Posthumanism and Religion

Posthumanism and Religion by Jacob Vangeest

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.

Religious Posthumans

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.

The Ethical Dimension

In his book Laruelle: Against the Digital, Alexander Galloway puts forward an excellent chapter on Laruelle’s ethics. For Laruelle, Christ is the cornerstone of humanity through his victimhood: on the cross—not as the representation of humanity, but as a generic figure of humanity—Christ suffers as a human. He is a victim of violence. For Laruelle, the ethical act is one which shows compassion for this generic human as victim. He cares not for the identity of the prostitute, the tax collector or the leper, but instead treats them as humans who are in need of compassion.

Anthony Paul Smith provides an example of what this ethical action looks like. Smith describes two events that took place around the Arab Spring in Egypt. At Christmas, Coptic Christians were being attacked by militant extremists. In order to help these Christians, “Egyptian Muslims surrounded the church to provide a human shield and assure their Christian compatriots of their safety and liberty to worship.” After Mubarak had taken power in the region, his police surveillance force began to attack protesters on the street. In order “To Protect their Muslim compatriots during these vulnerable periods and to give them the dignity and peace required for prayer, the Coptic Christians of Egypt formed a ring around those at prayer repeating the act of becoming human shields” (Smith 2015, 108). Despite religious and identity based differences, each of these religious communities showed compassion for the Other as humans. For Laruelle, this is not an embrace of the Other as Other, nor is it an affirmation of difference. Rather, it is a withdrawal from identity into compassion for the generic victimhood of humanity. Galloway shows that, while the political is to focus on self-interest — I vs. Other — the ethical is an act of self-sacrifice in favor of the mutual: It is the “absolute inclusion of the totality at its lowest level” (Galloway 2014, 190). Christ’s self-sacrifice is an ethical action that breaks with individuality in favor of the totality: humanity.

At this point, the posthuman perspective provides two outlooks. First, the posthuman takes this generic humanity and extends it outward with the inclusion of the nonhuman within its totality. Second, it provides an avenue for the transformation of the religious towards a more ethical end.

Braidotti says of Posthuman ethics: “…to be posthuman does not mean to be indifferent to humans, or to be de-humanized. On the contrary, it rather implies a new way of combining ethical values with the well-being of an enlarged sense of community, which includes one’s territorial or environmental inter-connections” (Braidotti 2013, 190). This is an ethical system based on the togetherness of humans and nonhumans—it establishes an ethic which is centred on the mutual need of the multitude. Through its interaction with this goal, religion can become a tool which is used for the transformation of human subjectivity towards inclusion. There is, of course, a danger of oppressive aspects taking control of religious practice, but this is a danger with any tool. In prosperity theology, we can see the co-evolution of religion and humanity producing what Laruelle might call a political end (I vs. Other). The prosperity gospel stresses individuality by distinguishing the haves and have-nots. Capitalism’s individualism produces Christian individualism, turning the religious focus away from the ethical (inclusion). Despite, or in spite of, this danger, religion can be a tool of liberatory ends.

By adopting the inclusion of the victim, the church in fact follows Christ’s message in Matthew 25, that whatever is done unto the least is done unto Christ. How the church responds to this message changes due to various historically-based criteria over time. It could mean the church undergoes a transformation due to societal value: becoming more inclusive of all without any condemnation over selective criteria. But simple inclusion or identity politics does not go far enough: The centrality of the dominant group—white men—must be radically decentred within this space of the church. Truly relating in a posthuman manner would lead to the decolonization of the church, not to the exclusion of any group, but rather to produce a truly liberatory space which treats everyone as human. This means the church must go beyond token accounts of diversity and inclusion, and adopt methods which seek to end colonial and imperialist practices that are all too often inherent in its structural reality.[1]

In other circumstances, due to human materiality, the transformation of the church can take place within the church’s very structure. First United was one of the first congregations in Vancouver, BC, initially forming in 1885, one year before the official founding of the city. In the 1890s the church moved to the Hastings Street area, which is now known as the Downtown Eastside. Over time, this area of Vancouver turned into a rougher area of town. Throughout its ministry in the area, First United dedicated itself towards helping those in its community, but during the mid-2000s it found the traditional church space an uneffective means of supporting this community. First United was transformed from a traditional space of worship into a space dedicated to serve those in need. It converted the building into a shelter, a soup kitchen, a needle exchange, and a storage space. In order to be in solidarity and serve, the Church needed to reconstitute itself into a space specifically for those who needed it. The church building was changed in order to become more inclusive and accepting of those typically not accepted within its sphere.

Christianity (and religion as a whole) is open towards change through interaction with humanity, towards a posthuman ethic which includes everyone—regardless of gender, sexuality, race, ability, or even belief. Christianity is based in the “absolute inclusion” of Christ’s victimhood without a form of exclusion. Like other religions, it is a technology which shapes humans and is shaped by humans in a relationship of co-production. It welcomes everyone in.

 


 

 

[1] Readers should note that a discussion on decolonizing the church would take a paper (or a book) in itself. One interesting example of this is the Decolonize Lutheranism Movement.

 

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Walter. 2005. “Capitalism as Religion.” In The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by Major Thinkers, edited by E. Mendieta, translated by C. Kautzer, 259–62. New York; London: Routledge.

Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. 1 edition. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA, USA: Polity.

Cooper, Marianne. 2015. “The False Promise of Meritocracy.” The Atlantic, December 1. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/meritocracy/418074/.

Galloway, Alexander R. 2014. Laruelle: Against the Digital. Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Graeber, David. 2014. Debt – Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years. Epub. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Haidle, Miriam Noël. 2006. How to Think Tools? A Comparison of Cognitive Aspects in Tool Behavior of Animals and during Human Evolution. Universität Tübingen. https://publikationen.uni-tuebingen.de/xmlui/handle/10900/49627.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149–81. New York: Routledge. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto/.

———. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Edited by Matthew Begelke. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kennedy, Gavin. 2009. “Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth.” Econ Journal Watch 6 (2): 239–63.

Koch, Bradley A. 2009. “The Prosperity Gospel and Economic Prosperity: Race, Class, Giving, and Voting.” Dissertation, Indianapolis: Indiana University. https://philanthropy.iupui.edu/files/file/brad_koch_final_dissertation.pdf.

Smith, A. 2015. A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought. 2013 edition. Palgrave Macmillan.

 

 

Jacob Vangeest

Contributor at Christianity Now
Jacob Vangeest is currently studying social and political thought through the New Centre for Research and Practice. His research interests include the study of power in information, technology, and religion. He enjoys reading, hiking, and drinking tea.

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