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Who says modern religion cannot be material, speculative, and science-friendly?
In Machines for Making Gods, anthropologist Jon Bialecki explores two ostensibly opposed movements—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and transhumanists—and an ostensibly surprising fusion between the two: the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Transhumanism, Bialecki describes, “is the positive anticipation of the possibility that increases in technology will allow Homo sapien sapiens to overcome their historic species’ limits to such a degree that they become something else altogether” (p.76). In other words, transhumanists aspire to technological advances that will allow them to become more than human.
Concepts associated with transhumanism include the singularity (a theoretical point at which technology, particularly artificial intelligence, grows so quickly that we cannot predict how it might alter—or destroy—humanity), simulation theory (the possibility that we presently exist in a simulation run by other beings that may or may not be like us), and digital consciousness (the ability to upload our consciousness into digital tools so as to preserve and augment that consciousness, with the loudest headline of late Elon Musk’s Neuralink). At first blush, members of the Church might view such endeavors as hubristic, latter-day Towers of Babel, but Bialecki delves into how transhumanist goals rhyme with LDS theological tenets and how the MTA emerges from that rhyming. Moving in three primary parts, Bialecki first lays out ethnographies of the three communities, then sets forth a structure for and analysis of how LDS theology and transhumanist aspirations interact and overlap, and finally looks at three and a half examples of where LDS and transhumanist thinking intermixes: cryogenics, resurrection, simulation theory, and queer polygamy. (Queer polygamy—the idea that polygamy was a deviation from, or queering of, contemporary marital practices—is less an overlap and more an area where LDS history and transhumanist ideas again, in Bialecki’s words, rhyme.)
Machines for Making Gods was written primarily for an academic audience, not a lay LDS audience who may, with Bialecki’s invitation, skip the first two sections on structuralism, sociology, and anthropology. I found Bialecki’s description of life as a member of the Church even-handed, with only the occasional deviation from objectivity (e.g., tears during testimony, he claims, are “an indication that one has internalized the genre”). Generally, however, I recognize my personal experience as a member of the Church, a credit to the anthropologist observing a Church undergoing recent changes.
For Bialecki, the LDS tradition of materialist religious speculation is both where Mormon transhumanism excels and where, in my view, the Church has slowed (and become more conservative) over the last century. His words, “[t]his element is not a specific piece of doctrine or scripture, but it is instead a tradition, an aesthetic, a mode of thought. It is the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Mormon practice of religious speculation.” (p. 102) Where transhumanist speculation focuses on physics and technology, LDS speculation focuses on metaphysics and theology. Broadly speaking, speculation is part of a common human yearning to situate ourselves within the world, whether that be in one’s personal ontology, in a community (finance as well as fiction), or in the wider physical universe. We speculate and imagine in order to anchor ourselves to what we hope is real.
The nineteenth-century restoration of the Gospel was florid with the possibilities of all things made new again. The dispensation of the fulness of times invited early speculations bold and wild—from Zelph the Lamanite to people living on the sun and moon, to the Adam-God doctrine, and more. Church history can be read as the process of qualifying what counts as speculation and what counts as revelation (D&C 28:11-16), leading to the present where members enjoy wide latitude in their own personal speculation so long as it does not impinge on Church policy. What is less clear is how modern Church leaders speculate today, leaving that work to the margins of the LDS community, such as the MTA.
Mormon transhumanism, however, does not engage in just any type of speculation. It is conversant with transhumanism generally because of its commitment to immanent theology—the proposition that spirit is matter—and the collapse of metaphysics into physics, science, and technology, and vice versa. But LDS theology places such value on receiving a corporeal body so as to create potential guardrails against some of transhumanism’s wilder pursuits. Because of that, at least some varieties of Mormon transhumanism, Blaire Ostler’s for example, have comparatively little to no room for disembodiment fantasies compared to other forms of transhumanism. While varied in its commitments to bodies, Mormon transhumanist speculation, if it exists as a whole, appears an attempt to situate our embodied selves in a wider physical universe, an exercise that welcomes both the fringes and the core: some MTA members are open atheists who want to retain a live connection to family, community, and culture while others are firmly orthodox in their LDS beliefs and see transhumanism as a way of actualizing their faith. Like other nineteenth-century cosmist traditions updated for twenty-first century technology, many Mormon transhumanists actively seek to create the tools for realizing the resurrection.
In my view, there is room enough for both those that dream and work to build Zion in a community that would be of “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18). Every flock, by definition, has some sheep who prefer the edges, and the dynamic between speculation and revelation merits not just consideration but careful adoption, especially as the Restoration is an ongoing exploration in active revelation.
At the same time, I see tensions in what sociobiologist E. O. Wilson diagnoses as our modern crisis of possessing at the same time “Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” I am skeptical that technology and science can update, ameliorate, or improve the necessarily saving work of developing better emotional lives, especially the task of developing charity. Wilson’s other writings indicate that he, like nearly all transhumanists, views technology and science as the greatest hopes for escaping humanity’s destructive tendencies. In contrast, I am skeptical of placing such great faith in technology and science. They may help humanity, perhaps even in the work of salvation (digital recordkeeping and indexing though not disembodied baptism), but I doubt they can provide what makes an embodied life worth believing in and living.
I worry that our modern inclination to cutting-edge technologies makes us overlook the techniques we already have at hand. For example, in ancient scripture, God provided the Liahona, a kind of compass, and lifted the City of Enoch, by forces still not well understood. But God preconditioned the Liahona’s operation on the exercise of humility, faith, and action. And in the case of Enoch’s people, God lifted them up because they were “one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). The focus should remain not on a new technology or pill that accelerates charity, humility, reverence, faith, or other attributes of Christ—if such technologies or pills can even be produced—so much as on the experiences of feeding the hungry, taking in the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, mourning with those that mourn, comforting those that stand in need of comfort, and casting off the natural man (and his Paleolithic emotions) (Matthew 25:40-45, Mosiah 18:9, Mosiah 3:19).
Many Mormon transhumanists will understandably protest that they already seek those aims, and indeed Bialecki documents several such arguments. Still, I am concerned that by emphasizing the far future, sacralizing technology, and even possibly seeking a disembodied existence, we aim beyond the mark. By doing so we may either miss or minimize the sanctification of living an embodied life here and now, co-suffering with those who suffer here and now, and transforming ourselves with irreducible lived and learned experience. Modern science and technology are, of course, a part of life here and now (you’re reading this online, our prophet pioneered medical procedures, nuclear weapons risk ruining the world we understand better because of physics, a sibling to nuclear weaponry), but none of this can replace or provide that lived experience. Indeed, in many instances we should consider paring back or changing course with the technology we do use. But charting such a course requires a guiding ethos. Without such an ethos, technology becomes an end to itself.
Ethos, not ends. Perhaps that is the charge. Transhumanism supercharges our engines for latter-day speculation—material, embodied, and science-friendly. On the other hand, LDS theology may provide a guiding ethos for how tools can aid us without becoming ends in themselves. Yet there are clear limits all around: the science and technology of transhumanism cannot become ends in themselves; no idols to immortality, tools cannot save us or our dead. Only Christlike love, developed through lived experience and work, can save. Restorationist Christianity has long been about the transformation of creatures into creators, but to paraphrase Paul, though I have my consciousness uploaded and live forever among the angels and exalted in the singularity and have not charity, I am nothing.
Ryan Fairchild is an entertainment and technology lawyer, father of three, and husband to Angelyn Otteson Fairchild.
Artwork generated by Midjourney.