On a Himalaya trek around the Kashmir Valley, I surveyed a frontier that was expansive, wild, unpredictable, and potentially both dangerous and beneficially satisfying for my fellow travelers and myself. Members of the International Society for Science and Religion, whether they’ve trekked the Himalayas or not, well understand that radical human enhancement technology is all that, and especially unpredictable in its many possible outcomes.
“CRISPR babies,” recently making headlines, is just one example of the wild and unpredictable nature of this human enhancement. Helping us journey farther into this frontier is the newest book in the “Palgrave Studies in the Future of Humanity and Its Successors” series. Titled Religion and Human Enhancement: Death, Values, and Morality, the collection is co-edited by Tracy Trothen and myself, Calvin Mercer.
Major swaths of uncharted territory await exploration in the fast-emerging technologies of human enhancement. Our chapter authors charge at a few of those rough patches of landscape. Ron Cole-Turner, who has been at this exploration for decades, argues that human enhancement is at the heart of Christianity, providing justification for the term “Christian Transhumanism.” He explains that the word “transhumanism” first arises in Dante’s Paradiso, and that radical human transformation is thoroughly biblical.
Prolific author Celia Deane-Drummond jumps into the raging debate about moral bioenhancement. Engaging the important work of Julian Savulescu, Ingmar Persson, John Harris, and others, she argues, from an evolutionary anthropological perspective, that Christian virtue implies that moral bioenhancement is a myth, in the sense that it is a watered-down secularized imitation of a Christian perspective on human flourishing. In this heated debate about technologically produced morality, Tracy J. Trothen’s chapter brings much needed attention to voices from the margins. Her feminist analysis challenges notions taken for granted by some moral bioehnancement advocates. For example, contra Persson and Savulescu, altruism is not an uncontroversial form of morality, because altruism—including empathy and self-sacrifice—is often more expected of marginalized people than the privileged.
Tracy J. Trothen, my co-editor, and I worked to recruit scholars for the book who represented a range of perspectives. A very positive assessment of moral bioenhancement is found in the excellent chapter by James J. Hughes, director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a respected scholar and leader in the transhumanist movement. Hughes, along with Amanda Sebastienne Grant, writes from a Buddhist perspective. Hughes works to distinguish the unhealthy, hedonic technologies from those that support virtues, authentic spiritual experience, and lives that flourish. In his chapter utilizing virtue ethics, James E. Helmer contends that the moral bioenhancement technologies may actually enhance personal autonomy and, therefore, boost moral performance. The debate displayed in the “Moral Biohancement” section of this collection will surely continue unabated for some time.
One section of the book provides chapters finding common ground between transhumanism and religion. It includes my chapter on whole brain emulation (commonly called mind uploading or mind transfer), a development that would likely lead to superintelligence, machine intelligence that surpasses general human intelligence. I call for a “Super AI Theology” capable of addressing the enormous changes sure to come with superintelligence. I begin that theological work by arguing that mind uploading does not necessarily compromise the biblical and theological importance of physicality.
Two authors, with long resumes on human enhancement, express other concerns about ambitious transhumanist programs. Computer scientist and theologian Noreen Herzfeld utilizes Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of sin to speak insightfully and critically about the limitations of current technology. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson shows how transhumanist discourse is replete with tensions and even contradictions. She asks, in the quest for technological transcendence, are we making our species obsolete?
Other scholars writing in this collection include Matthew Zaro Fisher, Lincoln Cannon, Sean O’Callaghan, Brent Waters, Cory Andrew Labrecque, Alan Murphy, Todd T. W. Daly, and Lee A. Johnson. The collection is divided into four major sections: “Common Ground Between Transhumanism and Religions,” Desires and Values,” “Moral Bioenhancement,” and “Longing for Immortality: Meanings of Death.” A substantial foreword is provided by William J. Grassie, founding director of the Metanexus Institute and author of important books on science and religion.
Some of our authors have presented papers at the “Human Enhancement and Transhumanism” Unit of the American Academy of Religion. Anecdotally, when several of us started this unit in 2007, a colleague of mine, a female sociologist, whispered to me as the very first session was about to begin that almost all the attendees were white males. Indeed, females constituted only about five percent of those in attendance in those early sessions. In the most recent session at the national meeting, nearly a decade later, about 30 percent of attendees were women. Thirty percent of the chapters in the current collection are written by women. That is some progress since 2007, but more female scholars and, more importantly, more engaged feminist perspectives on human enhancement are required for the journey into this frontier.
Emerging enhancement technologies will eventually impact, in one way or another, every society, race, and creed. So, it is critical that Asian voices join disability scholars and they team up with people of color to press forward on critical questions and issues of a religious nature. We need a broad spectrum of participation from the academic religious community.
For information about publishing in this new “Palgrave Studies in the Future of Humanity and Its Successors” series, contact co-editor Calvin Mercer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The book can be purchased here: