Vox on Bialecki, 'Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End'

Author: 
Jon Bialecki
Reviewer: 
Lisa Vox

Jon Bialecki. Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End. New York: Fordham University Press, 2022. 368 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-9935-5; $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-9936-2

Reviewed by Lisa Vox (University of Massachusetts Boston) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (June, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57611

Jon Bialecki’s Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End is a readable and engaging exploration of a subject that will likely surprise people by its very existence. I’m sure one question that will occur to people who see the title is whether this is too much of a niche topic. I thought that myself when I saw the title, but I remember people made similar remarks about research into dispensational premillennialism just twenty years ago. Bialecki anticipates such questions and situates his analysis in the broader context of religion-and-science studies as well as questions regarding the tensions of closed versus open societies, the role of speculation in creating a community, and the social construction of deep time in both the past and future tenses. With an emphasis on how Mormonism and Transhumanism surprisingly harmonize, Machine for Making Gods offers insights into each that should be of interest to scholars of religion and the history of science and technology.

His book has three major parts: an introduction to Mormonism, an overview of Transhumanism, and then the study of Mormon Transhumanism. Bialecki largely confines the theoretical discussion to the opening chapter—warning readers of its placement in the preface—but his use of visual metaphors to describe his application of Henri Bergson’s and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s ideas renders the theoretical section easily digestible for even the most theory-averse reader. His use of filmmaking metaphors to describe the structure of his book is an example: “Taken synoptically, the scenes shaped and joined by these cuts allow the foldings, inversions, and twists in religion/science, openness/closure, and cosmic/secular temporalities to play out in a way that makes the patterns visible” (p. 49).

Bialecki’s introduction to Mormonism privileges the influence of the internet on Mormons’ interactions with each other, their church history, and contemporary theology. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) have dubbed their online activity the Bloggernacle, so important has it become. Cyberspace has also made it possible for questioning believers to seek out information that LDS leaders have de-emphasized or even hidden about LDS history. Bialecki highlights elements of the LDS that will explain how Mormon Transhumanism arose later in the book, discussing the roles of kinship, community, and the promised hereafter in congregant retention. Particularly, Bialecki stresses the materiality of Mormon eschatology through its promise of a literal godhood in the afterlife, which “offers a chance to participate in the foundational chain of the universe, where gods create worlds after worlds, and where gods beget gods” (p. 75).

His introduction to Mormonism is a bit stronger than his summary of Transhumanism, but the latter is centered on loosely connected ideas rather than organizations. Bialecki frames Transhumanism as “something between a thought, a social movement, an aspiration, and an evolving fact” (p. 76). He places the center of Transhumanism in Silicon Valley, comparing the “Americanness” of both Mormonism and Transhumanism. In a discussion of whether Transhumanism can be considered a religion, Bialecki locates Mormonism’s particular affinity with Transhumanism. He argues that its vision of a material afterlife meshes with Transhumanism’s concerns about both the extension of human life and the singularity (the point at which technology becomes so advanced that predictions about the future of humanity cannot be reliably made).

Mormon Transhumanists also grew from the tech industry, except in Utah, especially Provo. According to Bialecki, Mormon ideas about God lead naturally to a vision of technology as accomplishing LDS promises. Miracles are “seen as God leveraging those [natural] laws to his own ends,” not overruling the natural order (p. 98). In Bialecki’s reading, this makes seeing miracles as the work of technology (that just has not been invented or imagined yet) a common stance among Mormons.

Though most LDS members might not dwell on that point too much, it was a starting point for many members of the Mormon Transhumanism Association (MTA), which Bialecki’s ethnographic study concerns. Attending meetings, reading its literature, and interviewing its members, Bialecki concludes that Mormon Transhumanists see themselves as both fully Mormon and fully Transhumanist. And in participating in the conversation about how technology might change the future of humanity, MTA members get back in touch with the part of LDS tradition that includes speculative thought.

In addition to participating in online discussions, some MTA members have also brought Transhumanism into their offline lives, with activities ranging from adopting a life-extending diet to participating in an online project to track ancestors (who might one day be simulated—essentially resurrected—through technology). Bialecki admits, however, that MTA members show “more of a change in consciousness than conduct” (p. 106).

These changes occur during MTA discussions that include how computer technology is evolving, Transhumanism as a philosophical outlook, and the future of the LDS. These dialogues sometimes contain fears of excommunication, and Bialecki sees a “crisis of faith” as being instrumental in bringing Mormons to Transhumanism. That is because discipline is a key element of the LDS, but Bialecki also sees Mormonism as a belief-based religion. When Mormonism is inflected with Transhumanism, its adherents are “creating a new mode of religious thought that is neither chiefly belief nor discipline, but invention” (p. 155).

The MTA is the largest religious Transhumanist organization, with around one thousand members. And there is a reason for that—other religious groups, especially Christianity, focus on death as a starting point for an afterlife, according to Machines for Making Gods. As a result, the Transhumanist desire to defeat death can seem blasphemous. But Bialecki demonstrates that it is no conflict for Mormons. Mormons may share pessimism for the future with other Christian groups, but Mormons also believe in a literal building of Zion that will involve the resurrection of believers’ material bodies. Uploading, preserving, or even reviving consciousnesses in a virtual space is one way technology could aid in the building of Zion.

Materialism is not the only aspect of Mormonism that makes it mesh well with Transhumanism. For Mormons, “an almost protean sense of agency stands at the center of Mormon doctrine” since they voluntarily agreed to be tested in order to determine their worthiness to become a god in the afterlife (p. 292). Neither freezing one’s body or brain for future revival nor one’s consciousness residing in cyberspace conflicts with LDS doctrine, and it might even make fulfilling promises about resurrection and world building even more likely. Nor does LDS belief contradict the Transhumanist idea of reality possibly being a simulation, perhaps even a simulation of a simulation, or one of countless nested simulations. In that scenario, God has generated the simulation, and the promise of the afterlife includes the potential for creating one’s own simulation.

The book’s strongest chapters are the final ones, including the discussion of the universe as a simulation as well as cryogenics. They are the most compelling sections, and I could see assigning them to an advanced undergraduate course for a discussion on the relationship between religion and science or on progressivism in religious traditions. Bialecki’s penultimate chapter on Queer polygamy does not precisely dovetail with Mormon Transhumanism, but by highlighting a woman who developed the idea via Transhumanism, he illustrates how overlapping concerns over religion, progressivism, and technology could create a surprising strand of Mormon hermeneutics.

Bialecki sums up his project in his final chapter: “Mormon Transhumanism is thus an imaginative project that answers the problem of religion and technology by aspiring to collapse that distinction” (p. 299). Far from being a niche project, Machines for Making Gods is a valuable case study of the relationship between religion and science. I highly recommend this book to scholars of science and religion, regardless of their discipline. I think scholars also interested in Transhumanism, progressive theology in general, and the development of Mormonism and the LDS church will find much of interest here.

Citation: Lisa Vox. Review of Bialecki, Jon, Machines for Making Gods: Mormonism, Transhumanism, and Worlds without End. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57611

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.