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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Intersection of Mormonism and Transhumanism

R. Dennis Hansen

Ethical Technology

November 17, 2011

The Mormon vision of the future culminates in a plurality of gods, eternally progressing and creating worlds without end. Some of their ideas are well worth considering by transhumanists.

Of late, as noted in Hank Pellissier’s recent IEET blog article, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon Church) has frequently been in the news.

Two Mormons—Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney—are running for President of the United States. There is a wildly successful musical on Broadway called The Book of Mormon which is a product of the South Park creators. Some Evangelical Christians are generating publicity by referring to Mormons as “zombies” and by calling their religion a “cult.” There was also the negative publicity surrounding the Prop 8 referendum in California.

To take advantage of all this press, the LDS Church has launched a massive counteroffensive, a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign that includes a large electronic billboard in Times Square. In its ads, men and women of various races and backgrounds describe their unique lives or professions and end with the punch line “...and I’m a Mormon.”

(Note to readers: I was raised Mormon in a very liberal environment in East Lansing MI. After serving a Mormon mission in Belgium and France in the 1960s, I slowly evolved into an agnostic.)

Most of the publicity has led to discussions concerning the more sensational aspects of Mormonism (conservative politics, immigration, polygamy, violence, racism, veracity of uniquely Mormon scriptures, gay and women’s rights, etc.). Less has been made about Mormonism’s progressive—some call it “radical adventuresomeness”—view of the future. For example, many traditional Mormon beliefs intersect well with transhumanism and with Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘Process Theology’.
Five of the “radically adventuresome” Mormon beliefs include:

  • Theosis
  • Eternal Progression
  • A Progressing God
  • Compatibility of Science and Religion
  • Good Works

According to Yale University scholar Harold Bloom:
“Our political satirists delight in describing the apparent weirdness of Mormon cosmology, but they forget the equal strangeness of Christian mythology. Jorge Luis Borges shrewdly classified all theology as fantastic literature, and Joseph Smith’s (the controversial founder of the LDS Church) adventures… are at least refreshingly original.”

Theosis: In the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, an American LDS missionary serving in modern-day Uganda questions his faith but regains it while performing the song, “I Believe.” He intones, “I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.” These lyrics have caused a small stir in the media.

Mormon historian Richard Bushman, who wrote a widely respected biography of Joseph Smith, responded to the stir: “Mormon scriptures and Church leaders don’t say anything about people getting their own planets… Mormons do believe in the principle of theosis, the doctrine that God wants humans to become like Himself—in effect gods. That belief leads Mormons to speculate about creation. Will beings with god-like qualities have the powers to form earths?”

rh2Eternal Progression: The concept of eternally progressing is fundamental to the LDS worldview. The traditional Christian view about what happens in the afterlife is a little murky. One contemporary Christian view describes Heaven as being a state of eternal inactive bliss, where progression becomes ill-defined.

Mormons, on the other hand, view mortal existence as a training ground for the work that will continue after death. They hold that “the glory of God is intelligence” and place a high value on education. They believe that individuals will take with them into the next life the knowledge and intelligence that they garner during their mortal life.

According to Bloom, “Mormonism’s best inheritance from Joseph Smith was his passion for education, hardly evident in the anti-intellectualism [of some Christians]. I wonder though which is more dangerous, a knowledge-hungry religious zealotry or a proud stupid one.” Bloom’s cynicism here is way over the top.

A Progressing God: Implied in the twin doctrines of theosis and eternal progression is the concept of a progressing God. According to Mormon prophet Brigham Young: “The God that I serve is progressing eternally [in knowledge and power], and so are his children.” Or according to John A. Widtsoe, an early 20th century scientist and LDS church leader: “If the great law of progression is accepted, God must have been engaged, and must now be engaged, in progressive development.” For Mormons, God, mankind, and the universe are in a constant state of flux.

Their vision of the future culminates in a plurality of gods, eternally progressing and creating worlds without end. According to Lincoln Cannon, president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association: “This parallels transhumanists’ common expectation that we will someday be capable of engineering intelligence and worlds.”

Compatibility of Science and Religion: Widtsoe had a life-long appreciation for the scientific process. His interest in organic evolution was driven by his respect for Joseph Smith and the doctrine of eternal progression. He viewed this as an example of how science and Mormon theology are in lockstep. To quote Widtsoe: “Latter-day Saints are the foremost evolutionists in the world. They believe that the immortal spirit of man may eternally approach the likeness of God himself.”

Good Works: One of Mormonism’s major tenets is that “faith without works is dead.” Works are an important feature of reaching toward perfection. Service is seen as an underlying condition for developing spirituality. According to Mormonism, God has provided humanity with the means (technological and otherwise) to progress, and we must avail ourselves of these means instead of merely supposing God will save us without any effort on our part.

Commenting on Mormon cosmology, Bloom writes, “Imaginatively liberating as this may be, its political implications are troublesome. The Mormon patriarch… is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhood… From the perspective of the White House, how would the nation and the world appear to President Romney?”

The problem for me with Mormon cosmology is not so much with the five general concepts listed above as it is with the details, too many to discuss in this brief article. But here are two of my specific concerns.

A) Mormons, as part of their worldview (known as the ‘Plan of Salvation’), believe in a long state of ‘pre-existence’ for humans as ‘spirit children’, and this belief has historically been used to explain a variety of worldly inequities. For example, those who are less valiant in the pre-existence are somehow punished with a poorer station here on Earth. This Mormon belief seems more like a bad metaphor than doctrine I can relate to.

B) There is also the issue of equality of opportunity. It’s one thing to have noble views about earthly existence and post-mortality; it’s another thing to try and understand how this works in a world where opportunities are so unequal. Obviously, I have different opportunities than an individual living hand-to-mouth in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, or Mexico City, or Mumbai, India. In patriarchal Mormonism, I, being male, have different participation opportunities than my female counterparts. And this secondary role for women continues in the afterlife.

One of my favorite quotes is from an article written by members of the Mormon Transhumanist Association: “Whether tomorrow is wonderful or horrible may depend on the extent to which persons with good minds and loving hearts become actively involved in shaping the future.” I would replace the “may” in this quote with a “will.”

It is my personal opinion that what Mormons add to discussions about the future, despite some of my personal doubts, is well worth consideration by transhumanists, process theologians, and other Christian groups. Of particular note are the LDS Church’s strong emphasis on education and good works, which historically have lifted poorer members, converts, and nonmembers to better lives.

When Jon Huntsman was asked about his Mormon beliefs, he stated: “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.” In the eyes of most Mormons, this makes him a “Jack Mormon” (an inactive member, who despite his personal religious viewpoints, maintains good relations with the church). I guess I’m one also.

R. Dennis Hansen is currently employed as a planner for a federal resource management agency in Utah. He enjoys traveling and has lived in and/or visited and/or worked in over 40 countries on five continents. Hansen is a member of the Mormon Transhumanist Association and Engineers without Borders.


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