife, available wherever books are sold.

TIME Religion

The Radical Easter Proclamation

A young worshiper kisses a statue of Christ hanging on the cross during Holy Week festivities on April 18, 2014 in Paraty, Brazil.
A young worshiper kisses a statue of Christ hanging on the cross during Holy Week festivities on April 18, 2014 in Paraty, Brazil. Mario Tama—Getty Images

The Easter proclamation is perhaps the strangest and most radical message ever given: “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” The words have become so commonplace that we’ve perhaps forgotten how weird and how wonderful they truly are. Along with that, there have been attempts by religious scholars in the past two centuries to reduce this resurrection message into a mythical story or a mere statement of God’s faithfulness to his people.

But as we come again to the great and climatic feast of our Christian faith, it’s time again to reconsider those wondrous words as if for the first time:

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

The disciples’ first reactions to this news were remarkable. You can feel their excitement jump off every page of the New Testament. The Gospel writers give an eyewitness account of what happened. Every detail mattered to them. Remember, as John tells us, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to be resurrected. After all, he was brutally executed by the Roman regime and buried in a grave. This wasn’t some hack job; this was a professional execution by the most powerful government in the ancient world.

But after an encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Peter goes back to downtown Jerusalem and—filled with a new spirit—gives the first great Christian sermon. He tells the crowds the startling news that the Nazorean who was executed and buried had been raised from the dead. It’s important to note that this wasn’t some vague claim about God’s faithfulness or about a future hope for immortality. Peter’s Easter faith wasn’t an abstraction. It was the result of a lived experience with Jesus of Nazareth. He had experienced for himself that complex drama about the goodness of creation, the pain of sin and brokenness and the power of God’s redeeming love.

Recall that Peter himself was crucified in Rome years later under the regime of Nero. He didn’t die for defending a faith in mythical and philosophical claim, but for defending a faith in a historical person and event.

For the followers of Jesus, the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead changed everything. The excitement of the early Church even bordered on arrogance. Paul’s holy taunt embodies this: “O death where is your sting! O hell, where is your victory!” While the disciples’ journey with the resurrected Jesus transformed their lives, it sometimes appears to not have the same effect on today’s Christians. As Pope Francis has recently complained, “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”

When Mary Magdalene encountered the empty tomb, she ran to tell the others the news. Today’s Christians must imitate Mary’s posture. We too must make haste to share the impossibly good news that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and that through his great love, our lives and our society can be given a new horizon and a decisive direction.

The growing temptation to make Christianity a bourgeois faith that is reduced to mere ethics and platitudes must be rejected. That isn’t a faith that will change our lives or have any effect on society. It’s a faith without a future.

This Easter invites Christians to again to re-center our faith on the person of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. We mustn’t forget the story of our people: that God pitched a tent among us and shared our human lot in Jesus Christ. To the poor, Jesus proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom and to those in sorrow, joy. In his death, our death was destroyed, and in his resurrection, our lives were restored. And that we might live no longer for ourselves, he gave us a Holy Spirit to serve others and to renew the face the earth. In spite of our continual failings as individuals and as a society, God has never grown tired of loving us.

This Easter story isn’t simply for us, but also for the transformation of our families, our communities, our Church, our country and the entire world. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives us a chance to reimagine and reconstruct human life and society once again.

It allows us to become collaborators in God’s great dreams for a world where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven and where every man, woman and child experiences the salvation that Christ won for us in his death and resurrection.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! This is our faith, and this is the faith of the Church. Two millennia later, and it is still good news indeed.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter@chrisjollyhale.

TIME Religion

Why Focus On The Cross?

Good Friday
Tina Marie Photography/Getty Images/Flickr RF

As Christians around the world mark Good Friday today, they do so in changing times. In an increasingly diverse Christian environment, there is much ambivalence towards what is seen as a strange celebration of Jesus’s execution on the cross by the Roman authorities. Critics remind us that Easter—not Good Friday—is the centerpiece of the Christian story. As St. Augustine famously said: “We are Easter people, and ‘alleluia’ is our song!”

Their concerns are fair. We must not become Christians whose lives are devoid of Easter hope. But we also must not become Christians who ignore the cross of Christ, because to ignore his cross is to be blind to the sufferings all around us and to the brokenness that is present in our own hearts.

We mustn’t be naïve: the pain is everywhere. We are constantly bombarded with the sufferings of modern society by a media that seems to present it to us with a perverse enjoyment. The suffering play out on our television screens, in our communities, in our homes and most especially in our lives and in our own hearts. Yet too often we aren’t moved by it. As Pope Francis lamented last summer, we are society that has forgotten how to weep.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten how to weep because the cross of violence and pain that most afflicts us today is somewhat hidden. It’s the pain caused by the invisible violence of a government that again and again fails to serve its people, of an immigration system that denies millions of aspiring Americans their dignity, of schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. It’s the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent. Though not as noticeable as a bomb or a gunshot, these realities are just as deadly.

But the cross isn’t just present in society. It exists just as profoundly in our own lives. Good Friday allows us to admit our own destructiveness, our own vanity and our own failures. Too often we have built our lives on the misfortunes of others. Too often we have preached peace and justice for the world, but have practiced hate and indifference in our own homes and communities. And too often we have ignored the suffering of our families, our friends and our neighbors because of how busy we imagine ourselves to be.

Acknowledging the cross of Jesus allows us to address these realities of the human condition. When we end the carnival dance and remove our masks, we will see the truth: something is not right in ourselves, in society and in the Church. Perhaps we will even see that evil and sin are real, and are staining every part of us and the world we live in. Then with the Psalmist, we can cry out: “forgive us, Lord, for we have sinned!”

But the cross doesn’t just stand as a distant critic. It gives us a sense of who God really is. In Jesus, God enters into the fullness of human dysfunction. In the story of Jesus’s passion and death, we see all of human brokenness on display: greed, violence, hatred, injustice and disloyalty. But we also see that Jesus enters into all of it, and redeems all of it. He goes all the way down to bring all of us up. No one is left behind.

This is the compelling story of Christianity. It isn’t simply a spiritual tradition devoid of meaning. It isn’t a spa therapy that helps us reduce our stress. At the core, it is a human encounter with a person who endured temptation, suffering and death on a cross to redeem the entirety of the human race. A Christian faith with just banners and balloons and without a cross is boring and superficial. It provides no meaning to people beyond childhood. It doesn’t give us a sense of how to deal with darkness, pain and suffering. This is where the drama of life occurs, and this is where the faith matters.

It’s pretty clear: Easter without the cross is superficial, just as the cross without the Easter is unnecessarily gloomy. We need both. Today, the Church invites to undertake the paschal mystery of Jesus, a journey that includes the cross. The road is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile. With Jesus, we can change, turn around and be converted. And with his cross, our Easter joy can be complete.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter@chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

The Rapture of the Nerds

Gabriel Rothblatt, a pastor at Terasem, photographed at the Terasem ashram in Melbourne Beach, Florida April 7, 2014
Gabriel Rothblatt, a pastor at Terasem, photographed at the Terasem ashram in Melbourne Beach, Florida April 7, 2014 Bob Croslin for TIME

A new religion has set out to store memories for centuries and deliver its believers into a world where our souls can outlive our selves

In the backyard of a cottage here overlooking the water, two poles with metal slats shaped like ribcages jut out from the ground. They look indistinguishable from heat lamps or fancy light fixtures.

These are satellite dishes, but they aren’t for TV. They’re meant for dispatching “mindfiles,” the memories, thoughts and feelings of people who wish to create digital copies of themselves and fling them into space with the belief that they’ll eventually reach some benevolent alien species.

Welcome to the future. Hope you don’t mind E.T. leafing through your diary.

The beach house and the backyard and the memory satellites are managed by 31-year-old Gabriel Rothblatt, a pastor of Terasem, a new sort of religion seeking answers to very old kinds of questions, all with an abiding faith in the transformative power of technology.

“Technology does feel and smell and look and act like a God.”Beneath the cottage is a basement office where the mindfile operation is headquartered. Next door is an ashram, an airy glass building with walls that slide away to reveal a backyard home to a telescope for stargazing and a space to practice yoga. Tucked behind a shroud of greenery, most neighbors don’t even know this house of worship exists.

The name Terasem comes from the Greek word for “Earthseed,” which is also the name for the futuristic religion found in the Octavia Butler sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower that helped inspire Gabriel’s parents, Bina and Martine Rothblatt, to start their new faith. Martine founded the successful satellite radio company Sirius XM in 1990. (Martine was originally known as Martin. She had sex reassignment surgery 20 years ago.)

Organized around four core tenets—“life is purposeful, death is optional, God is technological and love is essential”–Terasem is a “transreligion,” meaning that you don’t have to give up being Christian or Jewish or Muslim to join. In fact, many believers embrace traditional positions held by mainstream religions—including the omnipotence of God and the existence of an afterlife—but say these are made possible by increasing advancements in science and technology.

“Einstein said science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind,” Martine Rothblatt tells TIME. “Bina and I were inspired to find a way for people to believe in God consistent with science and technology so people would have faith in the future.”

Sure, it’s easy to dismiss people who think they can somehow cheat death with a laptop. But Terasem is a potent symbol of a modern way of life where the digital world and the emotional one have become increasingly entwined. It is also a sign, if one from the fringe, of the always evolving relationship between technology and faith. Survey after survey has shown the number of Americans calling themselves “religious” has declined despite the fact that many still identify as “spiritual.” People are searching, and no longer do they look to technology to provide mere order for their lives. They also want meaning. Maybe, it’s time to hack our souls.

DIGITAL SCRAPBOOKING
While there may seem nothing so new-fangled as thousands of people broadcasting their innermost thoughts to outer space, technology has always played a role in shaping religious practice and belief.

“Technology does feel and smell and look and act like a God, at least sometimes,” says John Modern, a Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College. “So it’s certainly logical that someone would see the power of technology and locate their faith in it.”

Some believers in Terasem are motivated by a longing similar to one shared by followers of more familiar faiths–a desire to be reunited with people who have passed. Linda Chamberlain, cofounder of the cryonics company Alcor Life Extension Foundation and an active Terasemian, anticipates that one day in the future she’ll be reanimated alongside her husband Fred, who passed away a few years ago, and they can explore space together. Giulio Prisco, an Italian physicist who practices Terasem, says he hopes he’ll finally be reunited with his mother.

Though from the outside Terasem might look a little kooky, some ideas at its center resonate with Silicon Valley’s mainstream where millions of dollars are being spent to research how technology can alter the end of life and beyond. People like Google’s Larry Page and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel are investing in projects focused on life extension and rejuvenation.

Bina and Martine Rothblatt
A portrait of Bina and Martine Rothblatt (left to right) photographed in April 2010. George Tolbert

Portraits on the wall of Terasem’s Florida headquarters show people who have attended the organization’s meetings in the past, some of whom are among the tech industry’s most radical thinkers. Marvin Minsky, who helped start MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, is there. So is Google engineer Ray Kurzweil, one of the world’s most prominent proponents of transhumanism, an intellectual movement that shaped Terasem and animates many avant garde ideas in Silicon Valley.

Born nearly a century ago with a spike in popularity in the 1990s, transhumanism advocates for the ethical use of technology to transcend biology and enhance humanity’s physical and intellectual abilities. Google Glass, artificial limbs—even birth control, as one transhumanist told me—are ways in which we can harness technology to upgrade our biology. And one day, if the mindfile system works the way it’s supposed to, we just might be able to leave our physical bodies behind and transmit our brains into computerized vessels.

Johnny Depp puts a face, or at least a voice, to that far-out vision with the release of Transcendence Friday. Depp plays a terminally ill artificial intelligence researcher who uploads his consciousness into a computer, a plot that will land many of the ideas behind Terasem in movie theaters around the world.

“Some folks have seen this coming for 40 or 50 years,” says director Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar as the cinematographer for Christopher Nolan’s mind-bender Inception. “The moment they saw the power of computing they said, ‘Okay, at a certain point this is going to get to the point where we can either transcend the human mind or merge the human mind or build it into something greater, and that’s fascinating.”

The ability to control the universe like some sort of galaxy genie probably isn’t going to happen no matter how many times you watch The Matrix, and even if it does, it’s not going to be any time soon. But though the majority of transhumanists identify as atheists or agnostics, some have flocked to new religions like Terasem, which satisfy a yen for a spiritual sustenance in people whose lives are increasingly devoted to technology.

Terasem counts its Florida cottage and a solar-powered cabin in Lincoln, Vermont as its primary homes. It’s in Vermont that the Rothblatts keep a robot named BINA48. The machine is modeled after Martine’s wife, Bina, and was built to see just how precisely a robot loaded with mindfiles can resemble a living, breathing human being.

Roboterdame Bina48
Bina48 talks to her designing engineer Bruce Duncan at a press date in Wetzlar, Germany, March 15, 2013. Frank Rumpenhorst—DPA/AP

Terasem’s followers are dedicated to studying and raising awareness about what they call “personal cyberconciousness”—the creation of mindfiles. They believe that by ritualistically recording your thoughts and feelings with great detail, you can ultimately assemble a digital copy of yourself, available for future use.

To start, you write down or record a video of you talking about a thought, memory or feeling, and upload it to a website. You can also choose to have each mindfile beamed out into the universe—hence the satellites. So far more than 32,000 people have created free mindfile accounts.

The mindfiles are stored on servers located in both Vermont and Florida, and by using Terasem’s services you accept their promise that they will protect those files for the long-term future, making it possible for some not-yet-invented software to organize those files into an approximation of your consciousness so they can be uploaded into an artificial body 50, 100, 500 years from now.

“A lot of people have problems digesting” the idea, Gabriel says. “Instead of saying ‘mindfiling,’ I say ‘digital scrapbooking.”

The basement of the Terasem Movement Inc. cottage is the heart of its CyBeRev project, housing servers where users’ files are stored and the desk of a full-time programmer who keeps the shop up and running.

The cottage is also where Lori Rhodes, who helps run Terasem Movement Inc., the group’s educational non-profit, and Nikki Knudsen, Terasem’s financial manager, have their offices. The irony that people who smoke cigarettes make up a significant part of the staff for a movement dedicated to life extension isn’t lost on them.

Both Knudsen and Rhodes came to Terasem by happenstance: Knudsen, 38, was introduced through Rhodes’ sister, and Rhodes, 51, who had previously worked as a paralegal, found Terasem in 2005 through an online job advertisement for a compliance manager.

“Most people say, ‘Oh, it looks like a cult,’” Rhodes says. “My older sister did. When she first looked at it, she told me, ‘Don’t work for that organization. It looks like a cult and you’ll be blacklisted in the legal community.”

“But any religion starts with just a few members,” Rhodes says. “And I guess organized religion is cultish.”

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
Until 2011, Gabriel was a manager at a local pizza restaurant. Now, he spends most of his time running for Congress in a longshot campaign to get on the Democratic ballot to challenge Rep. Bill Posey this fall.

One afternoon this winter, Gabriel set up a small table advertising his candidacy at a home and garden expo. The crowd was made up of mostly white, upper-middle class baby boomers searching for the perfect garden hose or a nice new backsplash for their freshly renovated kitchen.

“When we can joyfully all experience techno immortality, then God is complete.”In a district that went 59 percent for Posey, a Republican, in 2012, Gabriel’s status as a Democrat may be just as much a stumbling block as Terasem. “He’s probably for Obamacare,” said one man as he walked by Gabriel’s table.

“My opponent has already begun using Terasem against me,” Gabriel tells me one night over dinner about Corry Westbrook, a former legislative director for the National Wildlife Foundation. “She says I’m inexperienced and bizarre…that I’m part of a cult.” Later, after giving me a tour of the ashram, he says that Westbrook has taken to telling people he “worships computers.” (Westbrook did not return requests for comment.)

Though one of Terasem’s core tenets is “God is technological,” Gabriel insists that’s not to be taken literally—instead, it’s meant to convey the notion that the way that you envision God directly influences your life.

It’s not exactly difficult to see how someone could misinterpret a bold statement like “God is technological.” It just sounds kind of nuts. Plus, a religion governed by a zealous devotion to technology is bound to attract critics.

Rhodes puts it more bluntly: “Some people call it the rapture of the nerds.”

“For us God is in-the-making by our collective efforts to make technology ever more omnipresent, omnipotent and ethical,” Martine says. “When we can joyfully all experience techno immortality, then God is complete.” (Martine, who rarely speaks to the press, answered questions sent by e-mail.)

When you possess this amount of reverence—and, yes, faith—in the power of science, it starts to mirror religious belief, particularly when the possibilities you believe future technologies will have—like omnipotence and the ability to resurrect the dead—are similar to ones mainstream religions ascribe to God. This is how technology becomes religion, and how God becomes a computer.

Now, in 2014, technology can do almost everything for us—alleviate loneliness, send taxis and hairstylists and groceries to our doorstep, even make people resigned to a life of silence hear again—but it can’t bring the people we love back from the beyond.

At least, the Terasemians say, not yet.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the ownership of the Melbourne Beach home where the Terasem movement operates.

TIME faith

Dear Religion, I Quit You!

I've discovered grace and I'm sticking with it.

When I was a kid, my dad would let me stay up and watch “Cheers” each week. Granted it’s not the most “kid friendly” show, but I could’ve cared less. I was getting to stay up past my bedtime!

My parents divorced when I was 3, and from about 3rd grade on, my big brother and I, grew up with our dad. That’s right…3 bachelors. And what better way to establish top notch parenting skills than to immediately let this 3rd grader start staying up past 9pm central time to watch “Cheers!” You must remember, the Disney channel didn’t really exist yet, so it was up to Sam Malone, Cliff Clavin and Norm to give this kid a few life lessons.

Ahhh Norm. I LOVED Norm. Forget ever understanding any of the jokes. All I knew was, every week, Norm would walk through that door and the whole place would yell “NORM.” Heck I was yelling it too!

For a kid feeling like I was being tossed around between parents, the idea of a place where you were accepted day in and day out resonated deeply within me! Even the theme song to “Cheers” was practically a church hymn because it stirred me so much. “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came!” Man I would belt that at the top of my lungs the same way I am right now as I write this. Dang that’s a great song!

I’m 41 now. I’m married to the most amazing woman and have 5 kids. And I’m just now understanding my connection to that show. I’ve spent my whole life looking for grace. REAL grace. Not religion, but grace. There’s a difference ya know. I found “religion” at 13. I bought in hook, line and sinker. Grace? I discovered grace about 2 years ago. It has changed me to the core, and I ain’t going back.

Religion says “Give 110%.”

Grace says “Rest in the finished work of the Cross.”

Religion says “Don’t disappoint God.”

Grace says “God has been pleased with you since the day you called His name!”

Religion says “Being good is a start.”

Grace says “Christ on the cross is enough.”

Religion says “Get it right!”

Grace says “I’ll be there when you get it wrong!”

Religion says “We’re bad people trying to be good…you sin, you’re out”

Grace says “We’re Holy, righteous and redeemed. So when you do sin, it’s ok.”

Religion says “Your heart cannot be trusted.”

Grace says “You have the heart and mind of Christ

Religion says “Try harder.”

Grace says “Rest.”

Religion says “Please God.”

Grace says “Trust God.”

Religion says “Give more.”

Grace says “Give up.”

I did everything religion told me to do for a long time only to end up frustrated, beat down and jaded. I couldn’t keep up. No matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. So I decided to quit. And I did.

Then the craziest thing happened. Grace appeared. No, I take that back…I stopped long enough to see grace. I believe my life has been covered by grace since I trusted in Christ at age 13. I just had to turn 40 to notice.

Let me put it this way, if you were drowning, you wouldn’t really be in a place to lend a hand as far as being rescued. You’d be at the mercy of the lifeguard. Once pulled out, you may be a little out of it, not sure where you are, but safe nonetheless.

Then it sinks in. You start to realize someone just saved your life! How could you ever repay this person for saving you? You don’t have to be reminded to be grateful…you are freaking ALIVE! You have a new lease on life! From that point on, nothing will ever be the same.

I was rescued at 13. I realized it at 40. For me, life has just begun! I no longer have to be reminded to be grateful because I am freaking ALIVE! When I walked out on religion, I walked into a place where, as if I were Norm himself, grace screamed,”BARRRRRRRT!!! IT’S ABOUT STINKING TIME!”

Bart Millard is the lead singer of the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum selling band MercyMe, who just released their eighth studio project, “Welcome to the New,” which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Listen to “Greater,” which appears on MercyMe’s latest album, below.

TIME Religion

Barbara Brown Taylor: In Praise of Darkness

Christianity has never had anything nice to say about the dark.

“Darkness” is shorthand for anything that scares me — that I want no part of — either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. The absence of God is in there, along with the fear of dementia and the loss of those nearest and dearest to me. So is the melting of polar ice caps, the suffering of children, and the nagging question of what it will feel like to die. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love — if I could just find the right night-lights to leave on.

At least I think I would. The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.

The problem is that there are so few people who can teach me about that. Most of the books on the New York Times “How-To” bestseller list are about how to avoid various kinds of darkness. If you want to learn how to be happy and stay that way, how to win out over your adversaries at work, or how to avoid aging by eating the right foods, there is a book for you. If you are not a reader, you can always find someone on the radio, the television, or the web who will tell you about the latest strategy for staying out of your dark places, or at least distract you from them for a while. Most of us own so many electronic gadgets that there is always a light box within reach when any kind of darkness begins to descend on us. Why watch the sun go down when you could watch the news instead? Why lie awake at night when a couple of rounds of Moonlight Mahjong could put you back to sleep?

I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark. Plus, Christianity has never had anything nice to say about darkness. From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today: Deliver us, O Lord, from the powers of darkness. Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit, and protect us from all perils and dangers of the night.

Since I live on a farm where the lights can go out for days at a time, this language works at a practical level. When it is twenty degrees outside at midnight and tree branches heavy with ice are crashing to the ground around your house, it makes all kinds of sense to pray for protection from the dangers of the night. When coyotes show up in the yard after dark, eyeing your crippled old retriever as potential fast food, the perils of the night are more than theoretical. So I can understand how people who lived before the advent of electricity — who sometimes spent fourteen hours in the dark without the benefit of so much as a flashlight — might have become sensitive to the powers of darkness, asking God for deliverance in the form of bright morning light.

At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

If you have ever belonged to such a community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says. The first time you speak of these things in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. Continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.

Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light.

If I could have, I would have. There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence. All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.

Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of “Learning to Walk in the Dark” (HarperOne), from which this piece is excerpted. Read TIME’s interview with Taylor here, or in our April 28 issue.

TIME faith

A New Muslim Renaissance is Here

American Muslims are becoming thought, cultural leaders and reviving perspectives on religious inclusion

History is witness to a time past when the Islamic civilization produced globally unparallelled architecture, literature, science, philosophy, theological discourse, and cultural influences – influences so strong it made European nobles want to dress like Muslims. Critics of Islam and Muslims scoff at this romanticism, asserting that Muslims have not produced anything great since the Middle Ages and most likely will never again. The inherent bigotry and even fallacy of that argument aside, for those critics I have to say, look out, a new Muslim renaissance is upon us.

In the midst of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the US since 9/11, or perhaps thanks to it, this generation of Muslims is abandoning the traditional professions expected from immigrant parents (doctors, engineers, business people) and entering fields we all once thought were closed to us. The last decade has seen a steady and sure emergence of American Muslims as artists, writers, performers, activists, media personalities and intellectuals (on a global scale Muslims rank as top intellectuals). Inside the DC beltway you see evidence of this shift as well. Young American Muslims are working in national security, public diplomacy, foreign policy, politics – we have our share of hacks and wonks now too.

In a climate where America still finds itself in an uncomfortable dance with Islam, the fact that Muslims themselves are becoming thought and culture leaders in America has tremendous prospects. Anti-shariah bills loom large across the country, violence against Muslims happens and is encouraged, the homeland security apparatus is still figuring out how to work with Muslims as partners and not suspects, and a large swath of the public cannot even stomach something as innocuous as Muslims being in a patriotic coca-cola ad. But instead of being cowed, young American Muslims have reacted by demanding to tell their own stories, become influencers, and claiming their rightful place in US institutions and discourse.

This dynamism hasn’t been limited to the intersection of American Muslims with the prevailing culture. In the past five years American Muslims are leading movements to revive or reform perspectives on religious inclusion, most notably the inclusion of women and LGBTQ Muslims in sacred spaces.

On the issue of women’s leadership, inclusion, and status in Islam, there is a clear call to revive the traditions of female scholarship, leadership, and open mosque spaces. It’s no small thing that the Grand Mufti of Egypt Shaykh Ali Gomaa has acknowledged the permissibility of women leading men in prayer in the Western context after the persistence of female North American Muslim activists and scholars on the issue. A movement to explore the spaces allotted women in American mosques has lead to a larger discussion on what it means to be “Unmosqued”, or be part of a generation that feels little relevance and connection to any place of worship. “Muslim feminism” is being taken seriously by Western Muslims as the antidote to patriarchal expressions of Islam. The long standing idea, from the colonial period onward, that mosques and religious leadership are male spaces is finding its match not in a global Muslim arena, but in a Western Muslim one.

Similar to other faith traditions in the US, Islamic orthodoxy and traditionalism is being challenged on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. A progressive Muslim movement is forcing Muslim debate and discussion on the limits of tolerance and inclusion. While the prevailing rulings of the theological boundaries on homosexual lifestyles are unlikely to change anytime soon, Western Muslim institutions have been moved to adopt a position similar to Orthodox Jewish leaders. A public recognition by a major Muslim organization of universal human dignity, and the right not to be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, would be nearly impossible to find in Muslim majority countries today, and just as difficult to find in the US a decade ago.

Social challenges such as finding suitable marriage partners is pushing conversation on interfaith marriage, traditionally an option for Muslim men, but now seriously being discussed among American Muslim women. Not just discussed, but supported by some religious leadership.

An interesting trend on these issues is that American Muslims by and large seek religious validation for revisiting and reforming rulings. They even depend on traditional Islamic principles such as ijtihad to, some may say, do away with other traditional Islamic principles. As such, a modern Islamic orthodoxy with Western Muslim scholarship at the helm, grounded in faith but embracing pluralism and change, seems to be the balance most American Muslims are gravitating towards

It’s heady, scary, and exciting to watch the face and discourse of American Muslims change and expand before your eyes. The Islam I grew up with in America is not the Islam my children are experiencing. The possibilities for their lives are much more expansive than the possibilities for my life were. The largely comfortable integration and success of American Muslims that sets them apart from their counterparts in Europe also lends space for these possibilities. From tremendously increased participation in American civic and cultural life, to pressing internal demands on religious orthodoxy, another generation or two will see a vastly different American Islam that will likely have an impact on Muslims globally. From marginalized minority, American Muslims are poised to become mainstream leaders and influencers. And it’s no small irony that while historians bemoan conquest and Western colonialism as the death knell for Islam’s “Golden Age”, this new Muslim renaissance is growing out of the West itself.

Rabia Chaudry is an attorney and the founder and president of the Safe Nation Collaborative.

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