Is Transhumanism a Religion?

In late April, blogger Michael Anissimov claimed that we are all transhumanists now, in part because

At their base, the world’s major two largest religions — Christianity and Islam — are transhumanistic. After all, they promise transcension from death and the concerns of the flesh, and being upgraded to that archetypical transhuman — the Angel. The angel will probably be our preliminary model as we seek to expand our capacities and enjoyment of the world using technological self‑modification.

Just a few days ago, on the other hand, Mr. Anissimov observed that “When theists call the Singularity movement ‘religious,’ they are essentially saying, ‘Oh no, this scientifically‑informed philosophy is intruding on our traditional turf!’”

My point in juxtaposing these two passages is not only to suggest that it is not fully clear just who is intruding on whose turf, but also to suggest that the whole issue seems to be miscast. Back when I was writing about environmentalism I came across those who thought environmentalism was somehow a religion, and for that reason alone deeply problematic. That they would often speak of it as a “secular religion” already struck me as odd, not quite like talking about a “square circle” but close.

In response, I paraphrased a passage from T. S. Eliot (“Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion”) to suggest that if environmentalism is a substitute for religion, it is because our religion is already a substitute for religion. Something of the same idea applies to transhumanism in its various forms. If it looks like a religion, that is probably because so many have a pretty degraded conception of what “religion” — and here I speak of the Biblical religions — is all about. Let me suggest it is not fundamentally angels.

At root, Biblical religion is about there being a God who created the world, is active in the world, and has expectations about how people should behave in the world. At root, transhumanism is not about any of these things; so far as I can tell for most transhumanists there is no God and we are the only source of expectations about how we should live in the world. It is very hard for me to understand in what sense one of these belief systems can substitute for another. True, both of them can be strongly held, both of them can serve as a guide to life. You can even say both depend on faith, to the extent that a good deal of transhumanism depends on evidence of what is as yet unseen. So I suppose that if you define religion as “a strongly held guide to life that depends on faith” then you can have a secular religion and it could be transhumanism.

But that definition seems to me to miss the point — like saying that Coke can serve as a substitute for red wine because both of them are dark-colored and drinkable liquids. Whatever their similarities, transhumanism and religion simply do not play the same part in the moral economy of human life. They strive for different ends and as a result they admire different qualities. For example, transhumanism is all about pride, while Biblical religions point to humility. Eliot once again seems to have the clearer understanding of what is at stake:

Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else; and if you find you must do without something, such as religious faith or philosophic belief, then you must just do without it. I can persuade myself … that some of the things that I can hope to get are better worth having than some of the things I cannot get; or I may hope to alter myself so as to want different things; but I cannot persuade myself that it is the same desires that are satisfied, or that I have in effect the same thing under a different name.

Transhumanism has indeed decided that it can do without religious faith and philosophy, hitching its wagon to willful creativity and calling it science. In contrast, binding discipline is at the root of Biblical religion. You do not have to want that discipline or believe in it to see that transhumanism is not just offering us the same kind of thing under a different name.