Machines for Making Gods
Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End
- ISBN: 9780823299362
- Published By: Fordham University Press
- Published: March 2022
In Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End, Jon Bialecki is interested in the relationship between Mormonism, transhumanism, and Mormon Transhumanism. For Bialecki, Mormonism refers to the largest sect of the Restorationist religious movement begun by Joseph Smith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Transhumanism is a movement led by a loosely collective group of thinkers and believers who hope to transcend humanity or elongate existence through technological or progressive means. Mormon Transhumanism is an identifying category, then, that can “be used to indicate a particular transhumanist strain of Mormonism, or a Mormon string of transhumanism, but also appears to indicate a single object, a collectivity, a mode of thought, with an identity all to itself” (12). By ethnographically and anthropologically turning to these three distinct yet interconnected belief systems, Bialecki shows what the differences and similarities mean to the study of religion, science, anthropology, and the future.
Bialecki’s approach to Mormonism and transhumanism as religious movements is literary, doctrinal, and theological, rather than experiential or practical. To describe and analyze Mormonism, he emphasizes the official doctrines and teachings provided by the Church, either in scripture or through publication. This method provides a cut-and-clean view of Mormon doctrine and theology; if he had focused on individual beliefs within Mormonism, he might have come away with more diverse perspectives of the religion. Bialecki addresses transhumanism in a similar manner, although with transhumanism, his process cannot be as orthodox as it is with Mormonism, since transhumanism favors a diasporic stance to belief rather than centralized authority dictating creed. Therefore, he establishes transhumanism’s beliefs through the work of Ray Kurzweil and then shows how Kurzweil’s declarations and beliefs about technology have been expanded or changed through the transhumanist movement.
Much of Bialecki’s ethnographic work is with Mormon transhumanists, whose values and ideas mediate his arguments about Mormonism. For example, his concluding chapter on queer polygamy uses interviews with Lindsay Hansen Park, a public historian of polygamy, and Blaire Ostler, a Mormon Transhumanist, along with an analysis of the official doctrine and history of the Church, to depict a transhumanist stance on the problems and possibilities a theology of polygamy presents. But he does not relate or reflect on the lived experience of other Latter-day Saints who might be either supportive or wary of eternal polygamy. (Carol Lynn Pearson’s The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy [Pivot Point Books, 2016] assesses this belief in Mormonism more broadly, but it is not cited by Bialecki.) While this does not harm his project—since it mainly focuses on the intersection of Mormonism and transhumanism—it does limit Bialecki’s portrayal of Mormonism, flattening out its diversity.
Thus, while the book is thorough in its understanding of Mormonism on paper, it does not capture the various forms of Mormonism in reality. In other words, one should not approach this book hoping to understand the lived experience of many or all Latter-day Saints. Instead, one can use it to better understand Mormon doctrine and theology, how that doctrine and theology interact with transhumanism, and the perspectives of those claiming the religious identity or belief system of Mormon Transhumanism.
The glimpse Bialecki’s book provides into Mormon Transhumanism, though, is novel and should interest anyone seeking to discover more views about humanity and our place in the future. In approaching Mormonism through this specific lens, Bialecki expands the study of the Mormon stance on the nature of God and technology (fourth series; more on the word “series” below), the authority of centralized religion and the risk of speculation (fifth series), the relationship of religion and technology to death and resurrection (sixth and seventh series), the possibility of eternity as mediated through the body and technology (eight series), and the meaning of polygamy in an era of queerness (ninth series). His approach to distilling his efforts—as various “series” (collective moments of literary, historical, and anthropological arguments related to a discrete theme) within each larger chapter or series—allows readers to engage with what they will within the text, while also providing digestible, interlocking moments of Bialecki’s ethnographic and scholarly journey with Mormon Transhumanism. In some sense, Bialecki’s writing seems to add, in accordance with a popular Mormon, Christian, and Jewish scripture, “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little” (2 Nephi 28:30; cf. Isaiah 28:10–13).
Bialecki also offers the various configurations and series in his book as complications to the study of religion. Bialecki’s engagement with scholars and theorists of religion and anthropology (e.g., Talal Asad, Gilles Deleuze, and Claude Lévi-Strauss) makes this book more than an ethnographic glimpse into a movement within a movement. It becomes a theoretical tool to approach various modes of thought within the anthropological study of religion. His weaving of three disparate yet interconnected belief systems, religious traditions, and ethical communities means he can comment not only on religious beliefs, but also on how they reflect and interact with wider schools of thoughts.
Adam McLain is a MA/PhD student in English at the University of Connecticut.Adam McLainDate Of Review:January 30, 2023