Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is Transhumanism a Religion?

In late April, blogger Michael Anissimov claimed that we are all transhumanists now, in part because

At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self‑modification.

Just a few days ago, on the other hand, Mr. Anissimov observed that “When theists call the Singularity movement ‘religious,’ they are essentially saying, ‘Oh no, this scientifically‑informed philosophy is intruding on our traditional turf!’”

My point in juxtaposing these two passages is not only to suggest that it is not fully clear just who is intruding on whose turf, but also to suggest that the whole issue seems to be miscast. Back when I was writing about environmentalism I came across those who thought environmentalism was somehow a religion, and for that reason alone deeply problematic. That they would often speak of it as a “secular religion” already struck me as odd, not quite like talking about a “square circle” but close.

In response, I paraphrased a passage from T. S. Eliot (“Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion”) to suggest that if environmentalism is a substitute for religion, it is because our religion is already a substitute for religion. Something of the same idea applies to transhumanism in its various forms. If it looks like a religion, that is probably because so many have a pretty degraded conception of what “religion” — and here I speak of the Biblical religions — is all about. Let me suggest it is not fundamentally angels.

At root, Biblical religion is about there being a God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world. At root, transhumanism is not about any of these things; so far as I can tell for most transhumanists there is no God and we are the only source of expectations about how we should live in the world. It is very hard for me to understand in what sense one of these belief systems can substitute for another. True, both of them can be strongly held, both of them can serve as a guide to life. You can even say both depend on faith, to the extent that a good deal of transhumanism depends on evidence of what is as yet unseen. So I suppose that if you define religion as “a strongly held guide to life that depends on faith” then you can have a secular religion and it could be transhumanism.

But that definition seems to me to miss the point — like saying that Coke can serve as a substitute for red wine because both of them are dark-colored and drinkable liquids. Whatever their similarities, transhumanism and religion simply do not play the same part in the moral economy of human life. They strive for different ends and as a result they admire different qualities. For example, transhumanism is all about pride, while Biblical religions point to humility. Eliot once again seems to have the clearer understanding of what is at stake:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself ... that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name.

Transhumanism has indeed decided that it can do without religious faith and philosophy, hitching its wagon to willful creativity and calling it science. In contrast, binding discipline is at the root of Biblical religion. You do not have to want that discipline or believe in it to see that transhumanism is not just offering us the same kind of thing under a different name.


  1. Speaking of pride/humility, here's a gem from Mr. Anissimov's blog a few days ago: "Transhumanity will help us get over our self-worship, which is a childlike emotion." (Because transhumanism's motivations are anything but selfish?)

  2. A set of common transhumanist assumptions imply conclusions that are consistent with some forms of theism:


  3. I don't consider transhumanism to be a religion. It certainly could be made into a religious movement if we chose to do so (I have ideas on how to go about doing this). Transhumanism does offer a complete intellectual framework that is fully competitive with existing religions and philosophies.

    The real question is whether transhumanism serves the same psychological function for its users as those who believe in conventional religions. I think the answer is "yes" for many transhumanists because the worldview occupies the same "meme niche" in their brains as does conventional religion in the brains of its believers.

  4. Would it be considered selfish for a tribe of chimps to want to one day become human?

  5. Charles,

    I think your main point is that transhumanism is in some fundamental and important ways different from your own religion, but I think you will agree that there have been and are many religions in human history with at least superficially varied characteristics (even if you perceive some deep universality).

    It seems to me valid to describe transhumanism as a religion, in that it contains elements in roles familiar from many religions, in that it is a social cult, in that it teaches a moral credo, morally ordering the world of its believers, in that it promises salvation from death and anomie, in that it comprises a body of texts, in that it has a professional (but rapidly evolving and revolving) priesthood, and in that its core ideas are dualistic and mystical.

    Quasireligious features of transhumanism:

    Creation story/Mother Goddess: Evolution
    Eschatology: Universal Intelligence
    Apocalypse: The Singularity
    Coming Savior/Destroyer: Super-AI
    Salvation: Merging with technology
    Deliverance from mortal fear and trembling: The promise of immortality by/as technology
    Theologically correct method for disposition of the dead: Cryonics (head only)
    Heaven: Virtual existence in cyberspace
    The Soul or pure spirit as the dual of the body: Information as the dual of matter
    Universal moral order: Evolution as The Great Story
    Personal moral order: To evolve, to self-improve

    Plus, a community of like-minded fanatics who like to gather for the ecstatic experience of declaring to each other that they believe, they believe.

    Now I know that you are a deeply religious man, Charles, and I don't wish to offend you with my caricature of religions in general. I have read and listened to your words in admiration and wonder for the way you speak for humanity to humanity.

    None of those words needed anyone to believe in an anthropomorphic "God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world." And I wonder if you do believe in such an anthropomorphic God, or, if you say not, how you would explain that a God who is not in some way anthropomorphic has expectations about how people should behave.

    I can try to make sense out of this by noting the connection between "God" and "good" and saying that the God who "has expectations" of us is a deification of the notion of "good," which can be given a purely natural interpretation in terms of how life, nature, the way things are, Spinoza's God, rewards and punishes our behavior. But I don't think that's quite what you mean. You think we should ask what is good, not just what is good for us. Maybe you also have some answers, or think they've been given by others, or even by God Himself. But people may at least agree that it is right for humanity to ask what is good and to pursue what is good.

    In the world's religious marketplace today there is a vast dominance by the most unscrupulous and aggressive users of technology. Priests have always performed magic at the altar, either literally with tricks or symbolically, with the hypnotic effects of ritual and decoration, incense and music and prayer. Why would religion not exploit the technologies of transhumanism as, when and if they become available? Or, why would the transhumanist priesthood not begin to invade the space of traditional religions? They could be selling literal immortality. "Jesus wants you to be uploaded. It's exactly what was prophesied."


  6. I simply believe that transhumanism needs to understand where it desires stem from. It's ok to be an atheist but it's very hypocritical to bash the very essence of religion then turn around and offer the same thing via technology.

  7. It's ok to be an atheist but it's very hypocritical to bash the very essence of religion then turn around and offer the same thing via technology.

    I agree. I dislike the militant atheists as much as the Christian right people. We would all be far better off if we learned to respect each others' worldviews and stopped sticking our noses into each others' business.

  8. Thanks, Mr. Carrico, for your note. Glad to have you commenting here. Is there anything in particular on your blog that you want us to read vis-à-vis the subject of this blog post, or do you just want to refer us to your work in a general way?

  9. Sorry to have seemed spammy -- I've been criticizing transhumanists for years, not to mention sparring very regularly with folks featured in many of your recent posts. Among the topics that regularly arise in these skirmishes are the ways in which futurological discourses have religious aspects (in ways that render them more intelligible to some, and illegitimate to others, a dispute playing out both among many who are hostile to "transhumanism" and others who identify with it) or seem to take up the frames and iconography of particular religious traditions (Teilhard de Chardin and Mormonism tend to come up in such discussions), or whether futurological organizations associated with singularitarianism or cryonics or Drexlerian nanotech are functionally cults, or have a, say, cultic coloration, or whether transhumanism as a "subculture" or "identity movement" is a substitute for organized religiosity or a variation on it, and on and on and on.

    There is plenty that I talk about on my blog that I wouldn't expect readers here to care about particularly, and there are plenty of criticisms I make of transhumanism and futurology more generally in which I expect I would differ from your perspective here. But the link I posted focuses particularly on superlative futurology (of which transhumanism is a variation in my view) as the futurological appropriation of mainstream concerns -- healthcare, education, security -- redirected (in a rather hyperbolic variation on conventional marketing practices) into a faith-based discourse modeled in its basic contours and relying for much of its intuitive plausibility on the disavowed theological omnipredicates of a godhood transposed instead onto techno-fixated infantile wish-fulfillment fantasists who fancy they will arrive at "The Future" through the fervency of their belief in it, whatever this fervency forecloses in the way of equity, diversity, or sense in the present.

    I thought the argument had some direct relevance to the discussion at hand. Again, sorry to have been too spammy.

  10. I thank Messrs. Cannon and Gubrud for their comments. Both of them see that I offered a deliberately restricted definition of “religion.” They are entitled to broaden the definition as they see fit, particularly as they do so with such self-conscious clarity and provocative results. However, at a certain point in this broadening what would otherwise be a term of distinction becomes less useful. For example, when reading Mr. Gubrud’s doubtless generously intended characterization of me as a “deeply religious man,” I was reminded of nothing so much as Trinculo’s line from The Tempest: “They say there’s but five upon this isle: we are three of them; if th’other two be brain’d like us, the state totters.” If I count as deeply religious... So I hope I will be excused if I do not take the chance Mr. Gubrud offers to discuss such amateurish reflections on God and the good as may occupy some of my private moments.


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