Calvin Mercer and Tracey Trothen have written and edited some of the most helpful, influential works on religion and human enhancement. Thus, this team is uniquely qualified to write Religion and the Technological Future: An Introduction to Biohacking, Artificial Intelligence, and Transhumanism, a textbook for undergraduate students or anyone interested in a primer on transhumanism, enhancement technology, and, more specifically, what religious traditions might have to say about human enhancement.
The book covers major world religions, breaking them into two categories: monotheistic and karmic. The authors interact most explicitly and extensively with Christian traditions, since most religious reflection on human enhancement has been done from Christian perspectives. In general, the authors focus on how largely theological concepts from major world religions influence the imagination of religious persons as they consider the ethical implications of enhancement technologies. Religious systems, histories, and practices of ethical deliberation are intentionally not brought to the fore (177). As the authors explain, “our goal in the textbook is not to give comprehensive summaries of the religions, but, rather, to identify a few important themes that have been or could be useful in thinking about enhancement technologies” (23). For example, the most specific engagement of religious belief and transhumanism is found in chapter 3, “Transhumanism, the Posthuman, and the Religions: Exploring Basic Concepts,” where the authors discuss the faith commitments of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA).
The authors keep their focus to the most important, founding scholars. Readers are introduced to famous transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Max More, and Natasha Vita-More and leading theologians Ron Cole-Turner and Ted Peters. The authors’ expertise allows them to swiftly place a finger on why conversations on human enhancement proceed the way they do within religious spheres. For example, the authors explain in chapter 5, “Superlongevity and Other Physical Enhancements”:
In earlier years of the prolongevity movement, enthusiasts sometimes bandied around the term “immortality.” Transhumanists eventually found that achieving immortality via technology, rather than through God, generated significant resistance from some faith community members. Prolongevity advocates, who need public support for necessary research, now usually speak in more measured terms. (72)
The authors write in a way that is engaging to students. The language is accessible, the amount of detail is not overwhelming, and the examples, from aliens to sex robots to immortality, are interesting. Professors will find the discussion questions at the end of each chapter and the glossary helpful for group conversation and student reflection. The tone is technologically optimistic, serving as a corrective to readers inclined to think the possibilities of human enhancement are exaggerated or evil. Brief critiques of transhumanism can be found in chapter 9, “Mind Uploading: Cyber Beings and Digital Immortality,” including insights from grassroot enhancement communities, feminist posthumanists, and postmodern anthropologies.
Each chapter is divided into sections (technology, religion issues, and ethical issues). Categories like “conservative” and “liberal” religious traditions, as well as concepts like “therapy,” “choice,” and “justice,” keep the discussion organized. Chapter 4, “Radical Human Enhancement and Ethics: Questions We Must Ask,” is particularly helpful and comprehensive in laying out the major concerns and contours of the conversation. A strength of the book is its repeated and structural affirmation of socio-political contexts for moral reasoning about human enhancement. “As long as the world is unjust,” they write, “our newly created technologies risk not only perpetuating but amplifying the values and judgements that inform this injustice” (202).
A textbook is naturally limited in size and scope, but the missed opportunity to discuss this critical socio-political aspect of religion and transhumanism further may undermine the fit of the textbook for some classrooms. For example, the authors quote Buddhist founder of democratic transhumanism James Hughes but they do not explain how his Buddhism impacts his transhumanism or define democratic transhumanism (103, 111, 194). Even in their most specific interaction of a religion with transhumanism, the authors discuss only the faith commitments of the MTA but do not explain, for example, how the Church of Latter Day Saints regards the MTA or how the MTA operates and advances its agenda in the public sphere (35-37). Inclusion of socio-political aspects of religion like these would have generated rich material for a textbook like Mercer and Trothen’s and for the field of human enhancement. The exclusion is particularly important for a textbook that may not sufficiently problematize an undergraduate student’s imagination of what religion is and why it persists in a technological public sphere. Repeated phrases like “if religions survive” may reinforce a student’s assumption that religions are outdated, verging on irrelevance, and are predominantly about cognitive beliefs.
Ultimately, however, Mercer and Trothen succeed in offering a helpful introduction to the religious conversation of human enhancement. This textbook will aptly serve students and professors alike seeking to understand the allure of transhumanism and its immense potential to dialogue with the world’s religious traditions.
Melanie Dzugan is a PhD candidate in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Date Of Review:
January 30, 2024
Calvin Mercer is Professor of Religion at East Carolina University, USA, and founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Human Enhancement and Transhumanism Unit.
Tracy J. Trothen is Professor of Ethics at Queen’s University, Canada, and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Artificial Intelligence Seminar.
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