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Pieces of Eight


Book Examines Religious Implications of Long Life

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

Professors in East Carolina University’s Religious Studies program are contributing their expertise to a field of study that, until recently, has been relegated to the stuff of science fiction: a radical extension of the human life.

A forthcoming book co-edited by Calvin Mercer and Derek Maher, co-directors of ECU’s Religious Studies program, poses questions about how religious doctrine and practice might change given the likelihood of scientific discoveries in the next few decades that could help people live decades—or even centuries—longer than they do now.

The book, “Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension” (Palgrave, 2009), is the first of its kind and is now in the final editing stages. For the third time, Mercer spearheaded the effort to have the topic discussed at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last month in Chicago.

Mercer, who frequently gives talks in the community on the topic, has been studying the religious questions that stem from radical life extension for the past five years, and was pleased that the topic is being taken seriously in academic, theological and scientific circles.

“You don’t have to believe these discoveries to radically extend life are ten or even 100 years away to seriously engage in that question. That it’s a legitimate area for scientists to study suggests that we need to think about its religious and broader cultural implications,” Mercer said.

Some of the technologies being developed by the life extension project include: germline genetic engineering; genetic engineering; tissue and organ replacement; merging of computer technology with human biology; scanning technologies; nanotechnology; and robotics.

Given the possibility that these technological developments will enable people to live longer lives, Mercer said it’s important for the world’s scholars – economists, historians, and theologians alike – to begin to consider how it would impact society.

“It’s an important question and I think it’s only going to move in the direction of being a major topic of political discourse,” Mercer said. “The question is how soon? Even if it’s a hundred years from now, it’s important to generate the conversation as early as we can.”

To begin the conversation in the realm of religious studies, Mercer and Maher asked a dozen of their colleagues from different religious traditions to ponder this question and contribute chapters to the book.

The essays – written by scholars of Hinduism, various strains of Christianity, Daoism, Islam, and Buddhism – don’t debate the moral questions of whether life extension should be pursued, Maher said, but rather how each religion’s doctrine and practice would have to shift to accommodate the reality of such scientific developments.

“Because each religious tradition has its own doctrines and narratives, the scholars were each able to confront the issue with a fresh set of questions and preoccupations,” said Maher, who contributed a chapter on Buddhism.

“We asked them to step inside this thought experiment and think creatively about it.”

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at