Religion and posthumanism
There is an assumption that posthumanism, springing from advanced science and technology, will be far removed from the concerns of religion. Certainly there is a strong affinity between modern technoscience and a broadly secular, rationalist perspective in which religion and science, belief and scepticism, theism and atheism are regarded as incompatible. Despite this, there are also significant ways in which religion features within discourses and representations of posthumanism. This perfectly reflects the emergence of what some would call a ‘post-secular’ culture, in which new and enduring forms of religiosity co-exist with enduring secular and atheist world-views. Religion is regarded as both inimical to scientific progress and human advancement and as the source of ancient wisdom that continues to inform understandings of what it means to be human – and by extension, posthuman.
The common perception of religion is that it consists of ‘belief’ in or about God or the gods, which is then formalized in organized institutions. However, religion is considerably more diverse, encompassing law, ritual, sacred texts, devotional practices, material cultures and moral codes. Whilst some understandings of religion are premised on the existence of a transcendent or supernatural being who intervenes in human lives and histories, such a definition would prove inadequate for Buddhist traditions, for example, in which no reference is made to a Divine Being. More satisfactory may be religion understood as a symbolic system concerned with ultimate questions about the origins of the cosmos, human destiny and ‘transcendent meaning’, that which entails ‘the search for something beyond ourselves, the belief that outside the boundaries of everyday living something greater exists’. Religious belief and practice may thus furnish adherents with tangible, embodied and concrete connections to a world of meaning, or establish and maintain relationships with significant others, including supernatural, divine or deceased beings.
Various manifestations of religion can be traced in contemporary discussions of the posthuman: concepts of technologies as magical and sublime, and capable of inducting humanity into sacred spaces and conditions; of the quest for human enhancement (and often, immortality) as an expression of humanity’s quasi-divine powers; and representations of posthuman figures as holy, shamanistic, or redemptive.
Advancements in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, medicine and neuroscience tend to excite polarised responses. Both exhibit religious undercurrents: so for example, advances in areas such as stem-cell research or IVF are sometimes opposed on the grounds that they interfere with Nature and risk the consequences of ‘playing God’. For others, however, new technologies enable humanity to transcend physical limits, such as bodily finitude, illness and mortality, or to transport their users to a higher plane of existence. In the early days of the Internet, for example, there was much discussion of the numinous, other-worldly nature of cyberspace as transporting its users beyond the mediocrities of the flesh into a celestial world of divine omniscience and omnipresence, free from the limits of information, space or time.
Similarly, movements such as Transhumanism foresee a world in which digital, cybernetic, genetic and biomedical technologies become the instruments of the next phase of human evolution, whereby homo sapiens will mutate into homo cyberneticus or techno sapiens. This draws a clear analogy between technologically-facilitated enhancement of human limitation and the assumption of superhuman, god-like powers. Some writers have argued that Transhumanism is a New Religious Movement, complete with charismatic leaders, sacred texts and carefully-delineated eschatologies of human perfectibility and theosis.
Popular cultural exploration of the effects of advanced technologies has been preoccupied with tracing the distinction between fully human and almost-or non-human, often in the name of religious claims to human superiority over Nature and non-human animals. Yet critical posthumanism claims that these boundaries have always been contested. Creatures who by virtue of their hybridity or ambivalence cannot be classified breach the ‘ontological hygiene’ of humanist subjectivity. Such figures are often portrayed using the tropes of myth and religion, whose innocence, vulnerability or virtue proves educative or salvific.
The seeds of this, as for many themes in critical posthumanism, were sown in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Whilst later depictions silence the ‘monster’ and play up his horrific nature, the novel itself emphasises the creature’s inherent dignity, and its ability to experience the higher human emotions of love, loyalty and imagination. If this is the archetype of the posthuman as abject yet noble creature, then a more strongly-drawn version, the posthuman as Saviour, can be seen in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). The film is an extended reflection on what makes ‘us’ human. A race of androids, or replicants, virtually indistinguishable from organic humans, has escaped its off-world colony and is bound for earth. The replicant leader, Roy Batty, is cultured, well-read and intelligent. He compares their fate to Milton’s fallen angels in Paradise Lost. Despite his erudition, however, Roy has a ruthless streak, to the extent of killing his own creator. This lack of moral sense ought to mark him as irrevocably inhuman(e), incapable of transcending his programming; but the film’s finale suggests otherwise, as Roy sacrifices his own life, Christ-like, to save that of his enemy.
The idea that a fascination with technology is actually an expression or a resurgence of a kind of spirituality provides an intriguing avenue for critical posthumanism. Even in a supposedly secular age, expressions of religion still fuel our technological ambitions and our visions of the ends to which advanced technologies might transport us.
— University of Chester, May 2015
Keywords: post-secularity; religious imagery; sublime; divine power; transhumanism
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