Spiritual Tech is the Future of False Religion

A review of "Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering"

Progress comes at you fast. First there was TV, then LSD, and now the Pope is praying for the beneficial power of artificial intelligence. For tech-savvy believers on the move, Facebook currently offers a “pray” button to soothe souls in despair. So it comes as no surprise that people are zapping their brains to see God.

Despite the aura of ancient tradition, all cultural modes have evolved over time. Therefore, it should feel natural to see new technologies that augment, transform, and maybe even replace the more ancient patterns. Nevertheless, the inventions presented in Spirit Tech (St. Martin's Press, 2021) rattle the soul.

Written by Wesley Wildman and Kate Stockly, the book offers a dizzying panorama of transcranial brain stimulation, neurofeedback devices, digitized community, sacralized virtual reality, psychedelic rituals, and AI-powered gurus. As specialists in the scientific study of religion— Wildman and Stockly explore this techno revolution in elegant detail.

While their conclusion is overwhelmingly optimistic, the authors are careful to point out potential dangers to both the individual and the wider social structure. Their ultimate purpose is to inform the world about the future, not to advertise it.

Personally, I suspect these technologies are an ominous sign of things to come. Can you imagine a congregation dotted with sleek, three-hundred dollar God-helmets? It's absurd.

That's not to say I don't want to try all of them, though. In fact, I've done a few more than once.

Shocking the Soul's Machinery

From the outset, Wildman and Stockly take a naturalistic approach to religious phenomena, whether cultural or biological. Nature is sufficient unto Herself to produce gods and men. In nearly every case, then, the artificial religious experiences they discuss center on the brain and its manipulation. Of course, some methods are more direct than others.

After decades of development, transcranial stimulation has finally come into its own. It can be used to agitate a subject or create the illusion of ghostly presences. It can also be used to induce contentment.

Buddhist practitioners spend decades of their lives cultivating that inner stillness. Their goal is to heighten intention and eliminate desire—to achieve nirvana—through arduous meditative practices. According to Shinzen Young and Jay Sanguinetti, founders of the SEMA Lab at the University of Arizona, the same equanimity can be achieved through transcranial focused ultrasound stimulation.

The primary targets are the posterior cingulate cortex and the basal ganglia. After fifty years of diligent meditation, Shinzen Young claims that transcranial ultrasound stimulation put him in one of the deepest states he's ever experienced. “[It] felt like a deep remembering of what he really was,” write Wildman and Stockly, “his true self; and what mediation, mindfulness, and the Buddhist path are all about.” If the technology is as promising as it sounds, a novice might be brought to the edge of enlightenment with the push of a button—at least momentarily.

To their credit, Young and Sanguinetti are keeping their work out of the hands of Silicon Valley investors. That is, until the safety and ethics are worked out. But it's only a matter of time, I imagine, before some version of their invention is available on Amazon. Various counterparts, like the the Zendo headset, are already out on the market.

Donning the God Goggles

Virtual reality is a more content-specific form of spirit tech. At present, most people strap on the goggles to shoot zombies or slice flying pieces of fruit. But since its earliest days, VR has promised direct experience of fully realized parallel dimensions. Long-term immersion can be so intense, some users slip into depression upon returning to their drab corporeal existence.

When asked about the prospect of what the “useless class” will do after robots take over our jobs, the historian Yuval Noah Harari quipped:

“They will spend more and more time playing virtual reality games. It will give them much more excitement and emotional engagement than anything in ‘the real world’ outside. ... You could say that for thousands of years already, millions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. We just call these games ‘religions.’”

It sounds sensational, but Wildman and Stockly present case studies that suggest Harari was only scratching the surface. Their chapter on “Virtual Sacred Reality” introduces two digital artists who call themselves Android Jones and Swami Avudhut. One of their VR creations is Samskara, which blends trippy visuals and sacred geometry with Hindu theology. (Its name derives from the Sanskrit term for “karmic impression.”)

According to Jones, Samskara is meant to “give someone a deeply powerful experience and then use that to share the deeper knowledge of the Hindu Vedas.”

Another of their productions, Microdose VR, allows users to paint 3D space with energetic streams that pulsate with techno beats. “The developers have also created a level that incorporates neurofeedback and biofeedback into the experience. Teaming together with the creators of the Muse headband, they created a prototype of a VR headset that has infrared sensors resting on the player's chest that pick up heart rate and EEG sensors on the head to track brain waves.”

This is only the beginning. Having developed in fits and starts, VR has finally gained mainstream commercial appeal. Presently, there are over 170 million VR users worldwide, and the demand is growing fast. Now that the hardware has been sufficiently refined, I expect to see this vast digital void fill up with vivid heavens, traumatizing hells, and countless intermediate realms.

D.J. Soto, founder of the first VR Church, is well-prepared to capitalize on these possibilities. “‘VR affects the brain unlike any other technology,’ he said. … D.J. even expressed interest in creating spaces and experiences that might help facilitate spiritual or mystical experiences—for example, encounters with Jesus or God. ‘All through Scripture, there are these encounters with God—why wouldn't we try to replicate that? … Why wouldn't God be present in the virtual world?’”

Imagine a technophilic Christian sect immersed in first-person Passion plays where congregants get whipped to Golgotha and crucified. Or a VR simulation of Muhammad's night journey, where scores of apostates ride winged horses to heaven and speak to Allah face-to-face.

In all seriousness, I think virtual reality will be the most powerful spiritual technology to emerge since the ancient Greeks perfected realistic sculpture. Today, our mundane reality is filtered through a maze of artificial images. If these cultural worlds are simulations that we all inhabit—if only partially—then VR simulations are the ultimate cultural production. The map becomes the territory, so to speak. It feels so real—and it's so thrilling—many will not want to leave.

The Future of Religion

Intriguing as they may be, direct brain stimulation and fully immersive media are just the tip of the iceberg. Spirit Tech brims with personal testimonies to the transformative power of spiritual technology.

A key concept that arises throughout Spirit Tech is the inevitability of rapid technological progress. Building on that assumption, Wildman and Stockly predict that these technologies will revolutionize spiritual life across the globe. In particular, they see techno-biochemical techniques as a means for burgeoning non-religious communities to fulfill an evolved need for meaning and transcendence.

To the question of authenticity, they give a hopeful “You shall know them by their fruits.” To the question of health and safety, however, they tend to err on the side of caution. At the book's conclusion they confess, “[T]he deepest concern about what lies ahead of us is not technologies of spiritual enhancement as such but commercial exploitation of spirituality by people who see amazing market opportunities rather than intimately personal and majestic spiritual quests.”

They warn against “heartless greed merchants for whom spirit tech is just one more product to distract the masses from the harsh reality of corporate greed.” That warning could easily be extended to tech-savvy fundamentalists or Chinese communists, but the sentiment still stands.

Despite my faith in the authors' discernment and goodwill, I can't say I share their abiding optimism. The appropriation of these technologies by powerful people—and their use to abusive ends—is probably as inevitable as their development. That's just the nature of the beast.

Spirit tech reminds me of an old story. In Hindu cosmology, the asura Maya continually builds the illusory phenomenal world, where the eternal atman is imprisoned. His enchantments are so seductive, it could take a million lifetimes to break free. It's amazing craftsmanship, to be sure, but a bit outdated. These days, he has some serious competition in Silicon Valley.

writes about ethnic identity, transhuman hubris, and the eternal spiritual quest. His work has appeared in The Federalist, ColdType, The American Thinker, The National Pulse, This View of Life, The American Spectator, IBCSR: Science on Religion, Disinformation, and elsewhere. Follow him @JOEBOTxyz and www.joebot.xyz.

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