A Brief History of Religious Transhumanism

Today many self-identified transhumanists are non-religious, but transhumanist origins actually extend back to religious Humanism, a long-standing effort at integrating humanistic ethical and scientific imperatives with religious forms, metaphysics, and communities.

Religious motivations for scientific advancement

portrait of Ada Lovelace
The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole.
Ada Lovelace

While the scientific method has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of the cosmos, many scientists have been strongly motivated to pursue scientific discovery by their religious beliefs. Nikolaus Steno, a Danish priest and polymath considered by many to be the father of modern geology, refused to accept prevailing theories that the earth was formed through sudden, cataclysmic events, eventually leading to the theories of stratigraphy and uniformitarianism that are essential to geology today. His conviction that God was a being of intelligence and order led him to conclude that the laws of nature were discoverable and discernible.

portrait of Johannes Kepler
The laws of nature are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts.
Johannes Kepler

German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s abiding faith in an ordered universe instilled in him a relentless drive to painstakingly measure minute divergences in orbit of several heavenly bodies over many years. This ultimately led him to develop the laws of planetary motion, which diverged significantly from Platonic theories postulating perfect circular orbits. Several other notable scientists, including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, were similarly motivated by their religious beliefs.

Christian Transhumanism

portrait of Nikolai Fyodorov, “The Philosophy of the Common Task”
God does everything not merely for humanity, but also through humanity. The Creator through us recreates the world; He resurrects all that are perished.
Nikolai Fyodorov, “The Philosophy of the Common Task”

New Testament writers (notably Paul the Apostle) and centuries of early Orthodox and Catholic authorities blended Christianity with the best scientific understanding of their day—much of which hearkened back to Plato and Aristotle. For many influential Christian thinkers, this mixing of religious and scientific knowledge deepened their belief in and commitment to the principle of theosis. Throughout the following centuries, Christian theologians continued preaching being one with Christ and becoming God.

portrait of Charles Sanders Peirce
The purpose of creation as it must appear to us in our highest approaches to an understanding of it is God’s movement toward self-reproduction.
Charles Sanders Peirce

Over time, religious Humanism became increasingly focused on technology. Nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest Nikolai Fyodorov (founder of the Cosmism movement) taught that the common task of humanity should be the technological resurrection of our ancestors. At around the same time, the American (and Christian) philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce laid many of the foundations for modern transhumanist commitments, including technological cognitive enhancement. And twentieth-century Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advocated a vision of human evolution, accelerated by technology, where we merge with God.

portrait of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
A very real ‘pantheism’ if you like. The reflective centers of the world are effectively one with God. This state is obtained not by identification (God becoming all) but by the differentiating and communicating action of love (God all in everyone).
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Contemporary Religious Transhumanism

Formal religious Transhumanist movements began in the early 21st century. Some founded new religions or complements to religion, such as the Terasem Movement Transreligion and the Turing Church. The majority embraced transhumanist interpretations of traditional religions, including members of the Mormon and Christian Transhumanist Associations—the two largest religious transhumanist organizations today.

Religious transhumanists offer a way to understand and integrate religious and transhumanist ideas and ideals through a lens that aims to synthesize or reconcile them. An example of this is the term “transfigurist,” which some religious transhumanists use to refer to themselves. Religious transformation brings to mind sacred stories from many traditions, where people were physically transformed to an elevated state in response to a divine encounter. These religious traditions span from Hinduism and Judaism, to Buddhism and Christianity. Notably, in the LDS (Mormon) tradition, transfiguration can apply not just to individual persons but to peoples, communities, cities, even entire worlds.

Religious transhumanists work for better understanding of both religious and transhumanist ideas. They translate between religious and transhumanist audiences, cultivate language that both groups can better understand and appreciate, and work to realize their shared aims. In this way, they carry on the rich tradition of Paul the Apostle, early Christian authorities, and early religious transhumanists.

Questions for Discussion

  • What is your honest reaction to the idea of syncretizing or integrating parts of religious and scientific ideas and traditions?
  • How do technological changes affect religion? What changes have occurred historically, and what changes are happining right now?
  • How might religious transhumanists help or hinder discussions between religious and secular audiences today?
  • What are the criteria to be a religious transhumanist? Do you consider yourself a religious transhumanist? Why or why not?

Advance to Primer 7