Gabriel Rothblatt grew up building rocket ships on the floor of his living room, overhearing his father discuss with his buddies from NASA how they would manage to fund human civilization in space.
Growing up outside of Washington with a dad, Martin Rothblatt, who was an attorney who specialized in outer-space issues and who was founding Sirius Radio, "there were a lot of Star Trek conventions," Gabriel remembers. "If he read a bedtime story, it'd be some Asimov."
Then his father transitioned to a woman and had sex-reassignment surgery. She became known as Martine Rothblatt. Nowadays, Martine is seen as a visionary, not unlike the Elon Musks and the Sergey Brins of the world, but back then, young Gabriel — already a mixed-race child from an interracial marriage and a Jew among WASPS – felt like an outcast.
Gabriel — who grew up to become involved in outer space issues and who ran for Congress in 2014 (he lost because, as one Republican critic said, "his radical ideas are too extreme for Florida families") — spoke to New Times recently as we were researching a story on Bill Faloon, an advocate of cryonics (freezing corpses in hopes of reviving them in the future), who started the Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood. Martine Rothblatt had likewise started a religion, called Terasem, and Gabriel was once a pastor. What he had to say — about growing up with a transgender parent, about Terasem, and about optimism — was more wide-ranging than could be fit in our cover story, so here it is:
Emotionally tortured at school, Gabriel opted for homeschooling, which consisted of tagging along as Martine made deals and promoted one of her books, The Apartheid of Sex. "I went to Paris like 25 times," he says, "because we were doing a lot of business with Alcatel [a cell phone company]. They were the ones put off the least with Martine going through that transition."
Gabe returned to public school two years later with a "radical sense of individualism. I had grown a foot and knew kung fu. I could articulate, 'Hey, this is that person's choice. I make my own choices now.'"
Gabriel says he met his wife at college, moved to Alabama, and earned his own living for a decade, working at a Tupperware factory and running a restaurant before settling on Florida's space coast and assuming a position as pastor at Terasem, which Martine and her wife, Bina — the couple remained together and are said to be famously symbiotic – founded in 2004. Terasem means “earthseed” in Latin. The Rothblatts say it can be a supplement to Christianity or Islam.
Though there are other religious organizations whose elements dovetail with the immortalist movement – there's a Mormon Transhumanist Association — Terasem is probably the only one close to the Church of Perpetual Life (except for Scientology?) in that it is registered as a church with the IRS and has tangible facilities — an "ashram" in Melbourne Beach and another in Bristol, Vermont.
It also has more formalized rituals — observances at 10 a.m. on the tenth day of every month, plus four quarterly holidays — and something akin to a sacred text. (Bill Faloon says “someone else holds the copyright” to the book written by an 18th-century philosopher who is the church's "prophet," and that's why they don't pass out copies of it.)
Terasem is designed so that anyone, anywhere can observe the rituals, but there are also gatherings at the ashrams. A typical session at the Terasem ashram starts with music or a jam session, followed by a reading of half a chapter of the "Truths of Terasem." – i.e., sections 1.0 to 1.5, for instance.
"Every other religion has a top-down approach," Gabriel says. Whereas tablets were handed down to Moses, "it's no secret that Martine is a human being, and she wrote the original truths."
The truths are designed to be modified over time, and "there's also a numerology within it,” Gabriel explains. “There are six truths of Terasem, which are six questions. Underneath each question, there are ten points. In each of the ten points, there is a six-letter word acronym for subpoints beneath that, so it goes six-ten-six. By remembering the order of the six questions and the basic orders to those, you can recite the entire truth of Terasem by the embedded pnemonic devices within it. It shows that simple codes can be expounded into complex ideas."
After discussion, there's usually kundalini yoga. "Our brains are computers," says Gabe. "Biological computational devices. Shut them off for awhile and they function better."
Terasem is also spearheading projects to determine whether consciousness can be digitized. Terasem encourages people to create "mindfiles" — where people can save videos of themselves and Facebook profiles – and to bank their DNA by gargling with mouthwash and sending in a sample. These might one day be reuploaded to bodies. There's also "spacecasting" – projecting the mindfiles into space with a giant antenna at the Melbourne ashram.
After selling Sirius Radio, Martine Rothblatt became obsessed with finding a cure for pulmonary hypertension, a sometimes-fatal ailment that was affecting her daughter Jenesis. She started a company called United Therapeutics, now public and valued at more than $5 billion with more than 700 employees. The company has brought four drugs to market, and Martine has talked about her intention to develop human organs that can be grown, bought and sold, and interchanged. Gabriel says United Therapeutics is currently "recycling a lung" that was full of black tar. "They did a lung cleaning process, and I think that lung is in now somebody in Canada. They approved a cancer drug a month ago."
Martine was too busy jetting around the world to comment for this article, but she spoke at the Church of Perpetual Life last November.
“Bina and I are huge fans of Bill Faloon,” she said warmly, pacing the stage in a dark-blue blazer and a long ponytail, “and everything he has done to enable joyful immortality for everybody... We were so excited when he formed the Church of Perpetual Life.”
She noted the church's logo was the same as Alcor's — a cryonics company that freezes corpses in liquid nitrogen in hopes they can be revived somehow in the future: “I love that logo. We've been signed up with Alcor for well over a decade and have the first of our offspring signed up. We love being with her now. We can look forward to being with her for centuries. It's superawesome to have a church founded specially for Alcor.” She went on to muse about a French Jesuit paleontologist named Jacques Teilhard.
She described Terasem as a religious organization in which they “do our part to create a better and happier life for everybody.” It transcends all other religions, she said. “We are the forest, and all religions are trees in the forest.”
“And we basically are devoted to three things: diversity, community, and joyful immortality.” There are four basic tenets: life is purposeful, death is optional, god is technological, and love is essential.
Although some critics might raise eyebrows whenever a church's nonprofit, tax-free status is mixed up with a millionaire's money, Gabriel Rothblatt waves off any idea that Rothblatt started the church to pinch pennies. Martine funds 99.5 percent of the costs, he says, and is "not only not a tax dodger; she's an amazing philanthropist."
He doesn't even like calling it a church. "Terasem as an idea is as metaphysical as any idea is." It's only because we are biological beings who need shelter, a convenient place to store books, and Wi-Fi that the church iterates out of a structure, he says, “which necessitates a chain of liability, because the government feels that way. So this is what it looks like here in the U.S. Calling it a church makes it taboo – makes it more controversial than it needs to be.
"What drives Terasem is the conversation that we have. Most religious organizations offer an answer, whereas Terasem is about the conversation."
Gabriel has given up his role as a pastor at Terasem to take an hourly wage job at United Therapeutics, managing properties, he says. He ran for Congress last year and lost but might run for governor next. Congressman "was my less ambitious office," he says. "I've got big shoes to fill. I've got planets to populate! I don't have time for the city council.”
Fundamentally, Gabriel says, "Your Osama bin laden or your Pat Roberston – these are your pessimistic visionaries where the world is ending in hellfire and damnation. [Their religions] tend to be Luddite, anti-technological in nature.” But people like Martine and Bill Faloon want to “create new, more amazing things for a technological future that doesn’t yet exist. They want to terraform Mars for millions of people who have not yet been born – give it an atmosphere big enough to breathe. That is the nature of the optimistic visionary. There's another day. They want more days. They want a future of better days.”