Historically, the relationship between science and religion has been rather rocky—to put it delicately. With two millennia of clashes to hark back to, die-hard naturalists and devout theists seem to (for the most part) avoid each other’s company, viewing the two basic philosophies as fundamentally incompatible.
Yet as each side’s collective historical trauma fades more with each new generation, and with the rise of 21st-century-America’s unique cultural landscape, rigidity on both sides may be giving way to a willingness for dialogue, even marriage. An emerging pattern of philosophical syncretism between traditionally scientific and religious disciplines testifies to an increasing shift toward acceptance of scientific thought within religious institutions and, for some, the deification of technological advancement in the “Information Age.”
The Christian Transhumanist movement embraces both sides of this long historical divide. It fuses America’s most deeply-rooted religious tradition and a distinctly modern movement. Superficially, these two philosophies appear at odds, and members of each routinely express negative attitudes toward their counterparts on the other side. And yet, Christian Transhumanism retains more than just a small, fringe following.
What is Transhumanism?
For those unfamiliar with the fascinating world of Transhumanism, allow me to offer a brief introduction. Transhumanism emerged sometime in the late 1980s-early 1990s, just as the scientific and technological advancements of late twentieth century were beginning to take root in the West. With the mass integration of personal home computers and the Internet came a shift in public awareness to the power of science and technology, and its potential to profoundly change our world.
Transhumanists believe that science and technology can radically improve their lives and transform humanity’s chaotic existence into a technological utopia, where illness, war, even death are no longer an obstacle. Nick Bostrom, a major player in the Transhumanist movement, describes it thusly;
“Transhumanism is a loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades, and can be viewed as an outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment. It holds that current human nature is improvable through the use of applied science and other rational methods, which may make it possible to increase human health-span, extend our intellectual and physical capacities, and give us increased control over our own mental states and moods. Technologies of concern include not only current ones, like genetic engineering and information technology, but also anticipated future developments such as fully immersive virtual reality, machine-phase nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.”
Transhumanism and Religion
Transhumanism is typically characterized as a social and philosophical movement, but some have argued that it exhibits characteristics of religious belief.,, Most notably, Transhumanism’s eschatological elements, themes of human resurrection and eternal life, prophesies of future realities to come, and a belief in the unrealized perfection of technology and a “posthuman” utopia, all share similar philosophical, sociological, and psychological features with major world religious traditions.
Transhumanism has moved into the mainstream in recent years. Led most visibly by futurist inventor Ray Kurzweil, a wave of Sillicon Valley hotshots has significantly boosted the “cool” factor of Transhumanism among tech professionals. Notable supporters include billionaire tech investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel; Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk; and Martine Rothblatt, the highest paid female CEO in America. There is even a Transhumanist political party in the US, which ran founder Zoltan Istvan for President during the 2016 election, proudly campaigning as “the only candidate promising eternal life.”
In 2013, a “science-based” Transhumanist church was established in Hollywood, Florida. The tax-exempt Church of Perpetual Life has about 500 members (as of 2014), who attend PowerPoint-heavy services via live stream. Born out from the principles and hopes offered by Transhumanism, the “trans-religion” of Terasem also mirrors characteristics of longer-established religious traditions, including a “nerd rapture.”
A Brief Look at the Christian Transhumanist Movement
I was introduced to Christian Transhumanism through the Christian Transhumanist Association (CTA), which was founded in 2013. The CTA offers its members a haven to nurture their niche interests, exploring how future technologies won’t just make them live longer, or be smarter, but how it can also help them be better Christians. In a 2016 Reddit thread, CTA Executive Director Micah Redding explains,
“The future of Christianity and civilization hang on whether we can have a positive, creative, constructive engagement with technology—or whether we will resign ourselves to consumerism and reactionism. If we engage our technology as a natural outgrowth of being made in the image of God, then we can use it for truly redemptive purposes, working to heal the sick, feed the hungry, free the captives, and bring life to the dead. But if we stick with consumerist or reactionary approaches to technology, then we will abdicate our responsibility, abandon the opportunities that God has given us to do good, and create a negative and combative future.”
Christian Transhumanist view science and technology as tools for good. In their view, God’s plan includes an ongoing progression toward the “spiritual, physical, emotional, mental” advancement of humankind through science and technology, which are “tangible expressions of our God-given impulse to explore and discover.” These tools are not inherently good, but by using them ethically, Christian Transhumanists believe they hold the key to a more perfect world, as is called for by Christ.
According to Micah Redding, there are currently around 270 official members of CTA. As of September 2015, the related Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) consisted of 549 members. While these numbers are small, they are very likely growing along with the larger Transhumanist Movement.
Negative Christian Reactions to Transhumanism and Human Bioengineering
Most criticisms of Transhumanism from a religious standpoint stem from a rejection of the moral capability of humans to act as their own creators. In 2002, the Vatican published a treatise titled, “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.” The lengthy document advices Christians to deny technologies that contradict its view of God’s planned natural order and which are considered man’s attempt at playing God. These bioethical concerns include modifying or disposing of one’s physical body, producing children asexually, cloning, gene manipulation, and ending human life through assisted suicide, euthanasia, or abortion.
Then in 2013, the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations adopted the Madrid Declaration on Science and Life, which calls for an international criminal court to hold accountable “those experimenting with human life, understanding it as a mean of production, or simply destroying it in the early stages of its development,” further asserting that “our science lacks soul.” Some interpreted this as a call for the criminalization of Transhumanism.
For many of its Christian critics and some scholars of Early Christianity, Transhumanism’s faith in the power of scientific knowledge and the aim to transcend human physical limitations is reminiscent of the Gnostic rejection of the corporeal body and the belief in salvation via esoteric knowledge—a tradition that is rejected by most modern Christians as heretical.
Many religious traditionalists may simply feel like their existence is threatened by this new way of understanding the world. A 2005 paper claimed, “Historical and theoretical considerations suggest that the power of traditional religions is directly threatened by transhumanism, so the sacred monopolies can be predicted to try to suppress it,” citing negative survey responses collected from theists regarding their feelings toward certain radical technologies as compared to those who “doubt about God’s existence.”
Negative Transhumanist Reactions to Christianity (and Other Religions)
In 2013, former Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan penned an article titled, “I’m an Atheist, Therefore I’m a Transhumanist.” He claims that as both Atheism (as well as Secular Humanism, Agnosticism, the Religious “Nones”, etc.) and Transhumanism become more widely known and accepted, irreligious people are expected to gravitate toward Transhumanism as a natural extension of their non-belief, “if not in name, than in spirit”. Istvan traces the history of Atheism back to thinkers like Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Rand, Sartre, Sanger, Hitchens, and Dawkins, adding,
“These atheist voices and their writings have paved the way for us, and now the 21st Century will bring the age of transhumanism to the forefront of society. The transhumanist hero is the person who constantly eyes improving their health, lifestyle, and longevity with science and technology. They are not okay with the past age of feeling guilty for aspiring to be different or better than they were born — or for wanting the power to become godlike themselves. They have no sin to erase; they have no reason to search for something outside of the material universe. […] If you don’t care about or believe in God, and you want the best of the human spirit to raise the world to new heights using science, technology, and reason, then you are a transhumanist.”
The Transhumanist Party’s “Bill of Rights,” includes a clause protecting an individual’s right to pursue “peaceful, consensual life-extension science, health improvements, body modification, and morphological enhancement” from any “hostile cultural, ethnic, or religious perspective.” These hostile actors, according to Istvan, include much of the American Bible Belt, where religious conservatives are “bent on believing that death is both natural and desirable,” nicknaming them the “deathists.” Istvan, a highly visible and defining figure of the modern Transhumanist Movement, clearly views much of the religious world as an adversarial force determined to undermine the goals of his movement.
According to a 2013 survey of 818 Transhumanists, the overwhelming majority (81%) identified as “Not Religious,” however there were another 9.5% identifying as Christian, 1.8% as Jewish, 1.8% as Buddhist, and 5% as “Other,” implying that for this 19% minority, Transhumanism is viewed as either a compatible religious/spiritual belief system or rather not at all religious or spiritual in nature but more of a philosophical compliment to their existing belief structure.
Discovering Compatibility and Compromise
In Transhumanism and Transcendence, Ronald Cole-Turner offers some possible explanations for the similarities observed between the principles of Christianity and Transhumanism as the products of either a shared culture or a universal human nature. He also acknowledges the many complex theological challenges that follow rapidly developing technologies. However, according to Cole-Turner,
“[Christian] Theology’s main concern with technology is the way human beings claim it as their own and use it only for what they suppose is human benefit. For the Christian, technology may be powerful, but it is not ours. It is God’s, and its purpose is to expand the ways in which God’s work can be done.”
Even Redding—who welcomes technological advancement as a means to develop into a more charitable, Christ-like church—is cautious of its power to be used for more nefarious means. In this view, a more defined moral system is needed to ensure that technologies are used to help humanity—not to profit from it. Moreover, says Redding, “Most don’t find transhumanism by itself to be enough. […] It doesn’t really tell you what the meaning of life is,” suggesting that adding Christian theology can fill the gap.
Christian Transhumanists have a unique view of science: while humans have the capability to achieve great feats, it is only through God that they are possible, and it is only with God that they should be used. These ideas blend unexpectedly well. Accordingly, the emergence of the religious Transhumanist movement is understandably necessary in the modern age as an outlet for both the scientifically-oriented Christian and the spiritually-in-need Transhumanist.
Broadly, Christian Transhumanism is not just a testament to the changing times and a new generation of believers, but it is also an instructive case study for the ways in which historically divergent ideologies can bury the hatchet. These believers may offer an important lesson in how to bridge great divides and reject deeply-rooted fears