Sharday Mosurinjohn, Jacob Boss, and Jeremy Cohen
In 2018 we – Jacob Boss, Jeremy Cohen, and Sharday Mosurinjohn – founded the Human Augmentation Research Network (HARN) to build community around a religious studies approach to researching transhumanism. Transhumanism is shorthand for a constellation of movements working to transcend human limitations through technology. Much of the work to date has come from theologians critical of transhumanism. HARN encourages expansion of the types and range of research in transhumanism. Our communities of study are the grinders, a grassroots group of cyborg punks (Jacob), immortalists and radical life extensionists (Jeremy), and psychedelic scientists and psychonauts (Sharday). We remain fascinated by the ways the people we study variously reject “religion” for self-description, endorse it, want to replace it with an imagined better alternative, incorporate it, or otherwise position themselves in relation to it.
Among the grinders, Jacob has seen science experiments conducted in the same chair as people getting scarification with religious symbols. His interlocutors have made claims about religion ranging from “None of this is religious and I’m not religious in any way” to “We are Nazarenes,” “It’s totally a religion,” and “I am the Ultrapope of the Ultrachurch.” Jeremy has observed that the immortalist organization People Unlimited promotes life-extension technologies using a mix of biomedical and New Age reasoning. And though the community draws both on secular and religious reasoning to explain how human thought can cure illness and change our genetic structures, it claims to be largely suspicious of narratives it considers religious or spiritual. Sharday routinely hears psychedelic neuroscientists define their work as rigorously empirical and their motivations as spiritual. They talk about their experiences with DMT elves in the same breath as they talk about their search for the scientific basis of “mystical experience.”
Our research groups defy the religion and science dichotomy, provoking us to develop new theoretical tools for the study of non-religion and secularity. There has been extensive work done on how this dichotomy is terribly ahistorical to begin with (like Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion or Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment), but it seems that so far it has not been as effective and far reaching as it deserves to be in the academy and the public. In our experience as teachers, fieldworkers, and observers of culture, it looks to us that the lay position remains very much either that science and religion fit Stephen J. Gould’s model of “non-overlapping magisteria,” or that science and religion are mutually contaminating substances (cf. Sharday’s 2014 work on contagion) sometimes imagined as needing to be protected from each other. Beyond our own experience, it has been shown by Elaine Ecklund and David Johnson that “a significant part of the public wrongly sees scientists who are atheists as immoral elitists who don’t care about the common good.” And yet, in reality, many atheist scientists are culturally religious, spiritually atheist, partnered with religious people, or apply moral frameworks from religions to their lives and scientific work.
And so how should we think about the groups we study, and how should we talk about them, when they court such pollution? A few years ago, Sharday, along with her then-student Emma Funnell-Kononuk (2017) offered the conceptual framework of “new secular spiritual movement” (NSSM) for groups who do not easily fall into the category of religion, but for whom terms like spirituality, the sacred, and new religious movement are applicable. A new term was needed, they argued, as “a way of pointing out some of the strengths and limitations in the existing conceptual repertoire that defines things by relationships of similarity or difference to religion” (117). This repertoire includes academically orientated terms like ‘secular sacred,’ ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR), and ‘new religious movement’ (NRM). In the case of secular transhumanists who do not self-define as religious – like, for instance, People Unlimited – categorizing them as nonetheless religious “would be to smuggle in some unarticulated theory of religion as a sui generis thing” (121). But any analytical method risks creating prescriptive boundaries, and the use of the words religion, community, NRM, and NSSM are themselves laden with presuppositions and assumptions.
Like our research groups, our students defy the religion and science dichotomy. As they negotiate university life, students navigate religion and non-religion. At Jacob’s university sidewalks blossom with chalk advertisements for campus religious groups at the start of every semester. Jeremy has observed the phenomenon of students code switching between believer and non-believer depending on their on-campus audience. In ten years of teaching, Sharday has noted students making connections between their secular studies and their confessional identities, claiming a unity between them, such as with statements like “the study of neuroscience and Torah are the same.” Clearly, students want to talk about their theological struggles, as well as their struggles organizing religious practices in their atheist lives.
We are not defending theology; we are saying that these conversations should be perfectly comprehensible for the religious studies scholar. We are the best positioned discipline to engage with these struggles, but there are those in our field who want to insist on a religion and theology dichotomy, and they often want to maintain the purity of religious studies by not only critically deconstructing the “religion” category, but refusing to have conversations with the people who constitute our discipline about how they are navigating religion and non-religion in their lives. But no amount of critical deconstruction and silence adds up to a cure for the contamination of the religion that people track into religious studies.
The study of transhumanism drives our impatience with the insistent separation of religion and non-religion. If you’re questioning the nature of the human, you’re already in the territory of religion, and this has significance for the development of critical thinking. To deny students the opportunity to form and test their opinions, including opinions colored with theology, is to do damage to their intellectual growth and the potential of religious studies. To categorically deny the experience of our students is to impede their flourishing.
So as we navigate, as participant observers and as teachers, the ways science marks out secular, non-religious, and religious positions among transhumanists, we want to keep alive the question: does religion contaminate the conversation? Can we really avoid exposure? Are we taking ourselves seriously when we argue that religion is very many things? And that no part of culture can be totally unalloyed with at least some of them? Is it that religion is somehow embarrassing, or unseemly – can we talk about religion only so long as it doesn’t get us high on spirit? Does religious studies need a carbon monoxide monitor that looks for collective effervescence? Or might transhumanists show us some additional ways of dissolving the science-religion dichotomy to which religious studies largely remains bound?
Sharday Mosurinjohn is Associate Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University (Kingston, ON). Her research explores ontological and aesthetic dimensions of mind-augmenting technologies ranging from AI to psychedelics. Her first book is The Spiritual Significance of Overload Boredom (2022; McGill-Queen’s University Press). Her new book project considers the “psychedelic Renaissance” as an entheogenic NRM in the long history of esotericism.
Jacob Boss is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. His research focuses on human augmentation and body modification. His ethnographic study of grassroots transhumanism entitled “Punks and Profiteers in the War on Death” was recently published by Body and Religion.
Jeremy Cohen is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. His ethnographic research focuses on communities and new religious movements seeking radical-longevity and immortality, including transhumanism, as well as the historical and cultural framework of changing North American relationships to technology and death. Jeremy Cohen has presented his research at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Academy of Religion (AAR), and the Society for the Anthropology of Religion (SAR), and has given numerous guest lectures on transhumanism, immortality, conspiracy theories, and the ethics of radical-longevity. His research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).