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Transhumanism and Unitarian Universalism:  Beginning the Dialogue

A sermon on the special compatibility of Unitarian Universalism and transhumanism

In the Spring of 1933 a group of humanist philosophers and activists drafted The Humanist Manifesto and published it in a Chicago-based newsletter, The New Humanist (Wilson, 1933). The drafters collected thirty four endorsements, fifteen from ministers from the American Unitarian Association. The Humanist Manifesto was a bold attempt to state the central thesis of religious humanism, that humanity can have morals and spirituality without a belief in God. The Manifesto remains controversial to this day, and is pointed to with horror by religious conservatives.

In 1933 the Unitarians had few conservatives, but they were divided between the humanists and the “theists,” who believed Unitarianism should still affirm a divine personality. But the battle would soon be decided in favor of humanism. By the time the 2000 year-old heretical Christian tradition of Unitarianism merged with its sister heretical tradition of Universalism in 1960, the Unitarian Universalist Association had become a unique, postmodern expression of religious humanism, with belief in science, reason and democracy in the place of faith and creedal dogma.

The Unitarian Heresy

The original Unitarian heresy is, according to some scholars, the original Christian doctrine: that God was unitary and not triune. In particular Jesus was a human prophet and not God. This school of thought was narrowly defeated at the Nicaean Council called by Constantine in 325 A.D. to establish an official Christian doctrine. For the next twelve hundred years various Unitarian preachers and sects emerged and were suppressed, until the Reformation and growing religious freedom of the 18th century allowed Unitarians to establish churches. Leading British liberals and American revolutionaries, such as Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, were Unitarians, and Harvard University became the global base of Unitarian theology in the early nineteenth century (Buehrens and Church, 1998; Howe, 1993).

Universalism first emerged in England in the seventeenth century. The Universalists held that Christ’s sacrifice meant that no one would be sentenced to eternal damnation. If salvation was universal an ethical life needed some other motivation than threats of endless torture in Hell. Rejecting original sin, and promoting a theology of love and reason, and like the Unitarians, the Universalists found the American colonies more hospitable than Europe. Also like the Unitarians many Universalists believed in the humanity, rather than the divinity, of Christ.

The Unitarians and Universalists first began to talk about merging in 1899, and finally did so in 1961.  Headquartered in Boston, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) today includes about 150,000 adults in more than a thousand congregations spread across North America with sister groups around the world life (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004).  Although there are only about 200,000 “UU” congregants, they are highly educated and disproportionately influential in American intellectual life. Notable contemporary Unitarians or UUs include disability rights activist Christopher Reeve; Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of HTML; science fiction author Ray Bradbury; visionary Buckminster Fuller; television host Rod Serling; architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Democratic Presid.ential candidate Adlai Stevenson.

Humanism remains the core belief system of modern Unitarian Universalism. In a 1967 survey of its membership the UUA discovered that only 3% of UUs believed in a supernatural God, while 53% identified as “humanists” (UUA, 1967) In the 1970s Buddhists, pagans and other groups organized within UU churches and urged a more robust spirituality to balance the dominant secular humanists. But when the UUA surveyed its membership again in 1997 46% still described themselves primarily as “humanists,” followed by 19% pagan, 13% “theist,” 9% Christian and 23% a wide variety of other things. When given the option to mark more than one category, fully 91% of UUs choose “humanist” (Dart, 2001).

Given this unique intellectual history and diversity, the UU dialogue with transhumanism raises very different questions than the transhumanist dialogue with creedal faiths. In many ways UUism and transhumanism both emerge from the same democratic humanist tradition of thought, and their challenge to one another come from different emphases and strains within the democratic humanist tradition.

Unitarian Universalism and Transhumanism’s Common Historical Roots

Transhumanism is the idea that humans can use reason to transcend the limitations of the human condition. This quest not only has roots in the ancient, pancultural expressions of rationalism, atheism and humanism, but also in the desire found in every religious tradition to use magic to transcend sickness, aging and mortality. Although the religious traditions and the rationalist and humanist traditions have generally been in conflict, there have been many Gnostic and alchemical schools of thought that attempted to use reason in the pursuit of transcendence.  Adepts have sought personal health, longevity, altered states of consciousness and a variety of superpowers - levitation, astral projection or psychic powers – through spiritual disciplines. Religious traditions also promise a coming millennial paradise in which human existence will be incomparably superior.

Conversely the philosophical traditions committed to human reason did not generally seek a transcendent improvement in human life, but fulfillment within it. Socrates and the sophists proposed that all human affairs were open to critical thinking, from metaphysics and ethics to the arrangement of society. The philosopher Democritus proposed that the world known through the senses is all there is and that the world works without any prior plan. Confucius proposed codes of conduct to guide society without any referent to gods.  Schools of Indian philosophy 2500 years ago proposed that there was no afterlife and no gods, and that humans had to rely on their own reason, reflection and meditation to understand the world and be happy.

It awaited the fusing of transcendent aspirations to a commitment to human reason in the Renaissance to see the glimmerings of transhumanism as we now know it.  The first European “humanists” were practicing Catholics who believed that human beings were such special creations of God that to celebrate human beings, their powers and creations, was to celebrate God. They condemned the theology of original sin, and argued that humans should become more like God. Italian humanist philosopher Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has God say to Man “to you is granted the power, contained in your intellect and judgment, to be reborn into the higher forms, the divine” (della Mirandola, 1486).

Renaissance humanists encouraged human beings to rely on empirical observations, reason and the scientific method, rather than religious tradition and authority. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) argued for the use of the scientific method to achieve a human mastery over “all things possible.” Eventually eighteenth and nineteenth century rationalists and free-thinkers proposed that human beings were the measure of all things, not religious authority.  Darwin’s theory of evolution opened the possibility that the current condition of human beings was only a temporary stop between a prior lower and future more advanced state. The stage was then set for ideologies that proposed that human beings evolve through their own power in dramatically new directions.

Modern Transhumanism

Modern transhumanism, like the Humanist Manifesto, emerged in the heady mix of socialism and free thinking that spread among intellectuals between the World Wars.  In 1923 British genetics pioneer and socialist John Haldane published his seminal thought piece, “Daedalus: Science and the Future” which suggested that society would soon use genetics for self-improvement, and predicted extra-uterine gestation and other technologies. In 1929 the socialist Irish physicist J.D. Bernal published “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” which suggested that bionic implants and technologies of mental improvement. In 1935 the socialist Nobel laureate biologist Herman J. Muller published Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future in which he predicted that humanity will soon “by aid of its ever growing intelligence and cooperation, shape itself into an increasingly sublime creation – a being beside which the mythical divinities of the past will seem more and more ridiculous, and which setting its own marvelous inner powers against the brute Goliath of the suns and the planets, challenges them to contest.”

It was apparently Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley’s brother, and friend of Haldane’s,
whose reflections on biological futurism and humanism led to the first use of the phrase
“transhumanism.” Julian Huxley argued that human beings could and should throw off
the shackles of dogma and use cultural and biological means to evolve further. In Julian
Huxley’s 1957 book on humanism, New Bottles for New Wine, he wrote “Human life as we know it in history is a wretched makeshift, rooted in ignorance; and….it could be transcended by a state of existence based on the illumination of knowledge and comprehension…..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.” 

Over the course of the next forty years a self-consciously transhumanist movement developed.

In the news this week Australian researchers announced a method of removing the blood of
patients with cancer, modifying their white blood cells with cancer-fighting genes, and
putting the blood back. Researchers at Harvard announced they had successfully taken
embryonic stem cells, cells that were not yet differentiated, grew them into inner ear
cells, and transplanted them to chickens where they repaired inner ear damage. The New
York Times reported yesterday from the PopTech conference on the growing number of
scientists looking forward to achieving 500 year life spans. The FDA recently approved
the use of a new drug that keeps people awake for days without side effects, human
growth hormone for kids who are very short, and is close to reapproving silicone breast

At the same time the President’s Council for Bioethics issued two weeks ago mammoth
attack on the use of medicine to extend human abilities beyond their nature range, and to
achieve unnatural life spans. The report warns that “enhancement” technologies will
threaten democracy and rob us of ineffable, spiritual quality of life.

One way to frame these emerging conflicts and debates is biopolitics. On one side in the
biopolitical debates are the bioLuddites, critics of genetic engineering, reproductive
technology, cosmetic surgery, psychopharmaceuticals, and radical life extension. On the
other side are the advocates for these technologies, the transhumanists.

Unitarian Universalism and Transhumanism: Both Opposed by the Religious Right

Of course, these ideas are meeting with stiff resistance, which is increasingly directed at
transhumanism by name. On one side are the religious conservatives who see transhuman
ambitions as hubris, “playing god.” Tampering with intelligence, human nature or
mortality, they believe, will rob us spiritually. In 2001 President Bush appeased anxious
religious conservatives by appointing one the staunchest opponents of human
enhancement technology, Leon Kass, to chair the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass
in turn has loaded the PCB with opponents of stem cell cloning, reproductive technology,
psychiatric drugs and genetic engineering. For instance Kass appointed conservative
intellectual Francis Fukuyama, author of Our Posthuman Future, which argues that
everything from Ritalin and Prozac to genetic engineering are a threat to human nature,
and thereby to democracy. Two weeks ago the PCB issued its report calling for strict
regulation and limitation of access to technologies that could be used to enhance life,
rather than simply treat disease. The report acknowledges, however, that this line will be
very difficult to defend since many genetic treatments, for instance, will both cure disease
and enhance the body beyond ordinary specs.

From another direction there is a growing left-wing bioLuddite movement growing out of
anti-technology deep ecologists, feminist opponents of reproductive medicine, leftist
critics of corporate control of biotechnology, and so on. These left bioLuddites are
reaching out to build alliances with the religious right to promote bans on surrogate
motherhood, genetically modified food, stem cell cloning and human genetic

Some UUs Influenced by BioLuddism

Clearly there are and will be Unitarian Universalists on both sides of
transhumanism/bioLuddism clashes. I think as the issues emerge with increasing
frequency UUs will increasingly see that their sympathies lie toward transhumanism.
Transhumanism is a natural extension of the humanism that most UUs embrace. The
opponents of life extension and these other technologies are generally expressing one
version or another of the “Its not god’s plan” or “Its not natural” argument. And yet we
UUs believe human beings should be able to create our own future on the basis of our
human powers of reason and compassion, regardless of these supposed sacred
boundaries. That’s why we embrace gays and lesbians and transgender folks, and have
been staunch opponents of the forms of racism and sexism and their supposed religious

UUS are also unlikely to affirm the central dogma of the bioLuddites, a dogma I call
“human- racism” – that the only form of intelligence that is of value is homo sapien, and
than all homo sapiens are full citizens from conception to heart death, regardless of
whether they ever wake up or not. One of the reasons bioLuddites oppose the creation of
posthumans is that the believe it will be impossible for humans and posthumans to live
together in mutual respect, and that acknowledging our continuity with animals threatens
to degrade our respect for human beings. This is of course the central issue in the struggle
over abortion rights, and the use of embryonic stem cells, and we see this issue being
played out this week in the effort to force the husband of the brain dead Florida woman
Terri Schiavo to keep her body alive despite her clearly expressed wishes to the contrary.
Rather than seeking for the value of a life in the humanness of its DNA and if it has a
pulse, transhumanists and I think most UUs look for the value of life in the quality and
capacity for experience, thought and communication. We will welcome technologies
which expand our capacities for high-quality experience, thought and communication,
and we will work to ensure a respect for a diversity of intelligent life rather than fear of
the other.

Toward the end of creating a dialogue about transhumanism in the UUA John Davis, a
San Diego Unitarian, has started the Transhumanist UU Network, and we plan to have a
transhumanist event or two at next years’ General Assembly.

But UUs also will bring distinctive concerns to the table, some of which are concerns of
the left-wing bioLuddites, concerns about equal access to the benefits of technology, their
safety, and their effects on the quality of life and values of the people who use them. So I
expect UUs to be highly critical supporters of the transhumanist cause, pushing technoutopians
to focus on the real needs of people around the world, many of whom don’t have
clean water, shelter or a decent wage. While many techno-utopians may be comfortable
with the prospect of people in the developed world having 500 year life spans while
people in the developing world remain poor and sick, I’m sure UU transhumanists will
not. My own passion about the issues of equality and democracy in a posthuman future
led to this book I’m publishing in the spring, Cyborg Democracy.

Perhaps more fundamentally, I expect that Unitarians will engage with and be critical of
the religious dimension of the transhumanist idea: the promise of immortality, of
superhuman or even magical abilities, of a coming time of apocalyptic change and
possible TechnoRapture. These are themes, wrapped this time in science and reason, to
which we are uniquely tuned to respond, but of which we are also uniquely tuned to be
critical because we see them in their pancultural context, and the excesses they have led
to in other faiths.

So I look forward to the transhumanist-UU dialogue, and I close with this reflection from
George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman:

I tell you, as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. This is the law of my
life. That is the working within me of Life’s incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, intense self-consciousness and clearer self-understanding.


Bacon, Francis. 1620. Novum Organum.

Bernal, J.D. 1929. “The World, the Flesh & the Devil. An Enquiry into the Future of the
Three Enemies of the Rational Soul.”

Buehrens, John and Forrest Church. 1998. A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.  Beacon Press.

Dart, John. 2001. “Surveys: ‘UUism’ unique: Churchgoers from elsewhere,” Christian Century December 5, 2001.

Haldane, JBS. 1923. “Daedalus: Science and the Future”  A paper read to
the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 4th, 1923. haldane/works/1920s/daedalus.htm

Howe, Charles A. 1993. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Boston: Skinner House Books.

Huxley, Julian.1957. “Transhumanism,” In New Bottles for New Wine. London: Chatto & Windus, pp. 13-17.

della Mirandola, Pico. 1486. Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Muller, Herman J. 1935.Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future.  London: Victor Gollancz.

UUA. 1967. Report of the committee on goals. Boston: UUA.

_____. 1993. Growth statistics. Boston: UUA.

_____. 2004. Website

Wilson, E.H. et al. 1933.  “The Humanist Manifesto,” The New Humanist.

Wilson, Edwin H.  1995. The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto. Amherst, NY; Humanist Press.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


I really wish there were more artciels like this on the web.

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