Prophets of the Digital Divine
On Being Human in Our Techno-Religious Future
In the scientific world, in particular, the subject of the techno-human—what it means to be human in a world of increasing technological complexity and integration with human life, including our bodies—is more prevalent than ever. But the impact of the technologization of the human being is also increasingly felt throughout almost every social, cultural, and academic field, including now, religion. A revolution is clearly underway.
The difference between technological revolutions of the past and the current techno-human revolution is that the changes occurring now are internal rather than external. While the Industrial Revolution changed human working environments forever, the human being, as a biological entity, remained largely unchanged. You could argue that technology has, since the time we first began using tools, textiles, and aids to human abilities such as spectacles, enabled us to function as cyborgs of a sort, but our biology has not significantly changed, with all of the limitations that places upon us.
Throughout history, humans have mastered nature, but not human nature. We are now on the threshold, and in some instances well over it, of being able to alter human nature as never before. The rise of transhumanism is providing a lens through which we can view the human condition as a work in progress, where the human as a transitional being, or a being transcending humanity, is gradually evolving into the posthuman, or towards what is referred to as “Humanity Plus,” or “H+.”
All of this implies enhancement and improvement. One important implication of the transhuman journey is that humans can now routinely do things they once thought only God could do and, in many instances, can even conceive of themselves as gods.
The posthuman is the product of the transhuman process, a process which serves to enable humans to go beyond their human abilities and reap the benefits of a technologically enhanced existence. Transhumanism is complex, because it encompasses a wide range of approaches towards what it means to be human in a technological world. Many transhumanists define posthumanity in terms of radical life extension and the eradication of disease, and others, while espousing the view that such health benefits are definitely desirable, do not believe that they should be the chief focus of the posthuman condition.
A particularly interesting definition of transhumanism is emerging out of the research of those who are focusing on human enhancement—the use of brain-computer interfaces to speed up thinking processes, move prosthetic limbs and operate robotics, or, perhaps, employ equipment like body-hugging exoskeletons to enhance strength and agility. It is difficult in an article of this length to do justice to the wide range of enhancement technologies which are being developed, but they generally all come under a useful umbrella acronym, GRIN, standing for Genetics, Robotics, Information technology and Nanotechnology. Genetic enhancements and pharmaceutical enhancements are currently areas for widespread research.
Humanity will be radically changed by technology in the future. We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitably of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth.
As stated, the goals of transhumanism leave little room for the role of a theistic being in guiding the creation and the lives of humans. However, many Christian scholars have attempted to engage with the movement and contextualize its philosophy positively in Christian theological terms.
Among these, Ronald Cole-Turner has made a significant contribution in his edited volume, Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement (2011). The authors in this volume reference the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and that of the Russian cosmist, Nicolai Fedorov, among others, engaging with their theologies of Christian transcendence. Cole-Turner himself writes “human transformation is central to Christian thought” (5). He observes that “the longings that lie at the core of transhumanism are familiar to anyone who knows the texts of nearly any of the world’s religions or traditional philosophies” (14).
Comparing enhancement with salvation, Cole-Turner argues that transhumanist transformation is actually limited in comparison with the kind of theosis—or union with the divine—that Christian salvation offers (200). He rejects the idea that reliance on God rather than on transformative technology is evidence of human weakness, or that our problems can be solved by engineering. He argues instead that we must avoid “reduc[ing] human yearning for salvation to a mere desire for enhancement, a lesser salvation that we can control rather than the true salvation for which we must also wait” (201). He drives his point home by insisting that, “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” (201).
Cole-Turner and his co-authors engage positively, yet critically, with transhumanism. The same cannot be said of all Christian commentators on transhumanism. The idea that some advanced technologies are being used in a demonic fashion by humans to frustrate the will of God has been taken up by a number of fundamentalist Christian authors in recent years. These authors write in what I have called a “techno-apocalyptic” genre. The writers of the techno-apocalyptic genre frame transhumanism in eschatological terms and situate it within a global, quasi-scientific conspiracy to bring about the reign of the antichrist. There is, then, on a number of different levels and from different standpoints, a growing degree of engagement between religious scholars and writers with transhumanism, wrestling with it at different points along a spectrum of acceptance/rejection.
The Christian Transhumanist Association and The Mormon Transhumanist Association adopt very positive attitudes towards transhumanist ideas, often adapting them to understand transhumanism in the context of co-creation between human beings and the divine. One of the most interesting developments in the “religious” sphere, however, has been the evolution of techno-religion. Like transhumanism, this is a complex term to define. But while it can be understood by some as theistic, my own experience of it has been associated with its character as a secularized form of religion, where it takes elements traditionally connected with religious practice and mirrors them in the technological realm.
Among techno-religionists, one often hears discussion about “technological salvation,” referring to the desire for technological solutions in overcoming death, disease and certain genetic traits, or about “biorapture,” which refers to biological means of setting the human being free from the restraints of a this-worldly existence. In other words, techno-religion expects the same soteriological outcomes from technology that religious actors expect from their belief in the spiritual or the divine. In the world of techno-religion, the sacred takes on new meaning.
I first encountered the idea of techno-religion around 2012, when I began to research the Swedish Kopimist movement, which centers on the practice of digital file-sharing. (“Kopimism” derives from the words “copy me.”) Kopimism began as a spoof religion, but quickly gained a following once it was official recognized as a religion in Sweden in 2012.
I was interested in its purported belief that all information is sacred (initially, it has to be said, because of the movement’s links to information piracy groups). The idea of the sacredness which we normally associate with scriptures, buildings, spaces, and objects being conferred on information as a whole intrigued me. Although Kopimism remains a small movement, its nascent exploration of the sacredness of information reveals a model, or template, for other embryonic forms of techno-religion taking shape. Kopimism’s emphasis on the sacralization of data is congruent with, for example, the developing interest in secular pilgrimage and in the belief that secular places like Ground Zero could be imbued with spiritual significance.
The first Kopimist wedding, held in Belgrade in 2012, contains in its ritual some overtly religious language, although devoid of reference to the divine. When the celebrant, dressed in priestly garb, and wearing the Guy Fawkes mask associated with the Anonymous movement, intones, “The Internet is holy, code is law,” it is quite a jolting moment, as the listener realizes that the space of the holy and the book of the law are now being situated within a very different context from their biblical roots. The notion that “code is law” and that the same code is sacred data demands new perspectives on DNA, algorithms, the numerical basis of the universe, and even on the long protected role of the traditional scriptures as uniquely sacred “data” and the source of legal authority.
Another perspective on techno-religion is that discussed by Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). Harari discusses ‘Dataism,” whose proponents, he explains, believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain (373).
In contrast to Kopimism, that dataists believe, according to Harari, that “human experiences, are not sacred.” However, “this cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it” (386). “In Silicon Valley,” writes Harari, “the Dataist prophets consciously use traditional messianic language. For example, Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book of prophecies, The Singularity is Near echoes John the Baptist’s cry, “The Kingdom of heaven is near.”
Technology is poised to offer very attractive alternative belief systems which mirror religions, yet can promise more measurable, tangible, visible, and immediate benefits. In a sense, technology is the new creator and data is the new Logos. Logos theology, an early Christian theology of the activity of God in and through the world, embedded in human history and cultures, offers once more, a way for Christianity to engage critically, yet dialogically, with what could be defined as a new kind of Gnosticism. The same Logos, of which John speaks in the opening of his Gospel, embeds itself/himself surely in the world of technology, as much as in history, revealing the divine in new ways for a new paradigm. It will be necessary for those who want to maintain the role of the divine in our transhumanist future, as well as those who want to function as co-creators with God in a technologically exciting and innovative era, to rediscover thinkers like Nicolai Fedorov, the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and, indeed, the Renaissance empiricist Francis Bacon.
Michael Burdett, writing of Fedorov, references his belief that the human and the divine, working together, could utilize science and technology to bring about the transformation of the world, culminating in resurrection in which God does not work alone to resurrect the dead, but rather in which humans cooperate with him (28). My fear is always that Christianity, faced with a techno-religious paradigm which challenges religion on its own ground, will retreat into an anti-technological stance which will cause it to lose out on influencing the Silicon Valleys of this world, ceasing to have a prophetic voice among the new technological priesthood.
Avoiding this prophetic silence in our techno-religious future demands that we develop and articulate new techno-theologies for the world as it is becoming.