Is Transhumanism a Religion?: A Quick Introduction to the Debate

Is transhumanism a religion? This article looks at what scholars have to say on both sides of the discussion, those who deem transhumanism to be a religion and those who do not. 

What is Transhumanism?

According to a leading theorist in the field, Nick Bostrom, transhumanism is a “loosely defined movement that has developed gradually over the past two decades. It promotes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the opportunities for enhancing the human condition and the human organism opened up by the advancement of technology” (1). The movement is premised on the idea that humans can utilize science and technology for drastic self-enhancement. 

Transhumanists look forward to a future in which humans have transcended their biological limitations. This will include acquiring new sensations, vastly enhanced cognitive capacities, much longer lifespans, and, to the hope of many transhumanists, cybernetic immortality gained through uploading consciousness into machines. I refer to this ideal future as the “Virtual Kingdom” in which humans will exist as avatars in machines and networks free from pain and biological limitations. Transhumanism is pragmatic. It is a continued attempt in a long line of efforts over millennia to improve the human condition. 

Transhumanism’s Religious Themes 

Although the movement came to embrace anti-religious views, the biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975), who coined the term “transhumanism” in his book New Bottles for New Wine (1957), described it using religious tones. As he asserted: “What the world needs is an essentially religious idea system… charged with the total dynamic of knowledge old and new, objective and subjective, of experience scientific and spiritual… (2). Huxley referred to the movement as a religion without revelation.

Transhumanism’s origin rests in Enlightenment rationalism’s belief in progress through science. Before the Enlightenment, aspirations to radically transform human existence were only expressed in religious millennialism, magical medicine, and spiritual practices (3). The transhumanist movement, however, came to favor secular rationalism over religious belief and emphasized empirical science and critical reason over religious revelation and authority for learning about the world (4). 

But how similar to religion is transhumanism? Indeed, it would be perceived as strange to most transhumanists to refer to them as religious or claim that their movement is similar to religion. Rather, they see themselves and their movement as an extension of a secular humanism that does not view religious explanations as essential to understanding human beings and morality. But the similarities transhumanism shares with religion are obvious, which now leads us to examine several religious themes scholars notice in transhumanist ideas.

Immortality 

Similar to religion, transhumanism seeks to address deeper existential fears about death and the deep-seated human desire for immortality. In many religions, immortality is considered good. This is also the view of transhumanists who pursue cybernetic immortality. 

There are also self-identified transhumanist religious systems. The Terasem Movement Transreligion, Inc. describes itself “as a transreligion that includes all religions the way a forest includes its trees” (5). This organization is not the same as The Terasem Foundation founded in 2004 but identifies as “its sibling Foundation”. Its proponents are seeking eternal life and a future of cyber-resurrection. The symbols on the movement’s flag represent its transreligion identity: the red infinity sign representing embracing diversity, the dotted circles symbolizing accountability, etc.

For Terasem, the “soul” is “our consciousness” which will be reanimated “via mindware and mindfiles…” (6). These “cyberlives” will exist in “heaven” identified as “a hyper-detailed emulation…”. We will bring the “souls” of our “ancestors” back to life as we emulate their lives and environments. Terasem rejects an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God because the “Earth’s innocently suffering millions is proof” of this and one of its goals is to reduce “pain and suffering”. Nonetheless, Terasem maintains that we treat “all great religions” and “prophets” with respect.

The Terasem Movement Transreligion, Inc. shares the same desire for immortality that transhumanists generally do, although the organization expresses this in ostensive religious language that most transhumanists would not.

Prophetic Leaders 

Transhumanism shares some characteristics with successful new religious movements such as charismatic leaders. Perhaps at the top of the list is Ray Kurzweil, “the prophet of Singularity” and “charismatic leader who not only speculates about transcendence by means of technology, but also cultivates a personal cult that is not different from the cult of any other religious or spiritual guru” (7).

Kurzweil has been somewhat prophetic. He is optimistic about the future and many transhumanists believe his predictions so far have proven accurate. For example, he predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web, the defeat of chess-champion Kasparov by a computer, and the onset of intelligent weapons (8). In his Spiritual Machines: The Meaning of Man and Machine (1999), Kurzweil predicts the future up until the year 2099. Kurzweil believes that very soon human beings will have the option of immortality or to have dramatically extended lifespans. He is an authoritative figure in the transhumanist movement and his works, especially his The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), are revered and greatly respected by both his followers and transhumanists alike.

The Terasem Movement Transreligion, Inc. also places significant emphasis on leadership. It urges us to let the “Founders” provide direction as they “are inspired from the future age of cyber-resurrection” (9). The “leaders” are the best bet for “achieving the Terasem Way of Life”.

Evangelism 

There is an evangelical element to transhumanism. Transhumanists want to attract as many followers as possible and this means proselytizing their beliefs. For example, the 2045 Strategic Social Initiative claims “that the world needs a different ideological paradigm” (10). It is concerned that much of contemporary science is dictated by “consumer society” obstructing transhumanist attempts at attaining “a radically different way of life”. The 045 Strategic Social Initiative wants to spread its ideas as far and wide as possible, which includes having new people buy into its mission. It currently has over 47 000 members and encourages visitors on its website to join them.  

Apocalypticism 

Transhumanists look forward to a future Virtual Kingdom and Robert M. Geraci has observed how the movement has absorbed major elements of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. 

Apocalypticism in religion typically includes powerful feelings and experiences of alienation in the world, anticipating God’s intervention in history, a desire for the initiation and establishment of a heavenly new world, and the transformation of human beings in the new world into glorified and purified bodies. Geraci argues that these themes are present in transhumanist hopes. Like religious apocalypticists, transhumanists also feel alienated, frustrated, and disillusioned with existence, notably with the limitations of bodily life. They thus place their hopes in a future Kingdom in which they will inherit a new incorruptible “body” in the form of an avatar existing in cyberspace or a disembodied paradise. So too do the religious believe they will inherit incorruptible bodies in the Kingdom of God. Like their religious counterparts, transhumanists have faith that they will inherit immortality in the Kingdom. Geraci concludes that “Apocalyptic AI is technoreligion for the masses” (11).

Hava Tirosh-Samuelson holds a similar view. She notices how transhumanists “secularize traditional Christian apocalyptic tropes” such as “the radical disdain toward the biological human body, the strong sense of alienation from the present world, the utopian speculations about the ideal good life in which all needs will be fulfilled, and the experience of immortality” (12).

God Belief

What about God belief? Transhumanist discourse does not affirm belief in a theistic God, but it does imply God-like entities and objects. As Theodore J. Rivers reflects, “technology will introduce a different kind of religion—a religion that is non-transcendent, and based solely upon sense experience, leading to the creation of empirical deities” (13). This “empirical” deity might be a super-intelligent artificial intelligence (AI) sharing many characteristics traditionally ascribed to God such as omniscience and omnipresence. Possibly humans will design such an AI to contain positive properties and values ascribed to the theistic notion of God. These God-like beings “could not be ‘supernatural’ in the sense of being outside of what is natural, [but] they could be ‘supernatural’ in the sense of attaining the fullest imaginable powers possible in nature, far beyond what humans are presently capable of” (14).

According to Kurzweil, “Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will ‘wake up’, be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That’s about as close to God as I can imagine” (15). This perspective corresponds to the Terasem Movement Transreligion Inc.’s conception of “God”. According to the group, technology will encompass the universe which will become omniscient and omnipotent. Terasem is spearheading this process and is therefore building itself “into God”. It calls itself “God” although there is only “partial Godness” for now. Further, “God”, while never being like a theistic God, will be the product of evolution, as Kurzweil explains,

“Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation [he is infinite]… Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal. We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking” (16).

Science

Transhumanists view science as invaluable and exhibit “a sense of awe associated with the scientific worldview and the contemplation of nature” (17). This scientific epistemology contributes to a comprehensive worldview “that explains almost everything of immediate importance and interest to human beings and which provides the methods and directions for discovering all other knowledge”. This epistemology touches on human nature and the origin and destiny of the universe, which parallels religion that also offers a comprehensive epistemology and worldview. 

Ethical Dimension

Transhumanism has an ethical dimension, a distinct element it shares with religions. These ethical values are humanist in the sense that human beings matter. Moral values have their source in human experience and culture, and the ultimate concern is improving the lives of humans to avoid suffering, pain, aging, and death. 

Further, one ought to engage in rational thinking and promote freedom. Rational thinking is what motivates scientific progress that will assist humanity in attaining the Virtual Kingdom. Freedom ought to be afforded to human beings to decide whether or not they want to be a part of the transhumanist agenda: “Transhumanists place a high value on autonomy: the ability and right of individuals to plan and choose their own lives” (18). For example, the person must be free to decide if he wants to augment his body and how he wants to do it.

Faith

Transhumanists, like their religious counterparts, have faith in the sense of putting their hope in attaining an ideal future. The transhumanist maintains faith that humanity will progress towards the Virtual Kingdom and eventually actualize it. But it is possible this will not materialize for many reasons. Science and technology could prove insufficient to realize these aspirations, humanity could become extinct for one of many reasons, civilization could crumble in the wake of a nuclear war, or human conflict could undermine the production of advanced artificial intelligence. But despite these scenarios, the transhumanist places his faith in the Virtual Kingdom and that humanity will preserve itself and civilization to attain it. As one commentator puts it, “This transhumanist faith in the future requires that humans, through cooperative effort and foresight, work to build the better future” (19).

Transhumanism’s Differences to Religion

But does transhumanism have differences from religion?

Almost all scholars agree that it does. First, one cannot ignore that transhumanists are generally opposed to traditional religion and do not see themselves as religious in any way, although there are a few exceptions (e.g. the Christian Transhumanist Association and The Society for Universal Immortalism to name just two). 

Religion is generally opposed because it is perceived to conflict with transhumanist aspirations (20). Religion skews the focus towards the supernatural and thus away from the natural. But the transhumanist agenda is entirely naturalistic and human-focused. It entails a strictly pragmatic approach to overcoming obstacles in the world. God and supernatural beings are not needed and valuable time can not be wasted focusing on them.

Religion is viewed as a psychological crutch for dealing with the fear of death. Transhumanists, however, make practical strides using science to overcome death and the fear of it. According to one proponent, there is “an entire industry devoted to preaching about death… it was called religion… Ours is the first rational solution to death, the nontheological solution… we believe there is a true destiny up ahead. The techno rapture” (21). One could imagine religious persons hitting back at transhumanism by seeing it as a futile attempt at imitating transcendence and immortality. Transhumanists merely want to reorder material reality which, to the religious individual, pales by comparison to meeting God face to face in the afterlife.

Most transhumanists are naturalists, or philosophical naturalists, “who share the basic physicalist worldview that secular humanists hold” (22). According to Anders Sandberg’s insights and feedback regarding transhumanist views on the meaning of life, transhumanists “were for the most part firmly in a naturalistic subjectivist camp” (23). For them, there is “no supernatural world imbuing meaning to existence, but all believed that thinking beings can experience meaningful states – if only meaningful to themselves. In fact, many of the respondents were clearly existentialist in outlook”. The majority (64%) of survey respondents were secular. James J. Hughes says that most “transhumanists see themselves as part of the Enlightenment humanist tradition, most are atheist, and many feel that one cannot be a theist transhumanist” (24).

Transhumanism does have differences from religion despite the similarities. Conspicuously, the “God” concept affirmed by some transhumanists clearly differs from views held by traditional theistic religions. Whereas in theistic religions God is transcendent and not created by humans, in the transhumanist’s view “God” is evolving and an increasingly advanced technology created by humans. Transhumanists are aware that they cannot rely on God or divine intervention to attain their goals. Bostrom explains that “transhumanists seek to make their dreams come true in this world, by relying not on supernatural powers or divine intervention but on rational thinking and empiricism, through continued scientific, technological, economic, and human development…” (25). Jenny Huberman explains that transhumanists,

“… are just as interested in achieving immortality as their predecessors, however, rather than relying upon traditional religion or entrusting their legacy to the commemorative practices of others, they put their ‘faith’ in the power of science and technology” (26).

The difference is that whereas traditional religions view the Kingdom of God as the product of God and not of humans, the transhumanist’s Virtual Kingdom is not the creation of God but of humans through science and technology.

One of the benefits transhumanism has over religions is that it does not necessarily conflict with science. But religions very often do come into conflict with the sciences. When a theory arises in science that conflicts with religious views (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution that conflicts with special creationism), this will often have religious persons revising their previously held beliefs or resorting to going against the consensus by rejecting a scientific theory to preserve an interpretation of scripture. Transhumanists do not need to worry about this since it “incorporates scientific projects, as well as technological innovation, in its ethos. An acceptance of dynamic, evolving theories, rather than dogmatic tenets, counts as knowledge and truth in transhumanist religiosity” (27). Transhumanists can therefore be open to scientific advances.

Is Transhumanism a Religion?

Is transhumanism a religion? Scholars do not necessarily agree in their answers to this question.  

Philosopher Patrick D. Hopkins thinks not. He argues that if we consider religion to be “the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a divine Mind and Will ruling the universe and holding moral relations with mankind”, then transhumanism clear does not qualify as a religion.

Further, just because transhumanists employ language that sounds religious or is part of religious vocabulary (such as “immortality”), this also does not make it a religion: “… using such terminology is not sufficient to make a belief or movement a religion. People also talk about “high priests of rock and roll” or a movie star’s “worshippers” or “preaching the gospel of low-carb eating” or being a “missionary for no-load mutual funds”. None of this language means a religion is involved” (28).

Hopkins’ view would also make the Terasem Movement Transreligion Inc.’s religious language (“soul”, “God”, “resurrection”, etc.) as being non-religious, just in the same way that using the phrase the “high priests of rock and roll” does not entail a religion. Hopkins concludes that “religion and transhumanism possess some similar ideas… but transhumanism is not best understood as a religion”. It is a “cultural movement” seeking the biotechnological enhancement of human beings (29).

Does transhumanism necessarily have to share all aspects of religion to be considered a religion? Arguably not. Many worldviews can be classified as “religious” even though they lack elements that some other religions have. For example, some religions exist solely in cyberspace and lack the institutional and material dimensions of other religions. But this difference does not mean that a cybereligion is not a religion. One might say the same of transhumanism. For example, most transhumanists are secular humanists and atheists who do not pray and rely on divine beings or perform rituals. This would be a difference to most, although not all religions. Yet transhumanism does share clearly religious elements (such as faith, prophetic leaders, evangelism, improving the human condition, immortality, and apocalypticism) which “have created the right conditions for the development of a new type of religion” called transhumanism (30).

Tirosh-Samuelson notices that the transhumanist movement “expresses deep religious impulses in a secularised idiom of science and technology that previously has been taken to be in contrast to religion” (31). Transhumanism should be seen as a “secularist faith” that “secularises traditional religious motifs on the one hand and endows technology with salvific meaning on the other hand” (32). To her, transhumanism is a religion without revelation (as Huxley put it). It,

“seeks transcendence by means of technology; it has authoritative doctrines, texts, and leaders, as well as normative beliefs and values; it articulates an eschatological vision that gives historical coherence and a narrative of directionality to trajectories of technological change; and it offers an ethical vision in which technological innovation is the central human achievement and thereby becomes the medium for achieving authenticity, liberty, and justice” (33).

Scholar Robert M. Geraci views similarities between transhumanism and religion. He notices how leading proponents in the movement like Ray Kurtzweil, Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, and others employ apocalyptic themes from Christianity and Judaism (34).

Bostrom maintains that “transhumanism may come to be considered a religion in spite of such denials” (35).

References

1. Bostrom, Nick. 2005. “Transhumanist Values.” In Ethical Issues for the 21st Century, edited by Frederick Adams. Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center. p. 1 (PDF)

2. Quoted by Robert M. Geraci (2014) in Virtually Sacred: Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 173.

3. Hughes, James J. 2012. “The Politics of Transhumanism and the Techno-Millennial Imagination, 1626–2030.” Zygon 47(4):757-776. p. 757.

4. Bostrom, Nick. 2005. “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(1):1-25. p. 2.

5. Terasem Faith. n.d. The Truths of Terasem. Available.

6. Terasem Faith. n.d. Ibid.

7. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. “Transhumanism as a Secular Faith.” Zygon 47(4):710-734. p. 722. 

8. Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2008. “Transcending Technology: Looking at Futurology as a New Religious Movement.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23(1):1-16. p. 2.

9. Terasem Faith. n.d. Ibid.

10. 2045 Strategic Social Initiative. 2012. FAQ. Available.

11. Geraci, Robert M. 2007. “Cultural Prestige: Popular Science Robotics as Religion-Science Hybrid.” In Reconfigurations: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion in a Post-Secular Society, edited by Stefanie Knauss and Alexander D. Ornella, 43-58. Münster:‎ LIT Verlag. p. 56.

12. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 725.

13. Rivers, Theodore J. 2006. “Technology and religion: A metaphysical challenge.” Technology in Society 28:517-531 p. 527.

14. Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. “Apologia for Transhumanist Religion.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 15(1):55-72. p. 58.

15. Schneider, Susan. 2019. Could a Robot Ever Be Conscious?: A philosopher weighs in. Available.

16. Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The singularity is near. New York: Viking. p. 389.

17. Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. Ibid. p. 59.

18. Bostrom, Nick. 2003. The Transhumanist FAQ. p. 4. (PDF)

19. Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. Ibid. p. 62.

20. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 718.

21. Hopkins, Patrick D. 2005. “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(2):13-28. p. 20.

22. Hopkins, Patrick D. 2005. Ibid. p. 19.

23. Sandberg, Anders. 2014. “Transhumanism and the Meaning of Life.” In Transhumanism and Religion: Moving into an Unknown Future, edited by Tracy Trothen and Calvin Mercer. Connecticut: Praeger. p. 2. (PDF)

24. Hughes, James J. 2007. “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future.” p. 5. (PDF)

25. Bostrom, Nick. 2003. Ibid. p. 46. 

26. Huberman, Jenny. 2017. “Immortality transformed: mind cloning, transhumanism and the quest for digital immortality.” Mortality 23(1):1-15. p. 10.

27. Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. Ibid. p. 62.

28. Hopkins, Patrick D. 2005. Ibid. p. 20.

29. Hopkins, Patrick D. 2005. Ibid. p. 21.

30. Jordan, Gregory E. 2006. Ibid. p. 56.

31. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 729.

32. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 719.

33. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2012. Ibid. p. 728.

34. Geraci, Robert M. 2014. “Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture Summer 26(2):267-268. 

35. Quoted by Gregory E. Jordan (2006) Ibid. p. 58.

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