Religion in the Age of Cyborgs

Merlin Donald’s Big Thoughts on the evolution of culture offer opportunities to speculate about the place of religion in the natural history of our species – an opportunity most recently taken by Robert Bellah in his much discussed last book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). But Donald’s work also affords opportunities for an even more speculative exercise: that of forecasting religion’s future. Instead of letting the many obvious obstacles of such forecasting hold us back, let’s indulge.

In Origins of the Modern Mind (1991), Donald suggested that human cultural evolution has gone through three main stages: mimetic culture (arising early in human evolutionary history), mythic culture (arising soon after the invention of language), and theoretic culture (taking shape only as late as the Enlightenment). These stages are explained fairly well in the interview, so I will not recapitulate here.

Donald’s thinking about cultural evolution is based to a considerable degree on his view on distributed cognition. Thinking does not all happen inside the cranium. It was not a sudden expansion of brain mass that inaugurated the era of cognitively and behaviourally modern humans, but rather drastic changes in the distributed cognitive networks that individual brains are part of: networks that engage many brains in coordinated ways to create “cognitive ecosystems”. Cultural evolution is based on changes in these distributed cognitive networks rather than sudden mutations in individual brains.

A growing school in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind is developing the idea of the extended mind, from Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism to Andy Clark’s supersized mind to Lambros Malafouris’ recent “Material Engagement Theory”. This school, to which we may count Donald as a moderate adherent, has serious implications for all disciplines studying human culture.

It also provides us with a useful clue for speculating about the future of religion. Donald holds that ritual behaviour emerges extremely early, and plays a significant role in “mimetic culture”. Religions of the doctrinaire type depend on more extensive language use, and emerge around powerful narratives and myths in the transition to “mythic culture”. Dependent primarily on mimetic imagination and narrative skills, then, we should not expect ritual and religion to disintegrate from the human cultural repertoire anytime soon.

Theoretic culture, on the other hand – ostensibly secular, reflective, scientific, and disenchanted – is a much more fragile thing. Its deepest roots lie in the “exographic revolution” (i.e. the invention of systems for externalizing memory), which started with simple carving and painting techniques in the upper Paleolithic and kicked off around 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing. It became possible to externalize thought and distribute abstract concepts to such an extent that difficult, reflective thinking could emerge.

But reflective thinking did not obsolete mythic culture – instead it was absorbed in it, subsumed by its governance structures and used to further them. It took other sorts of revolutions in the distributed cognitive network to pave the way for a theoretic culture to emerge: the printing press, the spread of literacy to wider populations, the creation of new institutions and rationalized bureaucracies. Even then, mythic culture was not supplanted by theoretic culture: the new nation states notably made use of all the strategies of mythic culture in creating grand narratives of the folk and their soil, united under one flag, one anthem, one canon of art and literature – and kept safe under the watchful eyes of one government. But these new “secular”-but-mythologized nation states also gave room for institutions where reflective knowledge was to be cultivated, and its fruits exploited in industry, business, and the ordering of society itself. We got education systems disciplining individual brains to do very difficult tasks such as reading, writing, and calculating things. We got the sort of distributed cognitive system that we are part of today.

The central message of this story, however, is not one of the unstoppable march of progress. Rather, it is that theoretic culture is extremely fragile, because entirely dependent on complex cognitive distribution networks spanning numerous interdependent institutions. As Robert McCauley concludes in Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not (2011), science is a socio-cognitive enterprise that can easily be crushed and disappear from a culture entirely with the collapse of a few central institutions. As Donald notes in the interview, there are reasons to doubt whether theoretic culture is sustainable on the longer run – let alone that it can ever be “purified” in the sense of ridding us of mythic and mimetic elements. Secularists and atheists may not have much reason to cheer the converging evidence from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). What Pascal Boyer (2001) called “the tragedy of the theologian” – that “theological correctness” is rarely followed in practice due to various constraints on online, unreflective cognition – is simultaneously the tragedy of the atheist demagogue. As (the later) Peter Berger put it: ‘The religious impulse … has been a perennial feature of humanity. … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.’

We have to overcome humanity itself to overcome religion. So, to spice up our forecast, let’s look at some who would not shy away from doing exactly that: the transhumanists. What happens to religion if the future belongs to the cyborgs?

To begin with: transhumanists are divided on the question of religion/spirituality. A clear majority identifies as secular, and many of those are self-proclaimed atheists. Some, such as the Brighter Brains Institute think-tank, dabble in militant atheism (their term) together with neuroengineering, biohacking, and radical life extension. But there are also various strands of explicitly religious transhumanists, such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association. These Cyborgs for God see new technologies and radical modifications of human nature as ways of approaching salvation and becoming divine. Others, who would often self-describe as secular, still draw on religion-like narratives to talk about our imminent transhuman revolution through the “technological Singularity”. Some advocates, such as Ray Kurzweil, even see the singularity as a way to create God by rearranging all the matter in the universe and making it conscious.

That implementing new and even deeply transformative technologies would not necessarily stall the development of religious meaning-making but set it on a new course instead should not surprise us. Humans are after all natural born cyborgs, waking up to find new ways to improve the reach of our bodies and limits of our minds. The transhuman future (whichever one it is) may be more of a quantitative than a qualitative change. A technocentered spirituality of cyborgs that continue to utilize the deep proclivities from evolutionary history even in an age of exoskeletons, biohacks, and brain/computer interfaces is one possible transhuman future for religion. The form and function of this spirituality would depend entirely on the social form that this transhuman society would take – the governance structure of the by then extremely distributed cognitive network (think ubiquitous computing). If current trends of speculation among spiritual transhumanists are any indication, worship of the emerging Internet of Things as itself “conscious” and “divine” seems one path. But the actions of the class of experts who build, develop, and – most crucially – own the infrastructure of this network remains a decisive factor. Think of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” turned into a first commandment, flashing on our retinas when we power up in the morning.

What about the intertwined future of irreligion? Another possibility is that a convergence of neuroengineering and artificial intelligence manages to rewire the brain in such a way that it meets Berger’s condition for the eradication of religion. In other words, not just a change in the distributed cognitive network, but a radical transformation of the biological component of that network – something that we haven’t seen in the previous cultural revolutions according to Donald.

To atheist transhumanists reading this: such rewiring may be one possible route to universal atheism, but you need to seriously consider whether it is a desirable one. In another recent book on religion and evolution, Big Gods (2013), Ara Norenzayan distinguishes between four roads to atheism. The first of these, “mind-blind atheism”, is the most fundamental. It addresses the neuroanatomical and computational level that could be altered by a radical transhuman approach bent on removing the basic cognitive mechanisms that create our susceptibility for what these engineers would consider “religion” (notions of gods, spirits, rituals and so forth). Since those basic mechanisms include such fundamental things as Theory of Mind and conceptual blending, however, rewiring us for atheism essentially means rewiring us for autism – and taking away our grasp of such things as metaphor while at it.

That’s probably a price too high for getting rid of a few god concepts. But the transhuman atheist need not necessarily despair. There are more feasible paths to near-global atheism. These would however rely, once more, on the structure of distributed cognitive networks rather than on essential changes to the brain. It will be important to establish certain types of institutions and forms of governance. Seeing that a large proportion of transhumanists appear to lean towards free-market libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, the necessary steps of this model might in fact not be too appealing: It appears that to build well-functioning godless societies we must first become Scandinavian-style social democrats.

It is true that the sort of post-scarcity “abundance society” that some transhumanist authors imagine might correlate to some extent with the apathetic kind of atheism (“We’ve got all this cool stuff, so why bother?”). But the evidence suggests that it is the distribution of this wealth and power that will be the key factor. Social and economic equality, managed by a big welfare state that citizens trust, are the strongest correlates for irreligion. The futuristic medievalists of the “neoreactionary movement” that’s currently attracting some attention in transhumanist circles is certainly wide off the mark. They want to keep high-technology while essentially abandoning Merlin Donald’s theoretic culture all together for a return to old-school mythic culture – kings, knights, underlings and all. Sort of sounds like a bad idea. But good conditions for strange new religions to emerge.

The question of religion’s evolutionary future, then, has little to do with whether or not we become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs, and have been for tens of thousands of years. It has more to do with what kinds of cyborgs we become, and how we organize ourselves when we’re there.


Bellah, Robert. 2011. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. The Bellknap Press / Harvard University Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Burge, Tyler. 2010. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Andy. 2010. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 2001. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Malafouris, Lambros. 2013. How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Reflections on the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 4 October 2012. Stockholm University, Sweden, August 27-29, 2012

Egil Asprem (University of Amsterdam) and Kennet Granholm (Åbo Akademi/Stockholm University), influential members of what Jesper Aagaard Petersen calls the ‘brat pack’ of esotericism studies, have made a fantastic effort in putting together the first International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism at Stockholm University. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to speak at this dynamic colloquium, and even more excited to get to know some of the scholars that have been (and some that will be) formative in my academic career. Although this conference suffered the same kind of setbacks that the EASR did (stuffy rooms, unreliable technology, the occasional scheduling mishap that left some sessions too full, others almost empty), I would have to say that this is probably one of the most interesting, and the most fun, conferences I have ever attended. I came to this conference as a bit of an outsider. Socially, in that many of the attendees were already acquainted either through their common institutions, or affiliations such as European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism or the Phoenix Rising Academy but also professionally, as, although I have a keen interest in it, I don’t consider esotericism to be my forte. However, this did not diminish my experience. I eagerly absorbed the expertise that surrounded me and made some lifelong personal connections with my fellow participants.

There is something delightful about the Egil and Kennet duo, and some of that charm lies in their complementary aesthetic – blond Egil with his (suitably) cherubic face, and Kennet’s black metal style, complete with a dark veil of hair and leather pants, make for striking syzygy. And who better than an authority on angels and a specialist on dark magic to lead a symposium on esotericism? This event marked not only the inaugural conference focused on contemporary expressions of esotericism, but also the launch of Egil and Kennet’s compilation of essays Contemporary Esotericism, to which many of the speakers collaborated, and the Contemporary Esotericism Research Network or ConTERN (associated with ESSWE). Egil and Kennet, as demonstrated by their prolificacy, are truly dedicated to raising up the study of esotericism, particularly in the modern contexts of popular culture, new media, and politics, and giving this subject the academic attention it so obviously deserves.

Kennet and Egil opened the conference with what I felt was a theme for the following days – tough love. In their lecture, our conveners made clear the reasons why they felt this conference was so necessary: for too long scholars of religion have considered esotericism to be a historical phenomenon, completing their timelines in the 1950s. Likewise, scholarship has narrowly focused on ‘elite’ strains of esotericism, disregarding the folk expressions, the influence of popular culture, the internet, and other forms of so-called ‘low culture,’ that have impacted on the development of esoteric currents. This was a plea for academics to broaden their horizons, and I believe that many of the papers presented at this conference went above and beyond in answering this call.

Christopher Partridge of Lancaster University delivered the first keynote address, drawn from his extensive work on contemporary esotericism explored in his seminal tome The Re-Enchantment of the West. His paper ‘Occulture is Ordinary’ (which can be found in Egil and Kennet’s anthology), considered the effects of secularization and sacralisation in our post-industrial world, and how occulture (the merging of popular culture with what were once considered recondite, secret, and elite knowledges) has been acquiring legitimacy and plausibility. Chris took a self-reflective moment to review and update his own terminology, arguing that we must remember that occulture is not static, but growing and ever-changing. Occulture is also not a strictly modern phenomenon, as neither religion nor culture exist in a vacuum – in fact religion and culture have a symbiotic relationship that continuously blurs the line between fiction and faith. This talk, in its relevance but also Chris’s approachable style, set the tone of creative intellectualism and affability for the days that followed.

One says this all the time, but in this case I really mean it – there was simply too much good stuff to see at this conference. Some tough decisions had to be made, but I regret nothing! I was especially sad to be speaking in the same timeslot as the session on Satanism and the Left Hand Path, during which, I’ve been told, Jesper Petersen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Per Faxneld (Stockholm University), and George Sieg (University of Exeter) presented three stimulating papers on contextualizing and theorizing Satanism and ‘sinister’ occultism. Amongst other interesting talks that I missed, but would have loved to have attended, were Colin Duggan’s (University College Cork) ‘Chaos and the Zine Scene,’ Francisco Santos Silva’s (New University of Lisbon) ‘Jorge Ben Jor and Raul Seixas: Two Brazilian Esotericist pop-musicians in the 1970s,’ and speakers like Henrik Bogdan, Thomas Karlsson, and Erik Davis, who failed to materialize. Nonetheless, I was more than impressed with the quality of the papers I did get to see.

I spoke (to a fairly full classroom, no auditorium for me this round) alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) for a second time, and was joined in the session on Gender and Queer by Brady Burroughs (Royal Institute of Technology). I, once again, discussed Therianthropy, but approached the subject of animal-human identity from a methodology standpoint, experimenting with post-colonial, digital, and queer theory as I tried to conceive of an appropriate framework through which this phenomenon can be better understood. Manon provided an overview of masculinity and femininity as perceived by various occult traditions and called for a scholarly consideration of gender in lived practice. Brady, whose discipline is architecture, presented an avant-garde paper that combined academic discussion with her own poetry, examining themes of inhabitation and lesbian identity on the island of Lesbos. Though loosely related, this session represented diverse arenas of study. Speaking to my own experience, I found the audience responsive and respectful, though in hindsight I think that on occasion my jocular and flippant manner can sometimes detract from my professionalism, a balance that can sometimes be hard to maintain once you’ve reached a certain comfort level amongst your colleagues (although, paradoxically, I think nervous energy also contributes).

The second keynote was given that afternoon by my supervisor Jay Johnston of the University of Sydney. Jay’s work traverses the fields of sex, the body, art, archaeology, self, identity, and religion, and she brought a wealth of knowledge to her address on gender in esotericism. The need to problematise notions of heteronormativity and dimorphic gender in the academic discourse surrounding esoteric spirituality is a timely but tricky subject which Jay handled artfully (and artistically, with neat illustrations of the Tarot card ‘The Lovers’ on her slides). This was back to tough love, as it was not only an interesting speech, but a light chiding, warning scholars of esotericism against committing the mistakes of the past and blithely disregarding non-normative and marginalised sexual subjectivities. I wondered, after hearing Manon give two papers on sexuality in magic in theory and practice (which can be two very different things) how we might marry our sometimes lofty philosophical theories of critical gender with the reality of lived religion. Certainly, there is more work to be done in this area, and by weaving together new and nuanced methodologies with the subtleties and realities of religion in practice, scholars will surely discover a deeper level of analysis.

In the afternoon I attended part one of two sessions on ‘Esopolitics,’ the first focusing on right wing politics and esoteric thought. This was a particularly enlightening segment for me, as I previously knew embarrassingly little about neo-conservative paganism. Papers by Jacob Senholt (University of Aarhus) and Tommy Ramstedt (Åbo Akademi) were of especial interest because they looked at European and Nordic examples, giving great insight to the correlations between nationalism, environmentalism, anti-modernism, and spirituality in various ‘autochthonous’ pagan ideologies. Amy Hale (University of Maryland) added her own expertise to the panel, discussing examples of ‘radical traditionalism’ as a marketing tool in Europe and America. I was able to catch the tail-end of Justin Woodman’s (University of London) paper on the influence of Lovecraft and UFOlogy as ‘post-secular demonology,’ which delved into a fascinating zone of popular occulture, but perhaps attempted to cover more than could fit into a 20 minute timeslot.

After a night of, shall we say, decompression, a fair few of us were feeling a little less fresh than usual the next morning for Kocku von Stuckrad’s keynote. However, this rousing address soon had the cogs turning. Kocku (University of Gronigen) continued the program of tough love by reminding us that dialogue between academics is not only useful, but necessary, and this critical discussion must happen in an environment of amicable openness, not hyper-sensitivity or condemnation. To this end, we should all be making more an effort to be not just inter-disciplinary but transdisciplinary. It’s not enough, Kocku argued, to dabble in a bit of sociology, or psychology, or folklore studies – when it comes to the study of religion, and to still-emerging areas such as contemporary esotericism, we must engage in a multi-disciplinary exchange in order to break down the solipsism, isolation, and elitism that can hinder our work. A short list of ‘what is wrong with studies of esotericism,’ modeled on Markus Davidsen’s breakdown of what is wrong with pagan studies, also includes: essentialism, exclusivism, loyalism, and supernaturalism – positions that negatively affect the quality of scholarly analysis, and obstruct the perpetuation of a discipline that is progressive and rigorous. This stirring lecture was an energizing way to begin the second day of an already stimulating conference, and I was glad to toast Kocku at the conference dinner later that night.

Part II of ‘EsoPolitics,’ the Esoteric Left, saw a collection of interesting papers on the merging of politics with religion. Justine Bakker (University of Amsterdam) discussed the transmission between occultism and African American identity and the concept of the ‘black cultic milieu,’ infused with nationalism, racial identity, and a ‘consciousness of deviance.’ Justine’s paper functioned as a call to esoteric scholars to consider this milieu as syncretic, yet distinctive, and influential in it’s own right. Christian Giudice followed with an intriguing case study: the Horus Maat Lodge and their adaptation of the Occupy movement slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ These practitioners made it their magical goal to channel energy to the Occupiers and awaken the global populace to this political message, a great example of urban enchantment. Daniel Radermacher gave the final paper in this session on eco-spirituality, a topic that could have taken up it’s own session. Daniel’s premise of challenging Campbell’s Easternisation thesis by looking at the European roots of religious environmentalism is a promising one, but overall I felt there was not enough attention paid to some significant benchmarks such as Anthroposophical biodynamics, the Gaia hypothesis, and deep green paganism to sufficiently flesh out the relationship between nature and religion in the Western context. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the contrasts, and many of the striking similarities, between the right and left esopolitics sessions, and look forward to seeing more work developing in this field.

After lunch (at the very satisfactory SU cafeteria), Wouter Hanegraaff, a bastion of western esoteric studies, delivered a paper on a subject that is fairly new to him and to the field in general, that is, entheogens and the spiritual experience. Hanegraaff, modestly, admitted to wrongly dismissing the influence of drugs in his previous work. His intention in this paper (and explored in his chapter in Contemporary Esotericism) was to draw our attention to this phenomenon, and insist that we not just acknowledge the role of psychoactives in ecstatic practice, but analyse the gnostic implications. In the afternoon, Sasha Chaitow (University of Essex) and Hereward Tilton (University of Exeter) discussed contemporary enchantment in the unique and religiously significant landscapes of Greece and Glastonbury respectively. Sasha offered a profile of Greece’s neomythology with reference to its highly eclectic schools of esotericism, supported by her own field work. Tilton focused on the alternative history that has grown up around the cult of St Joseph of Arimathea and which is deeply ingrained in the town’s identity.

The conference dinner was a tasty vegetarian buffet at a restaurant/bar, followed by cheap and easy drinks in a crowded pub. While things got a bit blurry toward the end, I have many a good mental snapshot of laughs and chats, and some vague memories of inviting myself to visit various professors at their esteemed European institutions… sorry about that. Thankfully, day three reconvened at the sensible hour of 10am, with parallel sessions on magic and psychologisation, and initiation and secrecy. I attended the most of the latter session, catching some insights into Freemasonry and other initiatory traditions from those who straddle the etic/emic border. This was concluded with a lively talk from Joseph Futerman (Chicago School of Professional Psychology) who opened up the subject of secrecy and it’s psychological attributions and benefits. After lunch the key speakers (Chris Partridge, Wouter Hanegraaff, Kocku von Stuckrad, and Jay Johnston) partook in a round table discussion and fielded questions from Kennet, Egil, and the audience. Despite the much rumoured rivalries between scholars of esotericism, this panel exhibited not just diplomacy and a friendly attitude toward discussion and debate, but perhaps even a surprising amount of agreement. What is important to remember is that esotericism cannot be essentialised – it is an emerging and expanding phenomenon and field of study. What one scholar does not investigate or consider becomes the domain of another as our scope progressively widens and diversifies.

The final activity of this busy conference was the tour of ‘occult Stockholm’ led by Thomas Karlsson (Stockholm University). Thomas is not only a scholar or occultism, but a practitioner, and the founder of the left-hand path initiatory tradition the Order of the Dragon Rouge. The highlight of the tour was visiting the temple of the Dragon Rouge, tucked away in the claustrophobic basement of an unremarkable apartment building. Decorated with inventive hieroglyphs, sigils, plastic draconian figurines, and a theme of black and red, the temple includes a mysterious and unlit inner sanctum with a solemn circular mirror on the floor, I suppose for ‘reflections’ of a deeper kind. Though I did not follow up the opportunity to ask Thomas questions about the practices of the Dragon Rouge, I would direct any curious readers to his and Kennet Granholm’s published works on the subject. In fact, I encourage readers to get on google.scholar or immediately if they are interested in discovering more about the work of any of the scholars here mentioned, or any others that participated in the two wonderful conferences that were held in Stockholm this September.

By way of conclusion, I should add that I’ve intentionally given a positive review of the EASR and the Contemporary Esotericism conference. There has been no bending of the truth, but I also don’t believe there is much point in dwelling on the negatives (costs, temporary bouts of disorganization, the occasional dud speaker) as these issues are par for the course. I hope that students like myself might read of my good experiences and feel motivated to participate (even just as an attendee) in this environment, bringing their original research, innovative methods, and unique perspectives to an audience of professionals with varied, and yet sometimes very specific, areas of expertise. Being involved in an international conference can be a great confidence builder, useful networking opportunity, and an invaluable resource for feedback, especially for a thesis in the works! My sincere thanks go to the conference teams for all of their hard work in putting together a solid week’s worth of entertaining education – can’t wait to see it all happen again next year!

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About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.