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FROM MILIEU MEMBER: CARL TEICHRIB
The 2012 survey published by the Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness shared some interesting insights regarding the transhuman community and religiosity: 81.4 percent claimed not to be religious and 9.5 percent declared themselves as Christians. Judaic and Buddhist identifiers made up 1.8 percent each, and 5.0 percent came from other religions.[i]
The preponderance of non-religion was also demonstrated when the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies published their findings in 2013: 49 percent claimed to be agnostic or atheist, 17 percent viewed themselves as spiritual but not religious, Buddhists represented 11 percent, followed by a falling range of Protestant Christians, Judaism, pantheists, and pagans.[ii]
Founder of the Transhumanist Party, Zoltan Istvan—who traveled across America in a coffin-shaped bus campaigning as a 2016 presidential candidate[iii]—consistently reminds the transhumanist community of the dominant secularist viewpoint. During the 2014 Religion and Transhumanism Conference, Istvan asked: “Does the godless lifestyle support a transhumanist lifestyle?”[iv] Affirming this position, he explained that religions bind humanity with chains of morality and therefore the atheist, unencumbered by such restraints, will be freer to think in transhuman terms. The troubling biblical message of sin and salvation, and those annoying Ten Commandments, must not hinder the progress of evolution. Traveling as presidential candidate in a coffin-bus is certainly original; however, the ideological construction of a godless New Man is anything but.
Not all transhumanists agree with Istvan’s tactics or politics or his atheism, which combined, became a public relation spectacle—a lightning rod for and against transhumanism. Regardless, he is not without faith: faith in science, faith in technology and by extension, faith in power. Within Istvan’s message is a subtle but evident flavor, a religion without revelation.[v]
The notion of a secular faith harkens back to Saint Simon’s New Christianity and Comte’s Religion of Humanity. But a more direct iteration to transhumanism comes through the eugenicist and internationalist, Julian Huxley.
Back in 1927, Huxley looked forward to a coming sacred secularity as outlined in his book, Religion without Revelation. This faith without recourse to a transcendent God would be predicated upon Darwinian evolution and natural power. Science would be the sacred force to control and direct said power, giving rise to an interconnected and unitary system of thought and action, resulting in growth and new life. It would be a Sacred Reality, a phrase he used in the struggle to express his vision.[vi]
Three decades later in a collection of essays titled New Bottles for New Wine, Huxley described the new reality to be a unifying process of progressive evolution. Man’s place in this transforming universe is that of a guiding hand, a devoted trustee, an agent of change—an embodiment. Our duty is to evolution.[vii]
If indeed this were the case, then morality would need to be refashioned around coalescing principles and pragmatic measures. If the human population becomes too large, then to oppose control would be heinous; if cumulative knowledge is necessary for unifying processes, “then dogma is a threat, and any claim to exclusive possession of the truth or to suppression of free enquiry is immoral.”[viii]
Notice how Huxley lumped exclusive truth claims with the prohibition of inquiry. This is misleading. Exclusive truth does not hinder the pursuit of knowledge, but places the action in a context through which to judge the pursuit itself and its outcome; what is acceptable and what is discarded, what is right and wrong, what is factual and what is error.
Huxley’s ideology, however, rejected absolutes:
We must accept reality as unitary, and so must reject all dualistic ways of thinking. We must accept the fact that it is a process, and so must reject all static conceptions. The process is always relative, so we must reject all absolutes…. For this we must develop new methods of thinking.[ix]
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Sacred secularity therefore envisions man and evolution in a cosmic union, and our task is to embrace the non-binary, for “evolution thus insists on the oneness of man with nature.”[x] From this point we can begin affirming the interdependence of the individual to the community and the cosmos. The person who accepts this paradigm “would acquire a new sense of oneness with the rest of existence.”[xi]
Huxley boasted: “We are perforce monists, in the sense of believers in the oneness of things, the unitary nature of reality; we see ourselves, together with our science and our beliefs, as an integral part of the cosmic process.”[xii]
Why is Huxley’s position in New Bottles for New Wine important to transhumanism? First, he lays out the essential context for a scientifically justified sacred reality, a religion without revelation underscoring so much of the modern movement. Second, because it is in the pages of New Bottles where the term “transhumanism” comes into vogue.
Others had used the compound word before, but Huxley employed it in a way that foreshadowed magnitude. He presented a sacralizing rationale. Like a mountaineer noticing a compelling peak in the distance, being inwardly drawn to the summit before pondering its base, Huxley began his book with a pinnacle vision. The first chapter was titled “Transhumanism”:
As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future. This cosmic self-awareness is being realized in one tiny fragment of the universe—in a few of us human beings.[xiii]
This destiny would be fulfilled by taking upon ourselves the “techniques of spiritual development,” a cosmic duty to self and others resulting in the transformation of humanity:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
“I believe in transhumanism”: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Peking man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.[xiv]
Huxley’s intellectual role was significant, but his was not the only voice pronouncing an ideal state of being.
The Jesuit priest and trained paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had traveled similar intellectual paths to that of Julian Huxley. In fact, the two had met in 1946 and closely followed each other’s work. Huxley even penned the introduction to Chardin’s influential book, The Phenomenon of Man. In its pages, the Jesuit reminded his readers of Huxley’s principle that Man is “nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.”[xv]
Surveying human progress, Chardin noticed the persistence of unifying structures, mechanics, and movements. A “Mega-Synthesis” was evident. The “spirit of the earth” would come as world-scale spiritual forces and the genesis of our collective mind compelled transformation. This would result in a “totalisation of the world upon itself.”[xvi] As our individual consciousness coalesced around social principles, linked together in a global network, the earth would experience an awakening. Indeed, all consciousness would integrate into a global structure—an earth-brain—a state of connection and equilibrium known as the Noosphere.
Chardin noted that science, pursuing the character of evolution, will inevitably force man to look upon himself: “Man, the knowing subject, will perceive at last that man, ‘the object of knowledge,’ is the key to the whole science of nature.” All science will eventually focus its energies on this pinnacle of evolution:
We find man at the bottom, man at the top, and, above all, man at the centre—man who lives and struggles desperately in us and around us. We shall have to come to grips with him sooner or later.[xvii]
And in searching for an understanding of man, science and religion will unify as we reach for our higher existence, “When we turn towards the summit, towards the totality and the future, we cannot help engage in religion.”
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Dr. Thomas Horn and Jimmy Evans Explain The Greatest Threat Transhumanism Poses To Humanity On Daystar
Religion and science are the two conjugated faces or phases of one and the same act of knowledge—the only one which can embrace the past and future of evolution so as to contemplate, measure and fulfill them.
In the mutual reinforcement of these two opposed powers, in the conjunction of reason and mysticism, the human spirit is destined, by the very nature of its development, to find the uttermost degree of its penetration with the maximum of its vital force.[xviii]
As the very expression of evolution, humanity—wielding the energy of vital forces—will have to translate into a new being.
“What we see taking place in the world today is not merely the multiplication of men but the continued shaping of Man,” explained Chardin in The Future of Man. “In one form or another something ultra-human is being born which, through the direct or indirect effect of socialisation, cannot fail to make its appearance in the near future.”[xix]
A religion of the future—“definable as a religion of evolution”—must therefore come to fruition: “a new mysticism, the germ of which must be recognizable somewhere in our environment, here and now.”[xx]
Chardin postulated that the ultra-human is on a convergence course with the universe itself, an Omega Point when our exalted consciousness blends with the “Cosmic Christ,” the “divine in evolution.” This is “an absolute direction and an absolute end.”[xxi] The Omega Point, already percolating in our mystic hearts, would be the full experience of man’s evolutionary unity.
How grand is the Omega Point envisioned? Mathematician Frank J. Tipler gives us a taste:
We can say, quite obviously, that life near the Omega Point is omnipresent. As the Omega Point is approached, survival dictates that life collectively gain control of all matter and energy sources available near the Final State, with this control becoming total at the Omega Point. We can say that life becomes omnipotent at the instant the Omega Point is reached. Since by hypothesis the information stored becomes infinite at the Omega Point, it is reasonable to say that the Omega Point is omniscient; it knows whatever it is possible to know about the physical universe (and hence about Itself).[xxii]
Chardin peddled a mystical materialism, Huxley a sacred secularity; both are transhumanist heroes.
Although the current transhumanist community is largely agnostic or atheistic, there is interest in spirituality. Writing for Business Insider, Zoltan Istvan admitted that, “most transhumanists embrace some spirituality, including myself.”[xxiii]
Part of this sentiment comes from interactions with religiously oriented transhumanist groups. Another factor is the growing cultural detachment of spirituality from religion, presenting an acceptable veneer of separation from dogmas and creeds. With the postmodern slide from the hard materialism of modernity and the subsequent social desire for re-enchantment, an aesthetically grounded sense of existence is sought after. Everyone, atheists and agnostics included, are longing for a soul-felt feeling of connection or flow—spirituality without responsibility to metaphysical truth claims.
Just before the 2015 Colloquium on the Law of the Futuristic Persons, Istvan’s campaign bus stopped at the Terasem “ashram” in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and the Church of Perpetual Life, a Hollywood, Florida, congregation anticipating techno-immortality. During the colloquium, he acknowledged that these interactions fostered discussions on spirituality and transhumanism, “especially the future of spirituality.”[xxiv]
Long before Istvan was on the presidential trail, however, techno-futurists and psychedelic explorers were considering the convergence of technology and spirituality. In his posthumously published book, Design for Dying, Timothy Leary expounded on transhuman themes and ideas of the self-made magical by science:
Now that computer technology can personalize reality, it becomes less alien and external to use. We become one with it as a consequence of our ability to reach out and transform it.… Technology extends the boundary of self.… It is the age of the expanding person. This engenders a blurring of the material and ‘spiritual’ realms.… Who are you? You are boundless. Where are you? Here, there, and everywhere.[xxv]
Psychonaut, social visionary and author, Terence McKenna, frequently connected psychedelic mysticism with evolution via technology. “The two concepts, drugs and computers,” McKenna said in a 1988 interview, “are migrating toward each other.”[xxvi]
At an Esalen Institute workshop in 1996, McKenna spoke of cyberspace and virtual reality, nanotechnology, and the bootstrapping of information to “higher and higher levels of self-reflection”:
It’s our machines and our technologies that are now the major evolutionary forces acting upon us. It’s not our political systems. It’s these extra-sexual children, these “mind children” we have assembled out of the imagination.[xxvii]
Technology would be a handmaid to new dimensions of experiential information, dissolving our differences and knitting us into a global community. Virtual reality would reveal our minds to one another, opening portals to silicon-enabled psychedelic mysticism.
Technology needs an agenda, the psychonaut believed, and this is the inner evolution of humanity with accompanying outer manifestations. To McKenna, such fundamental change would require an archaic revival, the resurrecting of a shamanistic paradigm for our current culture. In denouncing paganism, Christianity with its separating monotheism had stifled the flow of universal creativity, but with Christianity now on the wane, the Goddess would come alive once more. We would be transformed through our technological offerings and by an expansion of consciousness; civilization would experience a unifying synthesis through silicon and psilocybin. Mind and matter would merge in a new planetary paradigm.
Our evolutionary development would center on an ancient-future worldview: Self-enchanting and magical re-enchantment, material and spiritual, inner and outer, as above so below—a techno-shamanistic community. We will be priests in the temple of the cosmos, the earth an altar to the universe.
Technology as evolution and trans-spiritual subjects were hot topics at Esalen in the 1990s. The Machine Dreams and Technoshamanism workshops led attendees through mental romps:
Is information immortal? What unexplored realms of spirit will we encounter with amazing new forms of computer and electronic hypermedia? New myths will be needed.
New mysteries will be encountered. How can ancient models of mind such as shamanism, Hinduism, or voodoo help us comprehend silicon-based consciousness? Why are neuro-enhancers crucial tools for so many computer innovators? Can humans share an erotic relationship with a machine being? Are Earth spirits at play in fields of photons and electronic spin?
A neo-psychedelic subculture is co-evolving with new technologies to reveal glimpses of exotic futures.[xxviii]
In 1996, technology-futurist Douglas Rushkoff offered a similar workshop at Esalen titled Technoshamanism: Total Immersion in Spiritual Technology:
To wholeheartedly embrace technology may be the only way to partake in the next phase of human evolution.… Participants will experience brain machines, the Internet, computer fractals, Virtual Reality, tarot, astrology, and I Ching through computer programs, chaos math, hemispheric alignment audio, video games, and even new media.… The workshop will explore the techno-vision-quest and evaluate it as an adjunct to more traditional spiritual practices. The weekend will conclude with a techno-pagan rave dance.… Participants are encouraged to bring at least one item of technology.[xxix]
On the third weekend of August 1998, McKenna and VRML[xxx] developer, Mark Pesce—a transhumanist influenced by Chardin’s writings—held their now-famous workshop at Esalen.
The duo explored the interlocking subjects of psychedelic consciousness, virtual reality and computer simulations, nanotechnology, complexity and the organization of information, and techno-mysticism. Their workshop title was representative of the oneness believed to come through the merger of man and machine: Techno-Pagans at the End of History.[xxxi]
The idea of techno-paganism corresponds to the cultural transformation McKenna had been pointing to for a long time. In a 1985 interview touching on the subjects of psychedelics, cybernetics, and the “electronic shaman,” he said, “We cannot travel much further with definitions of humanity inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition.”[xxxii]
Seduced by the imagination we have bestowed upon our machinery, humanity is attempting to write a new definition of what it means to be human. We want to make ourselves in the image of our works. It is an act of sacred secularism, a journey to mystical materialism.
NEXT: Perfectibility and Singularity
[i] Hank Pellissier and Teresa Dal Santo, “Transhumanists: Who Are They, What Do They Want, Believe and Predict?” Journal of Personal Cyberconsciousness (Terasem Movement, Inc, 2013), Volume 8, Issue 1, pp. 22–24.
[ii] Who are the IEET’s Audience? Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, July 16, 2013, (https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET2/more/poll20130716).
[iii] As I write this, Zoltan Istvan is campaigning for California’s 2018 governor’s election.
[iv] Zoltan Istvan, “Transhumanism, Religion, and Atheism,” given at the Religion and Transhumanism Conference, May 10, 2014, Piedmont, California, hosted by the Brighter Brains Institute. His presentation was recorded and is available on the YouTube channel of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (https://youtu.be/jXOXBYr2Z7I).
[v] Istvan’s message has come through media interviews and conference talks, his articles and essays, and in his novel The Transhumanist Wager (Futurity Imagine Media, 2013).
[vi] Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation (Watts and Company, 1941, originally published in 1927).
[vii] Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1957), p. 103.
[viii] Ibid., pp. 103–104.
[ix] Ibid., p. 251.
[x] Ibid., p. 122.
[xi] Ibid., p. 260.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 279–280.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 13.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 17.
[xv] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (HarperPerennial, 1976, originally published in 1955), p. 221.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 253.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 281.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 285, italics in original.
[xix] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man (Harper Colophon Books, 1969), p. 275.
[xx] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution (Harcourt, Inc., 1969), p. 240, italics in original.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 239.
[xxii] Frank J. Tipler, The Psychics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (Doubleday, 1994), p. 154.
[xxiii] Zoltan Istvan, “I visited one of the largest megachurches in the US as an atheist Transhumanist presidential candidate—here’s what happened,” Business Insider, Tech News section, December 2, 2015 (www.businessinsider.com/transhumanist-zoltan-istvan-visits- one-of-the-largest-megachurches-in-the-us-2015-11).
[xxiv] Zoltan Istvan, “Transhumanism,” presentation at the 10th Colloquium on the Law of the Futuristic Persons, December 10, 2015, Terasem Island, Second Life. Note: In what could be viewed as a campaign stunt, he also visited Alabama’s Church of the Highlands, the largest evangelical congregation in the state, where he toured the main campus and talked to one of the pastors. That is, until someone in the church did an Internet search on transhumanism, and then—for better or worse—Team Istvan was escorted from the grounds. See Zoltan Istvan, “Forget Trump, Zoltan Istvan wants to be the ‘anti-death’ president,” Wired, UK online edition, November 8, 2016 (www.wired.co.uk/article/the-transhumanist-age).
[xxv] Timothy Leary, Design for Dying (HarperEdge, 1997), pp. 36–37.
[xxvi] Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (HarperOne, 1991/1992), p. 19.
[xxvii] Terence McKenna, a talk given at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California, August 1996. An audio recording of his presentation is archived with the author. This talk, now titled The Evolutionary Importance of Technology, can be accessed via YouTube at https://youtu.be/0O93SEOWjE4. Using the May–October 1996 Esalen Catalog, I have correlated McKenna’s workshop to the weekend of August 2–4, 1996.
[xxviii] Britt Welin and Ken Adams workshop, “Machine Dreams and Technoshamanism,” The Esalen Catalog, May–October, 1993 (The Esalen Institute, 1993), p. 39.
[xxix] Douglas Rushkoff, “Technoshamanism: Total Immersion in Spiritual Technology,” The Esalen Catalog, September 1995–February 1996 (The Esalen Institute, 1995), p. 55.
[xxx] Virtual Reality Markup Language is a standard file describing 3-D imaging for virtual reality applications in the World Wide Web. Today the word “Modeling” replaces “Markup.”
[xxxi] Mark Pesce is well known as a techno-pagan, interacting with cybernetics through a decidedly pagan lens. See Eric Davis, “Technopagans: May the Astral Plane Be Reborn in Cyberspace,” Wired, online edition, July 1, 1995 (www.wired.com/1995/07/technopagans). See also Eric Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony Books, 1998), pp. 192–193. Davis, a contemporary of Pesce and a fellow traveler with McKenna, is himself a psychonaut and visionary futurist who lectures at Esalen and is well known within the Burning Man community.
[xxxii] McKenna, The Archaic Revival, p. 165.