Network for the Social Scientific Study of Science and Religion

Jacqueline Frost

Atheist Churches and AI Utopias:
Repurposing Religious Means for Secular Ends

In the wake of rising rates of religious disaffiliation in the U.S., a growing number of nonreligious organizations, identities, and practices have taken shape to accommodate the atheists, agnostics, and other “Nones” that are part of this growing nonreligious demographic. In my dissertation, I investigated these trends, centering on a three-year case study of a network of “atheist churches” called the Sunday Assembly. I found that not only are these atheist churches explicitly borrowing from religious forms to embody their faith in science and secularism, one of the dominant discourses I encountered in my fieldwork was that of “scientific spirituality.” Many nonreligious people look to things like physiology, chemistry, and physics to both explain their “secular spiritual” experiences and to intentionally cultivate these experiences in settings like the Sunday Assembly. For this project, I will build on my dissertation fieldwork with a comparative case study of the transhumanist movement. Transhumanism is a philosophical and cultural movement that promotes the use of technology to “hack” human evolution. Through the use of neuroscience, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, the goal of transhumanism is to enhance and extend human life through technological means. While a majority of transhumanists are secular, they represent a growing faith in the transformative power of science and there are numerous aspects of transhumanism that are considered religion-like. And while transhumanism is a growing cultural movement with well-resourced and influential members, there is very little sociological research on transhumanists. What are the social and contextual factors that determine whether someone adopts a transhumanist perspective? How do these factors shape the ways that transhumanists differently combine scientific and religious commitments? And how do secular transhumanists and religious transhumanists negotiate their often-conflicting beliefs in shared spaces like transhumanist churches and conferences? Through ethnographic observations of in-person transhumanist spaces like the Church of Perpetual Life and the Christian Transhumanist Conference, content analysis of online transhumanist spaces like Humanity+ and Terasem Faith, and in-depth interviews with individual transhumanists, my comparative study will contribute to the Science and Religion project’s larger questions about how people creatively combine commitments to science and religion in contemporary contexts.