Posthumanism and Religion Pt 1
What is posthumanism?
If you’ve been anywhere near academia the last few years, you’ve likely heard the term “posthuman.” Posthumanism covers a diverse area of thought, branching into areas of study from archeology to computer science to the humanities.
Common to all posthuman discourse is a central theme: the rejection of humanism. According to Rosi Braidotti, “The posthuman provokes elation but also anxiety about the possibility of a serious de-centring of ‘Man’, the former measure of all things” (Braidotti 2013, 2). Braidotti traces humanism to Protagoras’s claim that “Man is the measure of all things.” This claim extends through the history of Western philosophy—a discipline which tends to place the human at the center of its understanding about the world. Posthumanism is distinct from anti-humanism because it doesn’t seek to abolish the human. Instead, it rejects anthropocentrism in favor of a decentred human in “interdependence with multiple others” (Braidotti 2013, 101). In other words, posthumanism breaks from the humanistic conception that humans—or more specifically men—are central to everything.
From a posthuman point of view, humans are no longer seen as static, isolated beings, but in relational evolution with other species. Donna Haraway’s later work looks at the ways humans and companion species—specifically dogs—have evolved together over time. Rather than simply looking at how humans have impacted the evolution of dogs, she examines the ways dogs have impacted the history of humans as well. Haraway tells stories of how the domestication of dogs benefited both dogs, who found a new source of unlimited nutrition from human garbage, and humans, who learned to work with dogs in tasks like hunting and sheep herding. Together humans and dogs co-evolve (Haraway 2003), decentering the human as the relationship produces something new for both species.
From a religious perspective, humanism always appeared problematic. This is not because religion fails to provide some degree of centrality to the human subject, but rather because religion usually contains some non-human transcendental entity or ideal at its center. In the Abrahamic religions, this transcendental entity is God, or Yahweh, or Allah. In polytheistic religions, there may be a plurality of gods who transcend humans and the world. Religion problematizes humanism by centering a Deity — or deities. If we examine religion as a type of cultural technology, we can see religion inverts the humanistic relationship between technology and the human. Rather than the human as a shaper of technology, as in humanism, the religious model posits the technology—religion—shapes humans.
The posthuman move in religion is to de-center the religious technology. This means understanding religion and human as co-producing or co-evolving entities. Religion comes to be seen as a relationship where neither is granted causal or ontological priority.
We can look to the empirical realm for evidence of how religions and humans co-evolve. For example, consider the history of the prosperity gospel. Prosperity theology teaches “the poor are poor because of a lack of faith — that poverty is the fault of the poor themselves,” and by extension, true faith leads to economic and spiritual prosperity (Koch 2009, 1). While not attempting to necessarily promote a causal relationship between the two, the prosperity gospel sounds similar to American meritocracy which can be described as “a system that rewards merit — ability+effort—with success” (Cooper 2015). Together, these movements could be summed up in the colloquialism “God helps those who helps themselves.” This ethic isn’t based on scripture: In Luke 12, Jesus tells a rich man he must sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor; Luke 6:20 explicitly states “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (ESV). Such a message seems at odds with—or even paradoxical to—the prosperity and meritocratic gospel.
Putting aside the moralism or problematic nature of the prosperity gospel for now, we can instead examine how this sort of theology develops. Walter Benjamin argues in “Capitalism as Religion” (Benjamin 2005), that at the turn of the Reformation, Christianity changed into capitalism. While I disagree with Benjamin’s claim that this is necessarily the case, we can see in contemporary prosperity theology there is some Christianity which was shaped by humans because of capitalism — a human technology. In the relationship between capitalism and Christianity, we can see how humans shaped religion through the adoption of prosperity theology.