Finding Mormons within Cyborg Archetypes

Borg-ham Young

In a previous post, I suggested that the cyborg was a useful myth for post-patriarchal Mormonism. The cyborg is an inseparable union of body and mind, mechanism and person. The cyborg is, in a sense, a refutation of Cartesian dualism. Mormonism can be a uniquely cyborg-affirming religion, because in Mormon theology, pure humanity is already compromised. Personhood is inescapably merged with matter, as even the Mormon “spirit” is material, and the religion’s mythical gods are imagined to be people who learned over eons to control natural forces in advanced ways. In the prior post, I discussed how the cyborg was a feminist myth which seems ready-made for incorporation into ways that Mormons can think about themselves.

Cyborgs are not strictly science fiction, because all of us are already cyborgs, unions of person and technology. We are deluding ourselves to think that we are members of a pure human race. We lost our pure humanity before humanity even began: you could think of our first major overhaul as the large hominin brain expansion at the beginning of the stone age in response to advanced tool use. Other fiction genres deal with loss of humanity or human purity, but in science fiction, such transformations are made transparent and inescapable. Science fiction stories explore what it means to be a cyborg.

Given the religion’s connection to cyborgs, it would be natural to situate Mormons within fictional cyborg archetypes. In this post, I will outline some of the cyborg archetypes, and connect these archetypes to various Mormon people, theological concepts, or cultural elements. Fictional cyborgs can be either good or evil, because science fiction often uses cyborgs to explore the tension between humanity and technology or knowledge, and fear of losing the humanity. Therefore, the way that I connect “good” or “evil” cyborgs with Mormons will undoubtedly betray my biases about what constitutes “good” or “evil” Mormons.

The Superman / Superwoman

The first cyborg archetype is the superman or superwoman. Examples include the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman, Robocop, and any technology-enhanced comic book superhero, such as Iron Man, Spiderman, Dr. Manhattan, and the Hulk. The superman and superwoman merge humanity with technology to create a human that is “better, stronger, faster.” Often, these are heroic characters, but in some cases their power becomes so strong that it endangers civilization, and they need to be destroyed to save others.

In Mormon theology, gods are posthuman entities similar to Dr. Manhattan. As a prominent Mormon leader once wrote, “Under the law of evolution, man’s organization will become more and more complex. That is, he will increase in his power of using intelligence until in time, he will develop so far that, in comparison with his present state, he will be a God.”[1] The ascent of human to superhuman is symbolized by the Mormon temple ceremony, where men and women symbolically receive knowledge and power to enable them to become gods and goddesses.

The Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk fiction, as exemplified by the movie Blade Runner and the novel Neuromancer, tells stories about marginalized rebels within a dystopian information society ruled by corporate interests. These characters are typically closely associated with technology, and especially cyberspace.

The cyberpunks of Mormonism are the subversive internet and media personalities such as Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, who are seen to challenge the patriarchal and hegemonic powers of the corporate LDS Church, and therefore find themselves as outcasts. Cyberpunk fiction portrays these characters as heroic, but from the perspective of someone on the side of the corporation, such as most members of the LDS Church, these cyberpunks are dangerous. They represent disorder in a machine that otherwise seems to be well organized, with everything in its place and everybody working in unison. But from the perspective of the cyberpunks, this seeming order hides an underlying fragility. Cyberpunk fiction plays, in part, to our fear of not being in control of our bodies and our environment, just as the stories of Kelly and Dehlin play to the fear of the LDS Church losing control of its body of members.

The Android

An android is a machine that seems human but has no personhood. Lacking personhood, it is not a cyborg. However, it represents every cyborg’s fear of losing its personhood and becoming pure machine. This is the fear portrayed in the 1972 feminist movie The Stepford Wives, and in the Cybermen of Doctor Who.

In the Stepford Wives, women in a patriarchal dys/utopia are systematically replaced by android copies of themselves. These copies are identical to them in every way except that they lack personhood. Thus, they become subservient wives that fulfil every need of their husbands. In Doctor Who, the Cybermen are humans whose brains have been incorporated into mechanical bodies and their free will removed, so that they become unfeeling soldiers who simply follow orders.

Because they have no personhood, androids are not sympathetic characters, and are often portrayed as evil. To the extent that an android displays emotion or characteristics of personhood, it then becomes, more properly, a cyborg. But it is difficult for us to sympathize with an unthinking machine who only obeys orders and has no independent will or desires.

There are no real androids in Mormonism, of course, but there are episodes in Mormon history, like human history in general, that make one wonder if there has been a loss of independent personhood. The LDS Church has long taught that “obedience is the first law of heaven.” Young children frequently sing a song entitled “Follow the Prophet,” and when the Prophet speaks, “the debate is over.”[2] Indeed, Mormons are expected to follow his counsel even if it is wrong.[3] Obedience to rules and leaders is the highest and most important duty of members of the LDS Church, and there are many rules to follow. Many Mormons thrive under this culture of obedience. Yet, there have been times when this culture goes awry. In the Mountain Meadows massacre, a Mormon militia, acting in obedience to the local branch of the Mormon military leadership in 1857, killed over 100 innocent and unarmed men, women, and children in cold blood.

One may worry that, in such a culture of obedience to authority, there is a loss of personal autonomy. Perhaps this culture of obedience might compromise one’s autonomy of conscience, interests, personality, and political beliefs. On the other hand, from an institutional perspective, there are obvious benefits to a population that is willing to give strict obedience to its leaders. Without such obedience, it is hard to imagine how it would otherwise be possible for the church to run its missionary program. By the power of obedience, this program induces a large percentage of young Mormons to give up as much as two years of their early lives to volunteer to proselytize full time (and then some) for the church. These youth, some as young as 18, have no vacations or holidays, no time off except one day a week to take care of personal matters, and follow a strict set of rules that includes complete celibacy, no dating, no television, and limiting access to the outside world for the entire duration of their service. Without a membership willing to concede a large amount of personal autonomy, such a feat would not be possible.

The Hive Mind

A final cyborg archetype is the hive mind, a collective superorganism with a shared, distributed intelligence, composed of many individual organisms or at least semi-intelligent machines, all of them working in concert. Unlike the android, a hive mind is a true cyborg. It is a person, but this person may be reflected in a collective body with many distinct members. Usually, there is no central “brain” that controls all the members. Instead, intelligence is usually spread throughout the superorganism. An example is the Borg of the Star Trek universe. The hive mind reflects an extreme form of democratic collectivism. In science fiction, hive mind stories address issues such as our fear that democracy and collectivism represent a loss of autonomy.

In early Mormon theology, Joseph Smith told a story of a mythical people of Enoch, who lived in a classless society called “Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:20). Smith tried to build this United Order by introducing a short-lived form of communism. Smith also established a “sealing” framework, which ceremonially assimilated individual Mormons to a heavenly collective. Members of this collective would be a network of gods in the eternal realm. Smith’s successor Brigham Young further united Mormons in ways that Smith could not, by isolating them in the Rocky Mountains and setting them to work with the collective task of colonizing the American West. It is no accident that Young’s symbol for collective industry was the beehive.

Democracy is an essential part of a hive mind: the intelligence is shared across the members of the hive. It loses its hive character if instead of a distributed intelligence, there is a central brain that makes all the decisions and gives directives to the members. And alas, if Mormons once had hope of a hive-mind Zion with collective intelligence, that model has not persisted into the present. Unity of thought is still important to the LDS Church, but rather than distributed intelligence, LDS leaders have turned to a centralized, top-down model of organizing Mormon thought. This model is reflected in the Priesthood Correlation Program, introduced in the late 20th century. Partly because of this program, being a Mormon in Brazil is essentially the same as being a Mormon in California or elsewhere. Proclamations and directives flow outward and in one direction from male hierarchs in Salt Lake City, Utah, to the far corners of the globe. Church meetings and official church activities are the same everywhere, as defined by manuals. Orthodoxy of belief is a prerequisite to participating in meetings and in the faith’s essential rituals. Public dissent is punished by excommunication or loss of privilege.

Perhaps it was inevitable for the church to adopt a strictly centralized, hierarchical, and corporate model of organization as it grew large. It is hard to think of a historical example of any real religious or political organization that has been organized as a distributed intelligence. Certainly political democracy moves in that direction, but Mormonism has always relied on a highly centralized model of authority. Thus, while there are elements within Mormon scripture and history that would point to a hive mind organization as an ideal, it is hard to point to a specific instance in which such a collective intelligence (call it Zion) was actually achieved, even on a small scale.

[1] John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Associations, 1908), 137.

[2] N. Eldon Tanner, “First Presidency Message: The Debate is Over,” Ensign, August 1979, 2,

[3] Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3 (Salt Lake City: LDS Church, 1995), 92; see also Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual (Salt Lake City: LDS Church, 2010), 24, citing Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78.