Transhumanism is often accused of being a religion. It is rarely clear if this is meant as an insult, a compliment, or merely an observation. Probably all of the above have been used at different points in time, from different perspectives, which only adds to the hysteria.
(Atheism shares this accusation and may share the conclusion too.)
I have yet to hear theism described as a religion, probably because it is clearly not, it is the umbrella philosophy from which religions are born. It is also unclear what is meant by “religion” when the accusation that “transhumanism is a religion” is used. There are multiple definitions of religion, and there are also interchanges between “faith” and “belief” that do not reflect the definition of religion at all. That being said, bringing the entire realm of faith into a logical argument is rarely a fruitful endeavor.
[My advice: before you ever engage in an argument, force your opponent to agree to define terms. Neutral definitions taken directly from a secular academic source are best. You would think that there would be an official dictionary, but there is not. By undergoing this process you will uncover preconceptions from both sides that may lead to a premature conclusion of the argument. Assuming that a clear definition does not end the argument with a mutual understanding or a fit of rage and a damning of the dictionary, you are now clear to proceed with the use of logic.]
Definitions of Transhumanism
Wikipedia: Transhumanism, abbreviated as H+ or h+, is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
Oxford: Transhumanism: the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
Definitions of Religion
Wikipedia: Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.
Oxford: The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion.
I selected these two sources because they are the most commonly referenced. As you can see, they are not duplicates of each other and if we to add more options we would find more discrepancies between definitions. There is also the problem of interchange, where one word is used in place of another; by accident or ignorance another level of possible misunderstanding is created by this occurrence. To avoid a digression into etymology and for the purpose of continuing this discussion of “transhumanism as a religion?” we will focus on the commonalities between definitions.
What definitions of transhumanism have in common is the acceptance of an evolving human condition. I say acceptance because belief has implications that weight the argument towards religion and is a point of discrepancy between definitions. What differentiates a transhumanist from an evolutionist is the second commonality, which states that, the transhumanist acceptance of an evolving condition is achieved through technological adaptations.
What definitions of religion have in common is the concept of the existential claim belief. The term belief has many definitions; the interchange of these definitions can often cause confusion. The two main definitions of belief that are most relevant to this discussion are the existential claim belief and the commendatory belief. A commendatory belief is what you place on a person performing a task; an existential belief is something you claim with no scientific evidence. There is another commonality in definitions of religion that links how an existential belief shapes lifestyle choices or culture.
With these definitions in place we can begin to see where an argument had without them can lead to a confused conclusion.
Both religion and transhumanism utilize a belief in the human condition, just not the same one. Transhumanists have a commendatory belief in the human condition; Religionists belief in it is existential. To interchange one belief with another and therefore label transhumanism as a religion is to say that one could just as easily classify religion as a delusion. Some will find this argument tempting, however the same slippery slope could then apply to transhumanism as well. A delusional belief is the third definition of belief after existential and commendatory. This satisfies our primary commonality of religious definitions; next we must discuss the primary commonality of transhumanism definitions.
This existential versus commendatory approach to the human condition is most notably played out in the debate over our creation and evolution. Opponents of the Theory of Evolution often mistake it for being a hypothesis. Religions have largely failed to embrace empirical evidence and incorporate into their existential beliefs, this has led to sects breaking from the mainstream, and cults breaking from sects, for both reform and orthodox reasons. Likewise transhumanists have not exactly brought themselves under one banner, which has made it difficult to defend accusations like “they are promoting eugenics.” The religionists hold the existential belief that God created humans in their existing form, and therefore evolution to or from a new human condition cannot or should not be. Transhumanists observe evolution as a natural process that through scientific understanding and application of technology can be self-guided, and commendatory believe that we are capable of doing such. This satisfies our primary commonality of transhumanist definitions.
Aside from the semantics of the argument there is the legal reality of religions. If there were a litmus test for the compliance of religions with their doctrines, the world would be a much more secular place. Many religious doctrines promote inhumane behavior and intolerance, given there are passages about charity, just because you donate to the State Troopers isn’t doesn’t mean you can kill one for working on Saturday. There is no litmus test in the USA, all you must do is file the proper 501.c.3 forms and not too blatantly and consistently disobey rather vague compliance guidelines around being a non-profit. Literally just about anyone can do it and many have.
The philosophy of transhumanism, as has theism, can cause humans to develop organizations with cultural customs and proposed answers to the existential questions. These are the legal religions, the religions that exist, better known as religious non-profit corporations. Given the legal existence of religions as a tax entity it is completely reasonable that someone may incorporate a transhumanist religion. In fact, such a thing does already exist, the Terasem Movement Transreligion, their charter: “Dedicated to diversity, unity and joyful immortality via geoethical nanotechnology and personal cyber-consciousness.”
Back to semantics Terasem is a transreligion, which means you do not have to let go of your traditional cultural identity to adopt theirs. Their “joiners” come from various religious and non-religious backgrounds and respect their traditional beliefs and maintain them as part of their own unique identities. Spirituality, in their view, is like your fingerprint completely unique and defining of every individual. Terasem can, but was not created to, be the sole source of spiritual and cultural connectivity. It is, to borrow a term, a “rider” for ones cultural and spiritual enhancement. Terasem in it’s own practices incorporates many concepts from all religions, they have Seders but also transcendental meditations.
Even if every transhumanist were a member of Terasem, the legal existence of Terasem as a religion is entirely separate from the philosophy of transhumanism.
It should now be clear that transhumanism is no more a religion than democracy is a nation. It can be understandable how through interchange of definitions this mistake may occur. The secondary commonalities of religious and transhumanist definitions are not necessary to expound; the primary commonalities have been observed to be substantively different. However I will open the question to comments: Is technology itself a cultural system? If so, how does it relate humanity to spirituality?
Gabriel Rothblatt is a Dad and a Transhumanist Community Organizer for the Terasem Movements. He blogs at Terasemian.wordpress.com and is least known for his work as a “life saver” through the mindfile sites cyberev.org and lifenaut.org.