The New Yorker
On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, delivered a sermon to twenty thousand of his followers in Nauvoo, Illinois. The immediate occasion was the funeral of King Follett, a close friend of Smith’s, and there is no doubt that death was on the prophet’s mind. “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” Smith told the crowd. “That is the great secret.” He continued: “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves . . . the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, struck upon a simpler formulation of the same idea, often repeated today among the Mormon faithful: “As God now is, man may be.”
Earlier this month, soon after Mormons from around the world convened in Salt Lake City, Utah, for their general conference, a smaller gathering took place at the public library in Provo. It was the annual meeting of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, a group of people who believe that the development and dissemination of advanced technologies—cryogenics, bionics, artificial intelligence, and so on—will raise humanity to the heights of power and immortality that Smith envisioned. In the past, the meeting has included presentations from visiting scholars such as Richard Bushman, a prominent Mormon historian and Smith archivist, and Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation, whose slogan is “Reimagine Aging.” This year’s edition featured talks with titles like “Zion as Superorganism” and “The Infinite Resurrection,” with a lunch break for deli sandwiches in between.
The M.T.A. has its roots in the early two-thousands, when the Internet had become a thing of dens and dorm rooms. As access to information expanded, the L.D.S. Church began “having trouble controlling its narratives,” Carl Youngblood, a software engineer and one of the M.T.A.’s co-founders, told me. (Youngblood comes from a long line of Mormons, going back to his great-great-grandfather, an artist, who with Brigham Young’s approval went to study Impressionism in Paris and then returned to Salt Lake City to paint temple murals.) As Youngblood spoke with his tech-literate friends and acquaintances, it became clear to him that many were frustrated with what they perceived as the church’s “loyalty to present status quo”; they longed for radical visions of the future. Their forebears “actually thought that they were building the city of God—literally,” Youngblood said. “They were creating plat maps and actually marking off city blocks.” He added, “We thought, Well, why couldn’t we have that sort of zeal?” As Youngblood recalls, one member of the cohort, a young man named Lincoln Cannon, introduced the group to the idea of transhumanism, which he had encountered on various Web sites. That was the beginning of the M.T.A. Over the next decade, the band of fourteen founders grew to six hundred members, with Cannon as their president.
At the simplest level, the promises of transhumanism are pretty much irrefutable, even humdrum. Of course technology will improve on human frailty. That process began centuries ago—look at eyeglasses and peg legs. But in the eighty-nine years since the British biologist Julian Huxley, the founder of the World Wildlife Federation and brother of Aldous, coined the word “transhumanism,” the movement has reached far wilder heights of prognostication. Some transhumanists have suggested that we may eventually become immortal, as medical science outpaces disease. Others speculate that our corporeal beings will one day be made inorganic. These predictions may seem, to the uninitiated, like the absurd stuff of science fiction, but they will surely gain social acceptance as the tech titans of Silicon Valley push transhumanist ideals. If the import of Google’s decision, in 2012, to hire the futurist Ray Kurzweil hasn’t sunk in, pause to consider the fact that the second-largest company in the world (by market capitalization) has a director of engineering who believes that humanity will conquer death.
Many transhumanists, Huxley included, have rejected traditional religion. Yet, as Youngblood and Cannon and their Mormon friends read up on the movement, they began to notice that its predictions seemed startlingly in sync with some of Smith’s prophecies. Here were tech-minded futurists, seers from non-religious worlds, who nonetheless believed that humans would become as powerful as gods—whether via bionic limbs, alterations in our DNA, or computer-assisted superintelligence. Perhaps, some members of the M.T.A. thought, transhumanism offered a sort of technical explanation for the Millennium, the period after the Second Coming of Christ, when humankind has eradicated death and disease and poverty. Others wondered whether the Mormon dedication to tracking family trees and amassing genealogical information was a first step in reconstructing all our ancestors in digitally simulated environments. (Imagine, perhaps, a hopped-up version of The Sims, powered by quantum computers.) Some discussed the prophesies, contained in Mormon scripture, that the children of the Millennium will live to the age of a tree, and that those in the afterlife receive a seer stone—some form of technology, perhaps—that allows them to see into kingdoms beyond.
Those who would call the Mormon transhumanists a cult face a major hurdle, which is that none of them ever seem to agree on anything. And, although it is easy to dismiss them as a group of starry-eyed dreamers, they have serious collective scientific chops: among the M.T.A.’s ranks are biology professors, employees of major tech companies, patent holders, and an A.I. researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They reflect a belief that God and his works are subject to natural law. “Mormonism doesn’t see creation as a magical creation from nothing,” Christopher Bradford, the vice-president of engineering at Ancestry.com and the newly minted president of the M.T.A., told me. There are no miracles at a “snap of the fingers.” (As the British sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke put it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) According to Cannon, Mormons have historically welcomed technological progress. “We built wagons to go west; we irrigated Utah to terraform it; we use computers to store massive amounts of genealogical data,” he said. Latter-day Saints also helped invent the television, the electric traffic light, the artificial heart, the synthetic diamond, and the repeating rifle. The developer who created the programming language Ruby is Mormon, as were the teams behind Iomega and Atari. Cannon’s own father, Layne, was instrumental in designing WordPerfect, an early word-processing application.
There are times when the M.T.A.’s members must negotiate tricky terrain, given that secular transhumanism, almost by definition, invites revisionist notions of sex and gender that run headlong into traditional church doctrine. (If our flesh becomes useless as our minds are made virtual, don’t biologically rooted constructions of gender quickly become useless, too?) On the flip side, some secular transhumanists skewer the group for its religious leanings. “The M.T.A. has a way of being a lightning rod for negative perspectives on religion, both from secular anti-religious persons and from religious fundamentalists who’ll demonize us to no end,” Cannon said. For them, he added, “we are the Antichrist, we are the mark of the beast.” Perhaps as a result, the group’s members have become adept at what Jon Bialecki, a religious anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh, called code-switching. They alternate comfortably, he said, between discussions of digital philosophy and “Mormon homiletic speech.” Thus far, Cannon is not aware of anyone who has been disciplined by the church for transhumanist views. When members have gently introduced their ideas to members of their local congregations, the response, they told me, has often been cautious interest. “We try to remind people that humanity has always been transcending itself through technology,” Bradford said. “If something went wrong with your teeth four hundred years ago, you lost them.”
What is required to bring back the dead? A lyre and an unwavering gaze? A monkey’s paw with three wishes? Faith in God? Faith in machine? It was in the years leading up to Layne Cannon’s death from cancer that his son began thinking more deeply about the afterlife. In an entry from one of Lincoln Cannon’s old journals, dated October 17, 1995, a passage written in a teen-ager’s sprawling script reads, “How will the resurrection come to pass? I don’t know for sure, but I believe that God won’t do for us what we can do for ourselves.”