Transhumanist advocate and presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan has a pretty good idea that the movement of which he is a self-appointed leader is not going to be popular with everyone. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “everything transhumanists are trying to accomplish—from conquering death with science, to merging with machines, to becoming as powerful as possible via technology—conflict somewhat with biblical scripture and conservatism.” A little simplistically, he argues that “[r]eligious people dislike any type of technology that brings up questions of Revelations in the Bible, or the Mark of the Beast.” Aside from categorizing Dispensationalists as all “religious people” he is aware that what he is endorsing is provocative. That he also compares himself to the Freedom Riders “arriving in Alabama in buses to challenge Jim Crow segregation practices” is a bit rich, but it does point to the passionate, almost evangelistic, nature of many people who endorse transhumanism.1
In the previous article it was shown that posthumanism is a largely academic enterprise which has begun to creep into the popular culture. Transhumanism, which is often compared or even confused with posthumanism, has some academic origins, but has found much greater life and advocacy outside of the academy, by entrepreneurs, “visionaries” such as Istvan and some scientists and religious groups. While many people think of posthumanism and transhumanism as synonyms, they are in many ways competing schools of thought.
Like posthumanism, transhumanism explores the line between humanity and technology; but while posthumanism looks to technology as an aspect of revelation (of recognizing our oneness with all life and matter), transhumanism sees technology as a means of extension. Instead of eliminating the human, it advances it beyond its natural boundaries or limitations.
While posthumanism rejects humanism and its claims of the centrality and importance of man, transhumanism accepts the major premises of humanism that the individual is autonomous and reason is the marker of personhood and identity. In some ways it is an intensification of humanism, arguing that perceived limitations (such as biology itself) can be overcome by technical means, resulting in an advanced human form with greater intelligence, greater longevity and greater wellbeing. It is techno-deterministic, keenly progressivist and argues that technological and biological modifications can enhance the human in its present healthy state. At its heart, the transhumanist movement has as its goal the achievement of immortality by entirely human means.
Perhaps even moreso than in posthumanism, the religious ambitions of transhumanism are nakedly apparent. Transhumanist proponents regularly invoke transcendent language, talking of immortality, the spiritual capacities of technology, and humans becoming “god-like.” Istvan speaks enthusiastically of the day when we all become immortal cyborgs.
Transhumanism spirituality is also of a decidedly different stripe from that of posthumanism. Much of the transhumanist project is geared towards developing technologies that could eventually lead to substituting flesh with biomechanical material, or of downloading the human mind into computers, or integrating human minds with one another via network hook-up. If posthumanism is a new and sophisticated form of pantheism, then transhumanism is a cutting-edge and technologically savvy Gnosticism, where the body is seen as repugnant, disposable, something to be overcome, and the mind or intellect is that which is ethereal and needs to be preserved or shifted to ever higher planes of existence.
It is not surprising then that many within the movement are deliberately forging transhumanism into a legitimate religion. Though most transhumanists still shun the word religion, they nevertheless are beginning to speak of it as a religion-eclipsing philosophy. The World Transhumanist Association, which recently rebranded itself as Humanity Plus (H+), describes transhumanism on its website as “a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”2
While most transhumanists come from the fields of science and engineering and could largely be described as atheistic, not all of them are. Some religious groups have also attempted to jump on the bandwagon. Already there are some “Christian Transhumanists,” but the movement seems to be particularly potent among Mormons. The Mormon Transhumanist Association, while not officially endorsed by the Latter-Day Saints church, meets across the street from Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Certain tenets of Mormon theology, particularly the concept of theosis, the process of humans evolving into gods, are particularly compatible with the transhumanist vision.
In one of his most significant works, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis foresees a future where “mankind [is] to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will…of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.”3 Lewis feared the advancements he saw science producing all around him in his day would be applied to the human with disastrous consequences in the future. He modestly suggests that science must be exercised with restraint and guided by older and wiser human traditions. That many transhumanists would hear these as fightin’ words should be no surprise, and we can certainly see the possibility of near future political battles over the employment of certain technologies such as cloning, implants and cross-species bioengineering. Yet what seems to have been even beyond Lewis’s predictive abilities was the redefinition of humanity out of existence altogether. That posthumanism makes this its central agenda is of paramount concern for not only Christians, but to anyone who holds onto any semblance of humanism.
Put simply, these new challenges require not merely a resistance to irresponsible tampering with nature, but a deeper and more faithful consideration of what it means to be human. The Bible speaks from very nearly the beginning of the imago dei as the model for what separates humanity from the created order. Through the centuries theologians and biblical scholars have pondered over what exactly it is meant to be made in the “image of God.” Is it simply the distinction that we have the ability to reason? Or is it that we are in some way the inheritors of God’s position of kingship? The Genesis account is indeed crucial in articulating a Christian conception of the human, but it has not given us the model to strive for in any meaningful way. That comes later in Scripture. As Alan Torrance observes: “The obvious and incontrovertible implication of the doctrine of the incarnation is that, in Christ, we are presented not only with the fullness of the Godhead but also with the fullness of humanity, that is, all that humanity was intended both to be [and] to become. What we have in the Gospels and Epistles…is both the true “image” of the Father and the eschatos Adam.”4
Zoltan Istvan, “Transhumanist Rights are the Civil Rights of the 21st Century,” in Newsweek (Accessed October 4, 2016). http://www.newsweek.com/transhumanism-zoltan-istvan-civil-rights-21st-century-453884 ↩
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (HarperCollins: New York, 1944, 2000), 74. ↩
Alan J. Torrance, “Forward,” in Marc Cortez, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13. ↩