When Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, decided to tell the world that the National Enquirer was blackmailing him with nude photos, he turned to the blog platform Medium to tell the world about it.
Instead, he turned to a humble (but neutral) place that’s accessible to everyone and anyone. I joined Medium a month ago — after perusing it for over a year — because the writing was about unusual topics with unique angles. There isn’t an army of editors going over the prose; what you see is raw copy straight from the writer’s laptop.
As it turns out, I’m not writing about Bezos, but I am writing about a recent piece on Medium about Mormon transhumanists, whatever they may be. Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling has written about them before, but some things bear repeating.
Mormons are the opposite of cafeteria Catholics. Instead of a pick-and-choose religion of faith du jour, they inhabit a closed system with a unique holy book and scriptures; certain beliefs that only they own and a place as the preeminent American-founded religion. Its legends and history are uniquely that of the Western hemisphere.
Before we start, please note the author isn’t just any old pajama-clad writer wannabe. Erin Clare Brown has worked for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. although her stint with the Times lasted only seven months. Whatever. (See here for a piece on Nordic Mormons she wrote for the WSJ three years ago). Her Linked-In account mentions she is a former Mormon missionary to the Russia, which explains her insight into these folks.
The piece starts with an anecdote by Michaelann Bradley, a young woman who was having a crisis of faith and had drifted from her Latter-day Saint roots.
In 2013, Bradley met her future husband, Don, at an academic scripture study group. He was a thoughtful historian 18 years her senior whose own faith in the LDS Church had been shaken years before. Many of their early dates were to “Mormon-adjacent gatherings,” Bradley said, so she hardly batted an eye when Don invited her to a meeting of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He billed it as a group of thoughtful folks tackling slightly different ideas about Mormonism. “I thought he meant ‘transcendentalist,’” Bradley told me. “I came prepared to talk about Thoreau.”
The meeting was as far from Walden as the moon or a terraformed Mars. Held in a local tech entrepreneur’s basement, it was a philosophical free-for-all of ideas that were closer to science fiction than scripture. The 10 other attendees — all male, all white, all in their 20s and 30s, and mostly with backgrounds in computer science or the tech world — batted around theories that reframed deeply held Mormon beliefs, like the notion that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become,” in terms of cryonics and the singularity. They quoted futurists in the same breath as Latter-day Saint Apostles and Carl Sagan. They asked whether we could become like God through technology — could we live forever now and not just after we die?
Taking certain Mormon beliefs to their logical conclusion, I’m guessing.
With nearly 1,000 members, the Mormon Transhumanist Association, or MTA, is a growing offshoot of the broad transhumanist movement, which believes that the human race can evolve beyond its current mental and physical state through the use of science and technology in order to achieve breakthrough outcomes in the near future…
Mormon transhumanism takes those theories and molds them onto a religious framework, where technology and science are tools to further the work of Jesus Christ. There are straightforward applications, like using cybernetic limbs to help injured and disabled people to walk or laser cataract procedures to help people with low vision to see. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that Mormon transhumanists believe that science can bring about the “realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.” They believe the coming leaps in science and technology will help us realize the Mormon promise of achieving perfect, immortal bodies and becoming Gods.
Now this is the kind of religion coverage I like. Remember me saying that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a closed system? This article, in a lot more paragraphs, makes the same case. It’s a family-based religion that says that in the afterlife, we will live in family units and communities that are a continuation of what we started here on Earth.
(Where that leaves the never-married, I have no idea. Have always wondered about that question.)
The LDS church, like nearly every other religious organization in America, is losing its young, but it has the additional burden of explaining away some of the faith’s more questionable aspects that the internet is exposing as dodgy at best.
Many Mormons who question or leave their faith end up joining or re-establishing communities that remind them of their past, often online. Groups like Mormon Stories or the Ex-Mormons subreddit have thousands of followers and even host in-person meetups. Those groups mainly push against social and political aspects of the Church, but the MTA aims higher, plumbing the depths of LDS doctrine for clues about the structure of the universe and thinking ambitiously about a future where religion and science merge to create a perfected world.
These folks are not apostates or ex-Mormons at all. I’d call them 21st-century Mormon pioneers.
The story swings to a Provo resident Lincoln Cannon, a founder of the movement, who explains where this is going.
The more Cannon read about transhumanism, the more it resonated with him — and the more it reminded him of the faith he grew up with. Mormons are no strangers to heretical ideas. In fact, most of the fundamental principles of Mormonism shake the very core of traditional Christianity. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, launched a new religion that taught radical views on the structure of the afterlife and the nature of God, re-established a prophetic voice on the Earth, and even introduced the idea of saving our kindred dead by performing ordinances on their behalf. Cannon saw how transhumanist ideas could explain or expand on some of those fundamental truths of Mormonism.
It’s kind of like Mormonism as sci-fi and the article makes the case that it’s these folks who could save the LDS Church from the current stodginess to a futuristic religion that makes sense to all.
Near the end, the author does bring in a questioning voice, not so much pondering the basic premise of all this theory but rather asking why the followers of this trend aren’t more feminist, more people of color, etc. Which seems a bit ridiculous in that Utah is a pretty homogenous place, so expecting it to look like a #BlackLivesMatter gathering is stretching it.
The search for immortality isn’t new. According to Genesis, it’s a possibility God quashed pretty fast after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But if you read 2Nephi 2:25, you see the unique LDS doctrine that the Fall was orchestrated by God. That is:
25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
So the search for more forbidden fruit –- that is, immortality -– is possible within this construct. LDS doctrine believes we pre-existed as spirit children of God before we were born on Earth. Once here, we are to progress toward godhood in that God was once a man as we are but is now an exalted flesh-and-blood being. (Read this link to get a better picture of what I’m talking about).
Transhumanism is then consistent with the hope that immortality will someday be ours. I would have liked the author to have gotten into the theology of it all a bit more, but maybe that’s too deep a pile of weeds for a Medium piece. It’s not impossible to throw in more theology; this 2016 New Yorker piece on the movement jumps into the theology with the first paragraph.
There’s not that many reporters out there who cover the LDS church well, so I hope Erin Brown contributes more to the pile.