An Atheist Transhumanist Critique of Religious Transhumanism This article presents a critical analysis of religious transhumanism from an atheist transhumanist

perspective. It is based on a presentation given at the annual conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) in Salt Lake City, April 2012. While religious transhumanism can play a valuable role as a bridge between secular transhumanism and non-transhumanist religious groups, this article contends that religious transhumanism presents a number of potential drawbacks that need to be considered in order for it to play this role effectively. The case for transhumanism Transhumanism is an essentially secular movement that aims to harness the potential of emerging technologies to improve the human condition. Transhumanism has grown out of the ongoing secular project, that is to say, the search for truth and ethical guidance based on logic, reason and evidence, rather than religious authority and dogma. Transhumanism can be distinguished from more traditional secular movements, notably secular humanism, precisely in its emphasis on the transformative potential of emerging technologies. Transhumanism has its critics: some see its goals as unfeasible, while others regard them as ethically suspect or even dangerous. In practice, however, many of the criticisms are responses to perceptions of transhumanist belief that may be inaccurate or relevant only to specific strands within transhumanism. In reality, transhumanism is a very broad “church” containing a multitude of different currents, reflecting different epistemological assumptions, ethical priorities and levels of ambition. However, transhumanists do tend to share a conviction that it is important to take a generally positive, or at least neutral, view of technological progress, while at the same time adopting a realistic view of where such progress might lead. Indeed, while many critics—both secular and religious—regard transhumanist goals as unfeasible and/or hubristic, from a transhumanist perspective many non-transhumanists seem to be largely ignorant or in denial of the dramatic changes that emerging technologies are bringing about, or else tend to view them in an exclusively negative light, while nevertheless insisting on their further development to address specific problems (such as disease, military threats or cosmetic concerns). While there is much to criticize within the transhumanist movement, it seems to this author that transhumanism is the body of thought that most adequately addresses the unique challenges posed by the unprecedented acceleration of technological development that we are currently witnessing. What is religious transhumanism? While transhumanism is a predominantly secular movement, there are transhumanist movements within established religions (notably Mormonism), as well as specifically transhumanist religious or quasi-religious movements. This is understandable for two reasons: firstly, a large majority of the world’s population has some degree of religious affiliation or belief, so it is inevitable that a growing movement such as transhumanism will intermingle to some extent with religion; secondly, many of transhumanism’s teleological concerns—such as the quest for immortality and/or some kind of ‘transcendence’—are concerns that have in the past been very much the domain of religion.

In order to present a meaningful critical analysis of religious transhumanism, however, it is necessary to be more precise about what we mean by “religious” as opposed to “non-religious” or secular transhumanism. Indeed, religion and secularism are not in themselves incompatible, since there are plenty of people who self-identify as “religious” but who are basically supportive of the secular project, while conversely there are plenty who self-identify as “secular” (which, in this context, could be plausibly taken as a synonym of “non-religious”) but who are nevertheless tolerant or even supportive of (non-fundamentalist) religious traditions. Religion is defined by the online Merriam-Webster dictionary variously as “the belief in a god or in a group of gods”, “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods”, and “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group”. While the first of these definitions seems to make it a synonym of “theism”, according to the third definition just about any coherent and practically relevant worldview—certainly including secular humanism—could be regarded as a “religion”. For the most part, however, the systems of belief and traditions that are generally regarded as religions have their roots in essentially pre-modern world views, and tend to have retained important elements of those world views. In some cases (in particular fundamentalist traditions) these conflict with the modern worldview, but even when they don’t they can appear to occupy a space that could otherwise be taken up by secular approaches. For example, most religions adhere to certain precepts or values—such as the Sermon on the Mount, for example—which are then taken as guidance for modern life, to some extent inevitably at the expense of other possible sources of guidance. One characteristic of religion is that it tends to be very highly correlated with geographical location and ethnic identity. Religion has also been described by the author Jonathan Haidt as having the characteristic of a “team sport”, in the sense that it plays an important role in fostering a sense of community by encouraging religious adherents to identify with their preferred religion. Just as important as the beliefs that are associated with it are the traditions and practices that people adhere to as a way of expressing that religion, and it is important to recognize that traditions and practices do not in themselves necessarily conflict with modern, science-based word views. Beliefs—either normative or empirical—also tend to play an important role, however, and this will be an important consideration in what follows, not least in view of the importance (from the author’s perspective) of critical reasoning and doubt as a way of ensuring that our beliefs keep pace with evolving evidence. Another way to view religion is as a way of using language, in the sense that it involves the use of certain words (such as God, spirit, Jesus, Mohammed and so on). This characteristic of religion may be especially important in the context of religious transhumanism in the sense that, even in cases where religious affiliation does not imply anything with regard to values or empirical beliefs that would be incompatible with more secular forms of transhumanism, a tendency to focus on certain words and (therefore) concepts nevertheless has consequences. A related point is that many religious narratives can best be seen, and often are seen (at least to some extent) within non-fundamentalist religious traditions, as metaphor. For religious transhumanists, this invites two questions: firstly, how helpful are these metaphors with regard to transhumanist goals; secondly, to what extent are they indeed recognized as metaphors by (transhumanist and non-transhumanist) religious

adherents, as opposed to the objective statements about reality that they often appear to be (e.g. “Things really were going fine until Adam and Eve allowed themselves to be tempted by hubris, just like modern transhumanists…”). In any case, to discuss “religion” is to refer to a highly diverse set of identities, traditions, practices and beliefs, which may be more or less well-defined depending on the context, and this is clearly likely to be the case also with regard to religious transhumanism. God as a Posthuman Projection Given the inherent ambiguities present in the concept of “religious transhumanism” it is necessary to focus in on some core concepts that tend to arise within religious transhumanism, without necessarily assuming that they are representative of religious transhumanism in general. In this context, Mormon Transhumanism is a useful focus for study precisely because it has taken on a more concrete form (namely the MTA itself) than other transhumanist movements within established religions. One of the many ways in which Mormonism differs from the broader Protestant Christian tradition from which it arose is that it regards the three Persons of the Christian Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as three distinct beings. Another distinctive Mormon teaching is that of “eternal progression”, which is well expressed by the following statement made by Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Church of the Latter-day Saints: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.” While somewhat similar concepts exist in some Eastern Christian traditions, in the context of Western Christianity the concept of “man becoming God” seems to be a distinctly Mormon teaching and very clearly lends itself to an affinity with transhumanist thought. Indeed, a core idea of Mormon Transhumanism is conception of God as a posthuman projection. What role for religious transhumanism? While “God as a posthuman projection” is clearly quite a long way from what most people, including within the wider Christian tradition, understand by the term “God”, the resonance between the idea and traditional Mormon teaching illustrates what may be the strongest argument in favor of religious transhumanism, namely that it can act as a bridge between secular transhumanism and non-transhumanist religious groups. This role is all the more important given that, as noted above, a large majority of people on the planet are, in one way or another, religious. A related point is that religion may be more effective in unlocking the kind of creativity and inspiration needed to realize transhumanist goals than more reductionist, science-based approaches. This idea indeed resonates well with the more general insight, with which most secular-minded people should have little difficulty agreeing, that human knowledge comes from the interplay between creativity and reason, which indeed suggests that we need more “chaotic” forms of thinking in addition to rational, reductionist discourses. With the above in mind, the remainder of this article addresses some of the potential drawbacks of religious transhumanism, and concludes with some recommendations as to how these can be avoided.

Lack of precision One such potential drawback involves a risk that bringing religious ideas and language into transhumanism could confuse the debate. While metaphor and nonreductionist approaches are indeed essential for progress to be made, religious language in general lacks the precision that is required to develop the thinking that will indeed steer humanity safely towards the glorious future envisaged by transhumanists. For example, the very idea of “man becoming God” raises questions about what we mean by “God.” If we mean “a posthuman projection”, then firstly why not say that instead of talking about God, and secondly it tells us essentially nothing about what kind of “projection” we are talking about, or (in other words) to what (posthuman) qualities we should be aspiring. Similarly, we read on the MTA website that “Mormonism is a religion of the JudeoChristian tradition that advocates immersive discipleship of Jesus Christ that leads to creative and compassionate works”, and we read of “transfigurism [that] denotes advocacy for change in form, and alludes to sacred stories from many religious traditions, such as the Universal Form of Krishna in Hinduism, the Radiant Face of Moses in Judaism, the Wakening of Gautama Buddha in Buddhism, the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ in Christianity, and the Translation of the Three Nephites in Mormonism.” Once again, stories that are considered sacred within various religious traditions may well be useful for purposes of inspiration, but are we really any the wiser after reading this as to what kind of “form” we should be aiming for, or how to make it happen? Is the claim supposed to be that compassionate should be at the heart of posthuman ethics? If so, why do we want this, and what would the consequences be? Is it possible to be too compassionate? And what does the Jesus of the gospels have to do with creativity? For people not grounded in such traditions, but also for people who interpret the same traditions differently, such as those who saw Biblical justification for racism and slavery, and those who still today regard homosexuality as an abomination against God, this can be very confusing. It remains the case that religious approaches to transhumanism can indeed enrich the debate and reach people that may be unimpressed by more precise, but also perhaps overly technical and jargon-filled narratives. However, religious language is in general too imprecise to serve as a reliable means to identify and manage genuine challenges, opportunities and risks. The soaring rhetoric and evocative imagery at which religion excels can reach hearts and minds, and this is by no means a trivial feature, but it is hard science and careful discourse that will ultimately help us to clarify where we want to go, and how to get there safely. Undue attention to traditions of questionable value Another potential drawback of bringing religion into transhumanism is that it can lead us to give too much weight to specific religious, scriptural traditions that are of questionable value. Indeed, while religion indeed excels at reaching hearts and minds, this is by no means an exclusive property of religion. An over-reliance on religion to fulfill this role—whether within transhumanism or in other domains—can suffocate the other, in some ways more diverse and innovate, processes for achieving this, notably art and fiction. Religions are almost unanimous in putting a high value on loyalty and faith, and this almost inevitably leads to an overestimation by their adherents of the value of their own scriptural and other traditions. While the threat of

a monopolistic take-over of transhumanism by specific religious traditions may seem farfetched at present, it would seem that tolerance for religious approaches within transhumanism, as within wider society, needs to be constrained by the essentially secular emphasis on diversity, innovation and novelty, standing against the conservatism inherent in allegiance to specific religious and scriptural traditions. The “faith = religion” myth While it is essential to embrace doubt in order to ensure that our beliefs keep pace with evolving evidence, it is also clear that faith is an indispensable ingredient for successful living. Even to get out of bed in the morning requires a degree of faith: that something good will result from it! Yet one of the ways in which religious adherents sometimes—again, perhaps subconsciously—promote their own “faith”, or perhaps the merits of “religion” in general, over more secular approaches, is to conflate “faith” with “faith in God” or a religious tradition. Religions are highly effective in engendering faith, including the kinds of faith required to promote successful living and social cohesion. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of religion may be that secular society has not (yet) found such effective ways to achieve these ends. As the author Alain de Botton has put it: “One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold Path, and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds, and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.” In this context religion can itself be seen as a “technology”, and a vibrant religious or religion-friendly movement within transhumanism could enrich the latter by increasing awareness of the faith-engendering techniques at which religion excels. The danger with this approach, however, is that it may reinforce the myth that religion is the only way in which success-oriented and civilized behavior can be engendered. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of the New Atheist movement, and more generally the increasing willingness of atheists and agnostics to stand up and be counted, is an increasing acceptance of the positive, self-fulfilling belief that responsible, altruistic, civilized behavior can go hand in hand with a lack of religious affiliation. While this may seem self-evident, it will be necessary to continue emphasizing it as a prophylactic against the insidious idea that religious faith is a necessary condition for responsible and altruistic behavior. Emotion, aesthetics, and “spirituality” If we accept that overly technical, science-based, reductionist approaches to transhumanism are likely to fail to inspire, then it is clear that we must look elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is merit in being precise even about the need for rhetorical imprecision, and with the tremendous advances in neuroscience that have taken place over the past few decades we are now in a much better position than we were previously to understand and manage our emotional and aesthetic responses, including to the words we use. One word that evokes much of what is required, while at the same time often turning off more rational-minded people (though this is itself an essentially aesthetic reaction), is “spirituality”. It is perhaps helpful to turn to Wikipedia to get a handle on

what is meant when people use this word. Here even Wikipedia balks at first, pointing out that it “lacks a definitive definition”, before adding that social scientists have defined it as the search for "the sacred," where "the sacred" is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. If this is indeed what is meant by “spirituality”, then we are all “spiritual”, in the sense that we are all engaged in a quest for that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. This is again related to the special kind of faith that is required for us to get out of bed in the morning (unless we are operating solely on the basis of habit). When we are hoping that something good will happen as a result, we are also searching for something that will set it apart. As the song by the Pet Shop Boys puts it: we are all searching for a Red Letter Day. So like faith, “spirituality”, as so defined, is by no means a specifically religious quality. And yet, in the Wikipedia entry on transhumanism we read statements like the following: “Although some transhumanists report having religious or spiritual views, they are for the most part atheists, agnostics or secular humanists.” Here we very clearly see religion and “spirituality” being regarded as bedfellows, while “atheists, agnostics [and] secular humanists” are somehow seen as lacking in this department. It is not difficult to see this as evidence of the stranglehold that religion has had, and to some extent still has, on the creative and inspirational dimension that we associate—when not completely turned off by all the hocus pocus and quackery— with the word “spirituality”. In some ways the flourishing of New Age spirituality that has coincided with a decline in church attendance in the West is evidence of the truism that when people stop believing in God they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. From this we can draw two, in some ways opposite, conclusions: on the one hand it is evidence that being part of an organized religion is by no means a precondition for being “spiritual”; on the other hand, to some extent it can play into the hands of those who see the main alternative to organized religion as more crass and superficial forms of spirituality, often amounting to little more than superstition. Perhaps the most important point to make, here, is that if “spirituality” is indeed the search for something that is extraordinary and worthy of veneration, then it is an essentially aesthetic endeavor, in which emotions play a primordial role, and what will be seen as sacred in this sense will and must differ from person to person. Some will find sanctity (and, therefore the comfort that we all seek) in their own (or perhaps another) religious tradition; some will find it in science and reason; some will find it in more anarchic, “New Age” forms of spirituality; others will find it in art or other essentially secular pursuits. Once again this may seem self-evident, but it is by no means universally recognized by religious thinkers, and an example of a lack of such recognition can be seen in the writings of the Christian theologian Gabriel Vahanian, who wrote in 1961 that modern secular culture had “lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence”, and concluded that for the modern secular mind "God is dead".1 Indeed it seems to have been too much for
1

Gabriel, Vahanian, The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era, (New York: George Braziller, 1961).

Vahanian to imagine that secular culture might have found a sense of the sacred that did not use explicitly religious language, and to the extent that such attitudes persist today it is essential to keep emphasize that emotion and aesthetics to not necessarily have to be expressed through something called “spirituality”, and that “spirituality” does not necessarily have to be expressed or interpreted within a religious context. Suspension of Disbelief An issue that is closely related to the above is suspension of disbelief. As noted above, there are many essentially secular ways of expressing and satisfying our need for “spirituality” in the sense described above. Some of them—such as abstract art and music (without lyrics), perhaps also poetry—touch us without directly impinging on our belief systems. An exception to this is fiction, however including at least novels and movies, but perhaps also songs in which there appears to be a clear “message” or story. Here the reader, viewer or listener is invited into a complicit relationship with the author, in which he or she suspends disbelief for the duration of the experience. After one has put down the novel or left the movie theatre, one is aware that this was indeed fiction, and the work of art has (hopefully) not made any claims to be anything else. Ideas have been instilled, of course—Ayn Rand being an example of someone who has significantly influenced people’s belief systems through fiction—but the reader or viewer is still left with the clear understanding that this was, ultimately, “just” a story. To the extent that religion, at its best, can be seen as a supremely effective vehicle for the transmission of inspiring and invigorating metaphor, it is perhaps in part because it encourages its adherents to take their suspension of disbelief much further than secular fiction generally does. The danger with this, however, is that—just like sales pitches, which are also a form of fiction, while claiming to be something else—it may fail to transmit to the adherent, along with the metaphor, a clear understanding that it is indeed metaphor. As noted above, it is by no means the case that religious metaphors, as opposed to the objective statements about reality, and this can lead to quite severely distorted perceptions of reality and a difficulty in engaging with people who think differently. At one level, the fact that religion encourages its adherents to take their suspension of disbelief further than is the case with secular fiction may be one of the reasons why it is so effective in consoling people and inspiring them to behave responsibly. But with this benefit also comes significant dangers, and these dangers need to be recognized and addressed. Misinterpretation of transcendent experiences “Transcendence” is a word whose meaning can differ substantially depending on whether it is used in a religious or secular context. In a religious context, “transcendence” can refer to aspects of the divine that are independent of the “material” universe, although the distinction between “material” and “immaterial” aspects of the universe seems increasingly questionable in the light of modern physics.

In a secular context, in any case, transcendence evokes the more general concept of “going beyond”, and is closely related to emotion, aesthetics and spirituality as discussed above. Transcendent experiences can be quite overwhelming, particularly if they are associated with feelings, thoughts or perceptions that seem to contradict existing beliefs. When this happens, religion sometimes “rides to the rescue” as means of interpreting such experiences. People may believe that they have been “touched by God”, or use other language to interpret their experience in accordance with a religious tradition with which they are familiar. This can be very comforting, since it gives the person a framework within which to understand what he or she has experienced, but especially if the tradition disincentives doubt this can lock the person in to a worldview that may be less effective in dealing with other aspects of life. Transcendence is of course a core concept within transhumanism, which is in a sense all about “transcending” the human condition, and this makes it especially important to find ways to interpret transcendent experiences in non-dogmatic ways. While religious interpretations of such experiences will often ring true for religious adherents, from a more dispassionate perspective it might be better simply to accept and welcome such experiences, without necessarily trying to interpret them as a religious or “supernatural” phenomenon. Reinforcement of patriarchy / gender discrimination A further limiting belief that is frequently conveyed subliminally by religious language (even if it is contradicted by actual religious doctrine) is the idea that God is male. Even amongst the most progressive religious audiences there is a tendency to refer to God almost exclusively using the male personal pronoun. Even where this does not imply any conscious belief that God is male, the subliminal effect is to reinforce a patriarchal view of hierarchy, with a male father figure at the top, who must always be obeyed, thus reinforcing gender inequalities. While this problem is by no means confined to religious language—indeed, the very use of gender-specific personal pronouns in most languages arguably places undue weight on gender as a core component of a person’s identity—the concept of God certainly appears to add a dimension to this problem that is not present if one employs more secular (in this case: atheistic) language. While I am certainly not suggesting that this on its own would be a sufficient argument to avoid theistic language, in combination with the other issues discussed above it does seem to provide a further reason for caution. The assumption that one has to be religious to appreciate religious myths It is important to emphasize that religious myths and traditions may indeed have an important role to play within transhumanism and wider society. However, appreciating religious myths does not necessarily make one “religious”, any more than appreciating Star Trek movies necessarily makes one a Trekkie. Whatever other arguments there may be in favor of maintaining a robust religious movement within transhumanism, it cannot be simply that “religious myths are valuable”. Indeed, religious myths and religion-inspired wisdom is ubiquitous in modern secular culture. Furthermore, the very prevalence of religion in contemporary society, especially

when viewed globally, would seem sufficient to ensure that such wisdom will not simply disappear from our awareness. The assumption that one has to be religious to be moral A related risk is the assumption that one has to be religious to be moral. While perhaps less ubiquitous than it has been in the past, this assumption is still sadly widespread, with views such as the following not uncommon: “Why is the next step [after becoming an atheist] to treat others with kindness? We don’t have to do that at all. If there’s no God telling us to be kind, then I say its survival of the fittest. I should oppress as many as possible to make my own position better.” In many cultures, to have a “different” religion is already bad; to have no religion at all means being an outcast. While this is understandable from a historical perspective (cultures needed to develop mechanisms for building trust between strangers), this is intolerable in the context of contemporary society. Speculating about the will of God A final potential drawback with religious transhumanism is that it can distract the transhumanist movement from the delicate task of defining and reconciling competing visions of a desired future, while using science to reconcile those visions with what is achievable and to provide guidance on how it can be achieved. The theist will tend to be more concerned with what “God” wants rather than what humanity, or some subset of humanity, wants. For example, as noted above the concept of discipleship is central to Christianity (including Mormonism): adherents believe they are “called” upon to behave compassionately, even to the point of turning the other cheek, whether or not this is appropriate in the circumstance or resonates with the persons actual values. While speculation about what God wants can potentially enrich the debate, it can also be a way to evade the issue or constrain the debate by imposing traditional assumptions about what God wants. Conclusions and recommendations Before drawing practical conclusions from the above it is essential to recognize that many people have utterly compelling personal reasons not to want to abandon their religious beliefs. Transhumanism would indeed shoot itself in the foot if it became entirely intolerant (as some transhumanists seem to advocate) of religion.2 Nevertheless, I hope to have demonstrated convincingly that religious ideas and movements need to be treated with caution by the wider transhumanist movement, and perhaps even more than has been the case up to now. Among the drawbacks I have outlined, the tendency of religious movements to promote “faith” over doubt may be the most dangerous. As pointed out above, faith, while necessary, is not specifically religious. At the same time it is essential for everyone, whether atheist, religious, transhumanist, technoprogressive, bioconservative or whatever, to be prepared to question even their most cherished beliefs. Indeed, people need to be prepared to ask questions such as, “Suppose I were to wake up one morning and realize that I no longer held my most cherished beliefs,
2

See, for example, http://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/stopdiscriminating-the-serene-ideas-of-transhumanism/

what would I do?” While the incorporation of religious ideas into transhumanism in general does not prevent us from embracing doubt in this way, the emphasis that religions tend to put on (religious) faith tends to make their adherents reluctant to do so. While the need to question one’s beliefs (from time to time) applies as much to the non-religious as it does to the religious, it seems to me that religious transhumanists are likely to benefit the most from asking themselves such questions, and that nonreligious transhumanists need to insist that they do so. A related point is that people need to learn to deal with the emotional reactions that they experience when they encounter ideas or thoughts that challenge those beliefs. Specifically, they need to find ways of dealing with them that do not blunt their innate curiosity or blind them to the truth. In this context some religious traditions can actually be extremely helpful (notably the initially Buddhist concept of “mindfulness”, which is a good example of a religion-inspired insight that has been integrated into secular wisdom). More generally, religions with a strong meditative tradition (Sufi Islam would be another example) are likely to play a more positive role within transhumanism than those that rather tend to emphasize dogma and orthodoxy. In conclusion, while it is the author’s opinion that religious transhumanism has an important and constructive role to play within the wider transhumanist movement, religious transhumanists have a special responsibility to question their beliefs and emphasize those aspects of their religious tradition that help them to deal with the emotional consequences of doing so.