Religion and the Posthuman Discourse

The proliferation of transhumanist thought beyond science fiction and into the public space seems, at first, a minor ideological and physical threat. Numerous concerns about the implications of transhumanism have been raised, but few regarding religious implications. Cultural anthropologist Chris Toumey notes in his article in Nature Nanotechnology the small body of literature grounded explicitly in Christian values, remarking “I would like to see religious thought on nanotechnology develop well beyond a reaction to the more sensationalist parts of the transhumanist vision.” [1] Though the quote specifies nanotechnology, it applies more broadly to non-secular works on the problem(s) with transhumanism. To find literature from Muslims, then, containing an approach to transhumanism guided by Islamic principles is a laborious endeavor. This is not to fault Muslims, but to draw observant, critical eyes to the transhumanist movement.

The existing literature must be studied in order to understand the scope of possible reconciliation/conflict as Muslims formulate their own methods of evaluation. In her book, Cyborg Selves: A Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman, Jeanine Thweatt-Bates, Assistant Professor of Theology at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, outlines her approach: one that is, at once, an overview of two approaches to the ‘posthuman,’ and an analysis of possible reconciliatory discourse with a Christian theological locus. To be clear, it’s not a book on the Christian perspective of the posthuman, but a Christian’s perspective.

The Cyborg

Thweatt-Bates begins by spending two chapters outlining what she deems a bifurcation of conceptions of the posthuman by contrasting A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway to transhumanism, thereby acknowledging an inherent plurality of definition imperative to posthuman discourse in order to avoid misdirected theological responses. [2]

Haraway’s essay, considered a milestone in feminist posthuman theory, centers the cyborg, a human-machine hybrid. To her, the breach of organic categories is not the result of new technologies, but “simply the cumulative result of continuing biological research into evolutionary theory.” [3] The cyborg represents the denial of social categories, straddling the line between human and machine –  it’s in this framework that the cyborg becomes a symbol for the rejection of gender essentialism, or any totalizing identity. The cyborg is a patchwork of parts, a call to find liberation in breaching categories. Here, nature too is itself a constructed category. 

Thweatt-Bates goes on to analyze Haraway’s vision – and by extension, Haraway herself – in relation to the Christian conception of God. It’s a peculiar contradiction Haraway embodies, by describing herself anti-Catholic while drawing on Christian symbols [4], a desacralization she acknowledges. Instead of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), it’s the human woman-OncoMouse (genetically modified laboratory mouse with an oncogene) hybrid epitomizing the sacrifice for salvation. [5] There is no God or goddess, nor human or animal or machine. This calls into question how the human or any other being (jinns, angels, etc.) are defined meaningfully, and what immutable qualities God created them with. 

Though there’s no shortage of analysis on the essay, a vital angle relevant to Thweatt-Bates is “sacramental materialism”; The divine permeates the material, and it is a visible sign of God’s grace. “Haraway’s resistance to the separation of the material and the semiotic can be seen as the philosophical result of a sacramentalism that accepts the material instantiation of the symbolic and sacred.” [6] It’s this quality that appeals to Thweatt-Bates and indicates to her an opening for elements of a cyborg vision to align with Christian theology.

Transhumanism

Thweatt-Bates chooses Designer Evolution: A Transhumanist Manifesto by Simon Young as the second vision of the posthuman to compare Haraway with, but cites other leading figures in the movement as well.  Here, in the transhumanist vision, the posthuman is one who has unambiguously surpassed the human by current standards [7], and the transhumanist is the one who advocates transhumanism, a worldview that affirms limits of human biology as something to surpass and is possible to be surpassed “through reason, science, and technology.” [8]

Young acknowledges others’ hesitation to align with the movement citing the common “slippery slope” argument and accusations of eugenics, but argues that transhumanism is voluntary. Under this vision, human enhancement does not threaten the human itself, arguing that it is actually an extension of rationality, autonomy, and self-determination of the individual. [9]  Furthermore, significant variations in “currents” of transhumanism make it difficult to categorize it less unambiguously. Democratic transhumanism, for example, agrees with hedonistic transhumanism in working towards a techno-utopia, yet differ in the conceptualization of freedom, liberty, and autonomy. The former is concerned with preserving cultural liberty and equality, whereas the latter takes to a utilitarian position arguing for the radical elimination of all forms of suffering. The multiple currents of transhumanist thought elucidates a problem – what is it that transhumanism is trying to transcend, and at what point is suffering a great enough evil to outweigh preservation of freedom and autonomy?

Taking into account common variations between strands of thought in the movement, Thweatt-Bates describes the attitude of transhumanism towards “natural” as a category. Transhumanism “directly challenges the notion of the immutability, givenness, or sacredness of these biological limitations,” and positions natural and technological as diametrically opposed concepts. [10] The latter functions as a solution to the problems that arise from the former. On this point, transhumanism and Haraway’s cyborg converge. For them, nature is not an inviolable object, so “tampering with nature” is not an adequate enough criticism. Nature is to be tampered with – for the better, whatever that may mean. The two visions are further explored in the third chapter, with the author identifying the place of agreement and divergence. 

Two Conceptions of the Posthuman

Both Haraway and transhumanists view the posthuman as very much an achievable reality, humans as changeable objects, and reject notions of a soul. But Haraway finds the posthuman to be a collective-self, at harmony with machines and animals, finding a divine character in the OncoMouse, whereas the transhumanist envisions the posthuman as an individual achieving a higher ontological order through technological means.

Haraway is concerned with physical hybridism, and transhumanists with the preservation of the rational mind. Haraway rejects dualism, in all its forms, in favor of multiplicity and seeks to recraft bodies, whereas many transhumanists believe in the dichotomy of mind and body and seek to preserve the former regardless of whether it requires the complete abandonment of the latter (as in uploading) or enhancement. Haraway is concerned with the collective, her cyborg a collection of disassembled and reassembled parts, and transhumanists with the perfection of the individual, and by extension, mankind as a whole. 

The pseudo-religious quality of transhumanism is exemplified in Young’s declaration that death is seen as an obstacle to eliminate; “the notion of an afterlife will wither away, and with it, the delusion of a deity.” [11] Here, Thweatt-Bates notes the “common critique of transhumanism as a pseudo-religious movement, a worldview which has transmuted Christian eschatological expectation into a secular, DIYtechnosalvation story” [12], but deems it unhelpful as it halts discourse on substantive matters. Hence, she sees the allusions in Haraway’s work positively, inclined to interpret a level of spirituality into her cyborg. 

What is Human?

Visualizing the posthuman requires identifying the category of ‘human’, and contemplating its God-given essence. Thweatt-Bates favors Haraway’s cyborg for theological engagement, arguing that it offers more room for a spiritual dimension, moving to engage concepts within the Christian tradition. 

Chapter four, Theological Anthropology, focuses on the belief that human beings were created in imago dei (the image of God). The notion is critical for defining both what it is to be a human and their relationship to God. It has been subject to a number of interpretations in the Christian tradition, of which Thweatt-Bates outlines a few to better consider the cyborg posthuman vision from a theological standpoint. Substantive interpretations like that of Augustine of Hippo (the soul and body as separate substances) or Thomas Aquinas (the soul as the form and body as the matter) deal with the human mind’s capacity for rationality. Functional interpretations refer to the function of humanity as a whole, for example German theologian Gerhard von Rad opining that “the image of God in man contains no direct explanation about the form which specially constitutes it; its real point is rather the purpose for which the image was given to man …his status as lord in the world.” [13]

These interpretations, Thweatt-Bates notes, are fundamental for the possibility for religious reconciliation (or lack of) with the vision of a posthuman. An interpretation looking at humans as co-creators, or as agents for God, can have a positive affinity for the posthuman, whereas other interpretations reject the idea implicitly or otherwise. For some, it’s not “playing God” as much as it is participating in God’s work, embodying the hybridity of the cyborg as humans created imago dei. But for others, it is ceasing to be imago dei, viewing the assumption that one has full rights over their form as an act of hubris. However, she argues that it’s precisely this ambiguity of human nature and essence that makes it open to posthuman discourse.

Religious Discourse

Dr. James Hughes, a proponent of democratic transhumanism, writes,

“…elements of the transhumanist worldview and enhancement technologies are compatible with one element or another of most world faiths, even the most fundamentalist. We can thus expect that human enhancement technologies will be adopted creatively into the theologies of groups within all the world’s faiths, producing many flavors of ‘trans-spirituality.’” [14]

In his paper, Hughes references a chart covering aspects of posthuman thought and to what degree they agree with other religions/faiths, but only briefly covers Islam, including it in a broad “Zoroastrian/Judeo Christian/Islamic messianism” category, ascribing to it qualities inaccurate to the religion. For example, in attributing the salvation theory “just believe and you’ll be saved” [15], he fails to appreciate the Muslim’s understanding of God as the sole guarantor of salvation, and the quest for both spiritual and actionable perfection in line with His guidance. An accurate reading of an Islamic ‘trans-spirituality’ requires a thorough understanding of the Muslim’s goal towards a better afterlife and God as the goal essential to any endeavor.

Thweatt-Bates, for her part, doesn’t disagree with Hughes’ argument for compatible elements, but pries about the elements that matter, that will shape the actualization of the posthuman. Some visions of the posthuman prey on the desire for merriment and eliminating hardship. Others are driven by the belief there is no God and no afterlife, so there is motivation to improve the quality of the one we inhabit now. Each vision requires its own evaluation of the extent to which it could and can mold itself around our ideal vision.

As someone unread in the Christian tradition, whether her position is in line with Christian theology is for theologians to address. Thweatt-Bates is no neutral observer and her book is not meant to be looked at as such. What she does, however, is examine Christology in the posthuman by examining two prevalent visions and looking at critiques stemming from religious grounds with serious contemplation. Though she herself ends up choosing Haraway’s cyborg, she is critical of the field’s unwillingness to engage seriously and accurately with theology. She ends with the conclusion to consider Christ as “‘ultimate human,’ the expression of humanity to which we aspire as the fulfillment of the potential and longing for goodness that characterizes us as creatures of God.” [16]

Works Cited

  1. Toumey, Chris. “Atom and Eve.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, www.nature.com/articles/nnano.2007.427
  2. Thweatt-Bates, Jeanine. Cyborg Selves: a Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. p. 5.
  3. Ibid., p. 15.
  4. Ibid., p. 16.
  5. Ibid., p. 20.
  6. Ibid., p. 82.
  7. Young, Simon. Designer Evolution: a Transhumanist Manifesto. Prometheus Books, 2006. p. 15.
  8. Ibid., p. 43.
  9. Ibid., p. 55.
  10. Ibid., p. 45.
  11. Young, Simon. Designer Evolution: a Transhumanist Manifesto. Prometheus Books, 2006. p. 53.
  12. Ibid., p. 61.
  13. 1973:144-146
  14. Hughes, “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future.” p. 2
  15. Ibid., p. 13.
  16. Ibid., p. 192.

Photo credit: https://fesq.tumblr.com/post/183562468548/s3090-instagram-fesqproject


About the author: Heraa Hashmi is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn. She is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter here.

3 thoughts on “Religion and the Posthuman Discourse

  1. This article while referencing St. Augustine speaks of mankind being made in the “Image of God”and treats that as a form in which we are made, ‘stamped’ as the article puts it. Yet Augustine did not conceive of the Image of God in which we are made to be a form, or likeness of the Universal Human. The image of God in us is our understanding, not a form. As Augustine states

    “The God-image in us reveals itself through “prudence, justice, moderation, virtue, wisdom and discipline.” St. Augustine distinguishes between the God-image which is Christ and the image which is implanted in man as a means or possibility of becoming like God. The God-image is not in the corporeal man, but in the “anima rationalis” [rational mind, or soul], the possession of which distinguishes man from animals. “The God-image is within, not in the body. . . Where the understanding is, where the mind is, where the power of investigating truth is, there God has his
    image.” Therefore, we should remind ourselves, says Augustine, that we are fashioned after the image of God nowhere save in the understanding. “But where man knows himself to be made after the image of God, there he knows that there is something more in him than is given to the beasts.” From this it is clear that the God-image is, so to speak, identical with the “anima rationalis”. The latter is the higher spiritual man, the “homo coelestis” [or heavenly man] of St. Paul” (1 Cor. 15:47).

    – From ‘Aion’, by Carl Jung.

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    1. Hi Daniel. Thank you for your reply.

      My mention of St. Augustine was directly taken from the book. Thweatt-Bates worded it as follows:

      “Substantive interpretations of the imago dei, whether classical or contemporary,
      coincide with anthropological constructions that privilege disembodied notions
      of intellect, rationality, mind, or soul as the essential aspect of human nature.
      Augustine of Hippo adopted a Neoplatonic anthropology in which the soul and
      body were distinguished as separate substances, and identified the self with the
      substance of the soul rather than the body.” (page 111). I can reword the brief parenthetical in the article to avoid treatment as a form.

      The ‘stamped’ comment was not in reference to St. Augustine but to a favorable view of the cyborg’s hybridity, a parallel to “an expression of the distributed cognition of a human being specially indwelt by God, offering us, too, the possibility of joining with the divine in a posthuman hybridity that includes a component of divine indwelling in our daily lives” (page 189) but perhaps not the best word choice as it implies a physical stamping.

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