A Call to Repentance: The LDS Church Response to Victims of Sexual Assault

In 2016, social media was in an uproar. The Mormon Newsroom, the official organization responsible for releasing news about the LDS Church, had just released an article praising the LDS Church's approach to victims of sexual assault. Originally written in 2010 by (now) Elder Von G. Keetch, the article claimed that the Church was the "Gold Standard" in handling sexual abuse. And victims were furious. The Church quickly removed the article, announcing that it's release had been accidental, and later released an updated version (though much of the original text can be here).

The uproar was well-founded. Many of the false claims were easily renounced, including that the one that "preventing and responding to child abuse is the subject of a regular lesson taught during Sunday meetings", even though there are only two lessons (here and here) found in any church manual used for Sunday instruction that even remotely addresses preventing sexual abuse, and one of these (the far more comprehensive one) is on a near decade-long rotation. 

One of the more outrageous claims was that "the suggestion that the Church instructs members to keep abuse issues solely within the Church is false". There are literally only two General Conference talks given directed at victims of abuse, and both of them explicitly state that that victims should report first to their bishops (1992 and 1978) and then actively discourages victims from seeking therapy, directing victims to only do so with the permission from and even inclusion of their bishops. Unfortunately, many bishops are often hesitant to take the necessary actions to help a victim, which would often require separating a victim from their family, the sudden releasing of an individual from a calling, and possibly relocating whole families to different wards. 70% of victims are hurt by people they know, many of whom are in positions of authority or have a close relationship with the victimMany victims are children who lack access to victim services without an adult to arrange it (as the adults may be the very source of their pain), and if therapy would have ramifications on the family or Church (which is likely), bishops may be unlikely to arrange help. Additionally, mandatory disciplinary action (and subsequent record documentation) is only required for sexual offenses if the offender (1) holds a "prominent church position," defined as a bishop or higher, (2) is a relative of the victim, or (3) a "predator", which has many possible legal definitions but which is most often defined as someone who has been found guilty of sexually exploiting someone, often habitually. So unless a victim has already reported to police and the offender found guilty, the offender may not receive any disciplinary action. A Scout leader who molests his charge, a young man who rapes his girlfriend - there is no guarantee that these individuals would face any church disciplinary action or that their church records would contain any documentation to this effect, especially if the victim is dissuaded from contacting the police or receiving help outside the Church. 

These are not the only harmful practices and messages that victims of sexual assault receive in the Church. The most recent talk given by a General Authority to victims of sexual abuse (1992) told victims of abuse that, unless they do everything in their power to stop the abuse, they are partly responsible for what happened to them and need to repentVictims have a hard enough time not blaming themselves for what happened, so the message that they might have to repent is not only abhorrent, but it reinforces the idea that the victims deserved what happened to them. At least two other articles in the Ensign (here and here) encourage victims of abuse with anger problems (a recognized side-effect of abuse and a symptom of PTSD) to repent, which not only oversimplifies the long-term damage of abuse but also blames victims for something they have little to no control over. Change comes when victims receive therapy, not guilt-trips. 

Other articles published by the Church have had more positive messages for victims of abuse, though they are relatively few in number (I could find only five) and were not written by Church authorities. Written by victims for victims (mostly women), they most often focus on the importance of forgiving, finding your self-worth, and ending cycles of abuse, with emphasis on how the church has helped them find peace. While helpful and reassuring, they do little to counter the harmful messages that victims have heard from Church authorities or the unhelpful policies that keep victims from receiving the help they need. The Church did recently release a whopping five-point list of how to help victims of sexual abuse this past April in the Liahona, so at least it's making (some) effort.

Perhaps even more damaging are the messages received from leaders and parents that, while most likely well-intentioned, have done far more harm than good. Messages about modesty are directed at girls, not boys, and young women are frequently told that their bodies cause boys and men to think bad thoughts (even comparing them to pornography). Elder Holland himself stated that he has heard all of his life that women are held responsible because men cannot control themselves, and that the concept is repulsive, a statement made in a BYU devotional and not found on LDS.org. Instead, the same messages that Elder Holland heard are the same the messages that girls receive: that that boys can't control their thoughts and that girls must cover their bodies to keep boys cleanWhen the messages that women hear time and again are that they are responsible for the thoughts of men, is it any wonder that they then blame themselves when they are assaulted? Women who have had sex (consensual or not) are commonly compared to chewed gum and nailed fence posts, with the implication being that you become damaged goods - an all-too common refrain in the minds of victims. Elizabeth Smart has been especially active in communicating the harm this kind of language does, but change is slow, and for many victims, the damage is done. The Miracle of Forgiveness, a very popular book that is still handed out by many bishops to victims and perpetrators alike, states quite explicitly that unless a rape victim does everything in their power to resist, they would be better off dead. Only last year (2016) did the Church remove language from the Personal Progress book, a guide for young women, that a girl's virtue can be taken by rape. Is anyone really surprised that victims of sexual assault have self-worth issues? 

Now, to be completely fair, Handbook 1 does include more victim-friendly language, directing bishops to prioritize victims, encourage therapy (though still within the Church), and assure them they are not responsible for what happened. But there is a problem with this: Handbook 1 isn't publicly available, and Handbook 2 (which is available) doesn't contain any information about sexual abuse. So the only way victims hear these messages are if the Bishops choose to disclose them. Members cannot hold their bishops accountable for abiding by these policies because the members aren't granted access to them. Instead, they receive the messages I've outlined above, and bishops - who were members for years before becoming bishops - often fall back on the cultural norms.

But of all the messages that victims receive, what they don't hear might be more chilling. Not only have been only two general conference addresses targeted to victims of sexual assault since 1971; in a search of general conference addresses, only 23 mention both the words "sexual" and "assault" in the same talk (using "sexually" adds 2 more), the phrase "sexual abuse" is found only 11 times"sexual assault" only once, and "molest" (in reference to sexual molestation) only twiceIn all, I could find only 16 that mention sexual abuse, assault, or molestation specifically in some way, and in most of them, it is referenced tangentially with less than a paragraph devoted to it, usually in a list of the evils in the world, and most often in reference to children (even though teenagers are twice as likely to be sexually abused). In comparison, in the same time period, there have been over 550 on pornography. For this rate to be justified, pornographic use would have to be over 34 times that of sexual abuse. Pornography use is high (nationally between 64% and 84%, depending on how you define "use"), but even at the high estimate, this would require sexual assault to only affect about 2.5% of the population.

And yet - Every 98 seconds, an American will be sexually assaultedOne out of every six of women has been sexually assaulted. One out of every ten women will be raped by an intimate partner. 3% of all men are victims of sexual assault. At these rates, we can estimate at minimum 800 million women were sexually assaulted in the US in the 20th Century. And those are just the numbers in the US: globally, nearly one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted, and the WHO calls violence against women a "global epidemic." And being religious does not make you less likely to be victimized, so any argument claiming that sexual assault "isn't a problem" in the Church is unfounded.

How ironic is it that the male leaders in the church have addressed sexual assault at almost the same rate as men who are victims of sexual assaults?

This silence is unacceptable. Victims have already receive painful messages that they are to blame for their assaults, that their worth is diminished because of it, and that the need to maintain Church and family harmony is more important than their mental health. The neglectful attitude toward victims on their path of healing only compounds their feelings of neglect and isolation. If helping victims of abuse was such a priority, shouldn't this be self-evident in the words of our leaders? 

Victims of sexual assault are already significantly more likely to suffer from mental health problems including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating and sleep disorders, and tendencies toward self-harm and suicide, and almost one third of sexual assault victims will have PTSD. When victims don't receive immediate help, such as being removed from dangerous situations and receiving mental health services, these mental health problems are exacerbated. On top of mental health problems, Mormon women who are sexually assaulted are likely to suffer spiritually as a result of their assaults. Shouldn't we make alleviating the suffering a victims a higher priority than we have?  

To give credit where credit is due, the Church has begun making efforts. The five-point list in April's Liahona was positive, if also brief and inadequate, and removing the harmful language from the Personal Progress book was certainly the right move. After the sex abuse scandal at BYU in 2016, in which victims of assault faced school disciplinary action because of what they may have done to contribute to the assault (sound familiar?), the Church condemned the policy, emphasized the importance of prioritizing victims, and encouraged BYU to change it's approach, which it did the following fall. The Church also recently announced a donation of $125,000 to two organizations in Salt Lake that help prevent sexual abuse and assists sexual assault victims, though this frankly seems like a paltry sum given to only a select few - especially when we're a world-wide church with a global sexual abuse epidemic on our hands and that specializes in organizing world-wide training programs

We have to face the facts: The Church has not done enough for victims of sexual assault. From perpetuating messages that victims are to blame and that they need to repent - both for their assaults and for harmful effects on their mental health - to having policies that discourage victims from contacting authorities and accessing mental health services, they have failed. 

But it's never too late to do better. The Church aspires to be the "Gold-Standard" in handling sexual assault? Well, there's a way to do that: 

1) Stop. Being. Silent. Victims of sexual abuse struggle speaking up for themselves out of fear of being blamed for their assault, being called a liar, and the utter terror of reliving the past. When leaders of the Church address victims of sexual assault only rarely and tangentially, they communicate the message that it isn't important, even though victims often have life-long effects of their assaults, especially when care is not taken to prioritize their needs. Our leaders are responsible for addressing the morally relevant issues of the day, and their relative silence on this is unacceptable. 

2) Specifically address the harmful messages in the past. We're getting better - a little. Removing the language in the Personal Progress manuals telling victims that they have lost their virtue is a step, but it isn't enough. The Miracle of Forgiveness is still being distributed, not only to victims, but to others that continue to perpetuate its harmful messages for victims. 
Victim-blaming attitudes that have for so long permeated the dialogue about sexual abuse continuesin large part because they haven't been directly countered. The articles above are not hard to find; any victim searching LDS.org for help will find them and read them because this issue has been ignored for so long that there's nothing to drown them out. Articles with harmful messages should either be excluded from the results of index searches or should come with a disclaimer: "These messages contain information that is no longer in harmony with the practices and policies of the LDS Church. Victims should feel no guilt, are not to blame, and are encouraged to seek medical and legal services." But even this may not be enough; those that perpetuate these messages write off language changes as the Church caving to political correctness. Unless the toxic messages of our past are replaced with messages that directly contradict them, these attitudes will persist in our culture, and some bishops will continue to ignore the official polices in Handbook 1. 

3) Push for awareness. Sexual assaults happen in the church. Sometimes the perpetrator is a member, and sometimes it isn't. But it's happening. Bishops receive no mandatory training on sexual abuse; they get a single page in Handbook 1. All bishops, parents, and youth leaders need regular exposure to (1) attitudes and practices for preventing sexual assault, (2) recognizing predatory behavior, (3) identifying signs of assault, (4) best practices for intervention, and (5) how to help victims after an assault. The creation of a Church-sponsored regular workshop/fireside that includes parents, leaders, and youth could do considerable good, in preventing sexual assaults from happening, providing a safe place for victims to speak up, and providing resources for current victims. The ten paragraphs in the Parents Guide manual isn't enough, especially if we're not actually reading them or teaching from them. Comprehensive sex education - from parents, teachers, or leaders - is known to help both decrease sexual behavior outside of marriage and the rate of sexual assault (see also this), and encouraging parents to take a more proactive role in discussing sexuality with their children can be very effective.

4) Re-examine Church practices and policies. Performing mandatory background checks for all leaders working with youth should be standard practice, all claims of sexual abuse should be thoroughly investigated, all youth leaders should have mandatory yearly training on abuse, mandatory disciplinary action should be expanded to all perpetrators of sexual violence, and if we require two leaders present at all overnight youth activities, then we should certainly reconsider the practice of putting young men and women behind closed doors with a single male leader asking them questions about their sexual practices. More than one bishop has been guilty of inappropriate behavior in precisely this setting.

5) Prioritize victims. Historically, many bishops have been known to focus their attention on the repentance process for perpetrators of sexual assault, regardless of what it says in Handbook 1 (since no one can hold them accountable for abiding by its policies, and helping people repent is basically what bishops do). And to be clear - I have absolutely no problem with helping victimizers repent and change. This only becomes a problem when this is a higher priority than helping victims. Sacrificing victims for the sake of their perpetrators is a form of revictimization - they are being told that their needs are not as important as the needs of the one who hurt them. Let that sink it. Is that really a message you want to convey? 

Look, the Church is good at many things, and let's give credit where credit is due. We're great at providing disaster relief, pitching in for service projects, and helping those in financial distress. We're an amazing instant network of social support, and if you need something organized, we're on it. So just imagine the impact we could make if we shifted this type of concentrated effort into preventing sexual abuse and helping victims. But we haven't. 

So yes, the Church has failed.

But do you know what we do in the Church when we fail? We repent. Maybe it's time to start that process. 

This article can also be found at A Believing Scientist

You can have a faith transition but be involved with the Mormon Transhumanist Association

I started this piece, and wrote this sentence, at 3:44 a.m.

Also, I wrote this article the day it was due and went back and forth between what to write, period, for four hours.

Frankly, I didn’t want to be fake. That’s because I have been rather certain for more than a year now that my involvement with the LDS church has concluded. I am, however, grateful for my involvement in the Mormon Transhumanist Association. That includes contributing to the Transfigurist – hence, this post.

. . .

What I am certain of is that all the time my wife and I were separated, my wife would have loved for me to have brought Mormonism back into my life. How I have done that is by being involved in the MTA – I invited her a couple of times to attend meetings.

(I say this not because I want to give her bad publicity – she’s the primary caretaker of our two toddlers and they are incredibly fortunate to be beneficiaries of her general care and kindness each and every day. I say it to illustrate just how much I appreciate engagement in the MTA and association with its wonderful members. It founder, Lincoln Cannon, has helped me think as much as any single individual has.)

Also, I kept on vacillating overnight between wanting, metaphorically speaking, to celebrate a beautiful Mormon-belief body part, and scrapping the providing of good publicity for the church when I other parts of the body to be cancerous.

So instead, I thought about how an article I wrote for work today, that would have suggested a dearth of consideration for local school superintendents and a lack of transparency by a state education department, got lost – and none of it saved. I read stories indicating that we may just be headed to nuclear war because of the temperament of two animalistic national leaders. I thought about how I wouldn’t have known that had I not decided to catch up on many emails with articles The Washington Post sent me, when I thought that I should read more news than I have in the past week or since I’m reporting it myself.

I emailed my doctor, who saw me as I battled mental health challenges over walking away from the church and the family fallout, over an errand. As these actions spanned across 3 a.m., I thought about not wanting to write this article if it would be like a certain public figure’s tweeting at the hour. Then I thought that at the least, I probably wouldn’t be provoking allies both home and abroad.

It’s now 4:15 a.m. and while wondering how to come back around to the topic expressed in the headline, I am thinking about being proud to in just two months, have gone from a domestic abuse shelter to working for a daily newspaper. I’m thinking about writing other things that would further illustrate how wonderful Lincoln and the people of the MTA are but also knowing that I would need to bring in a past incident that… does not comment on my hope today.

I should have been able in the past four minutes to have written more than the immediate above paragraph. And that makes me consider that I may not succeed in effectively getting back to the topic.

So I’ll just say that Mormon, non-Mormon, never-Mormon or post-Mormon (if all of the labels are fair), get involved in the MTA if you are near one of its meetup locations of Provo, Seattle and the Bay Area.

I guess I’ll also reveal a motivation as much as any for writing a feature this past spring about the organization: I wanted to spread the word. You need to participate. Doctrine & Covenants 8 says to use our minds. Isaiah wrote “let us reason together.”

At the meetups, folks engage in significantly enriching philosophical discussion. Would you have liked to have talked with remarkably bright people (we’re talking about doctors and CEOs and real philosophers and historians), who are Latter-day Saints, about the church’s gay policy just after it was released? How about the results of the presidential election shortly after the results came in?

The MTA would have been exactly what you were looking for. These are people who offer help on the journey only from their hearts.

Technological Funemployment

Photo by Tony Webster on Unsplash

For years, the spectre of technological unemployment has been exploited as the sociological apocalypse that will require all kinds of new economic interventions like a universal basic income and universal healthcare. (More on those proposed solutions in the future.) This spectre, however, is harmless. It’s a tiny kernel of truth wrapped in a triple-ply fib of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

The kernel of truth is this: Automation DOES put people out of dangerous and boring work. There are centuries of hard evidence for this. Agriculture jobs? Gone. Manufacturing jobs? Done. Transportation jobs? Endangered. Technology, be it a hammer, or a thresher, or a robot, or an AI, allows people to make repetitive or strenuous tasks a breeze, so one person can do the job of many, pushing people out of that line of work. Seemingly, this is a tragedy.

The lie is the notion that people don’t find or create other jobs. It promotes a fear that many are doomed. Thankfully, it’s easy to find examples that disprove this notion. If technology eliminated agriculture and manufacturing jobs, why are 90% of Americans not unemployed? The answer is that they found safer, more interesting work, and often in new industries that were only made possible by technology. Really, people just moved further down the pipeline, or steps were added in between where new technology created a demand for people to distribute and use it. The products of farms and lumber and quarries and mines were made into complex machines, and these new complex machines required lots of humans to sell them, operate them, repair them, insure them, etc. At the end of the day, every advancement in technology that has saved human labor in one area has created just as much or more human labor in other new areas.

A fast example in the video game industry shows how automation technology in even the most high tech jobs is preserving and expanding the job market. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers created an AI that can recreate a game’s mechanics simply by watching gameplay. An intelligent machine like this can essentially provide a framework for a new game by looking at an old game without having to know the source code. It can just make new source code that developers can use to make new projects:

"Instead of putting people out of work, this will make it possible for people to create games that were otherwise unable to do so," Riedl said. "That makes it possible for more people to create – increasing the size of the pie instead of supplanting individuals. Second, professionals may be able to build games faster by having the system make an initial guess about the mechanics. Working more efficiently doesn’t necessarily put people out of work, but does allow them to make bigger and better games in the time available."

Robots in the workplace simply means that more work gets done, even with the same amount of people. Usually this just means that more satisfying work gets done. All the doom and gloom about recent technological unemployment is slowly being cleared away by the realization that if the rate of job destruction is increasing, the rate of job creation is also increasing, giving people more choices and opportunities than ever as old, stale ones fall away. As these technological processes continue to disintegrate old industries and form new ones from those ashes, we’re not seeing technological unemployment as a pervasive phenomena, but rather as a temporary restocking before employing those souls with new, more fun employments.

At the end of the day, what this means is that we are slowly unlocking the most fun and challenging problems for humanity to conquer, and there’s no sign that we are finding any limits to humanity’s potential. Human ingenuity is boundless. We’ll always be standing on the shoulders of giants, venturing out into new frontiers. We’ll keep extending, not until we reach the limit of our mental and physical capacities, but until there are no frontiers left. Where are we at that point? What are we if not marching towards godliness, with ever-improving mastery over the universe, delving constantly into the depths of the yet-unknown pockets of knowledge that our universe is hiding?

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.”

Understood in the lens of history, what I think what Clarke really means is that we are taking people away from being paid for drudgery, and towards being paid to play. The rosy future exists where robots and AI provide us all our food, health, transportation, shelter, and entertainment for free, and we simply enjoy unbridled leisure. But even if all the amenities of life are enjoyed freely, we probably won’t be slobs. Instead, we’ll be free to pursue the passions that we all have in our hearts. We’ll be “fun”-employed, due to the technological fruits of the labor of the other fun-employed people that came before us. The goal of the future, then, is full funemployment, and it’s the future we’re already marching towards. We know this because it’s the same path we’ve always been on since humanity began: the hard path, which is also the fun path.

Metamorphosis is Messy: a Plea for Medical Mercy

Recently, while reading the Sunday edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, I spotted an article about a medical malpractice suit against a local OB/GYN physician I’ve come to respect as a mentor. My first opportunity as a physician to act on my passion for transgender medicine came through the mentorship of this physician, who works in the community near my residency hospital. She routinely went out of her way to teach me and my fellow residents about obstetrics, gynecology and the art of transgender medicine without any monetary incentive. She has always modeled incredible sensitivity, expertise and fearless advocacy for her transgender patients. I thought the journalist did a decent job presenting both sides of the story, as far as possible; however, due to HIPPA (a law that protects patient health information from being disclosed) I know there is more to the story that she and her attorney are unable to share in her defense.

While I do not know the patient in the case, I feel sympathy for the irreplaceable loss of their ovaries and reproductive potential. Nothing can restore what has been lost, and the best we can do is recognize, validate, and empathize, to the extent of our capacity, the pain of their loss. I must confess, seeing my mentor shamed in this very public controversy scares and saddens me, also, and part of me wonders whether I should turn back now from my passion for transgender medicine and not take the risk that someday I may find myself in the same situation. The trans community needs more, not fewer doctors. Without discounting Lesley’s pain and the loss they have suffered, let’s turn this into a constructive dialogue about how to meet the needs of the community and how to welcome and foster excellence among a new generation of trans-friendly providers.

My first exposure to the unique and often tragic experience of transgender people in healthcare came in medical school as part of our reproductive health curriculum with a panel of brave transgender patients who told my class their stories and allowed us to ask very personal questions about their transitions so we could understand how to model the behaviors they appreciated and needed, and learn from the mistakes that other physicians had made. I was incredibly moved and felt passionately that, one day, I would make a place for the unique needs of these patients in my future practice.

Several months ago, as part of a “community medicine” rotation, I had the opportunity to go explore the Utah Pride Center in downtown Salt Lake City. My guide alerted me to a list of LGBTQ-friendly medical providers that they keep as a resource for their patrons and I asked that my name be put on the list, without any expectation of what may follow. What followed were several new patients who sought me out in the following months, requesting medical assistance with their gender transitions. I was honored and humbled that, even after explaining that I am a resident still in training, they were willing to trust me and embark on this journey together.

I was quickly conscious of the fact that I needed help from experts in the field to make sure I was providing compassionate, evidence-based care for my patients. This OB/GYN was naturally the first physician I reached out to, along with other providers from the University of Utah and one of my residency faculty members who was brave enough to learn about this new field of medicine and supervise me. These mentors provided me with indispensable resources, guidance and reassurance that I need not shy away or be afraid of pursuing my passion for transgender medicine, despite the unease and thinly-veiled hostility of many medical providers towards the needs of this marginalized population. I have learned through this outreach that the vast majority of medical providers here in Utah are unwilling to come anywhere near transgender medicine--due to ignorance about the science, fear of judgment and rejection from professional peers, religious and moral unease, philosophical conflict, and, most importantly, fear of litigation. This doctor has personally suffered incredible discrimination and ostracization by her OB/GYN peers for her commitment to serve the transgender community.

The evidence is clear that people who suffer from gender dysphoria need to transition to the gender they identify with to preserve their mental and physical health, and yet there are very few medical providers, especially in politically conservative Utah,  who are willing to meet these needs. It takes courage, passion and love to overcome these barriers as a physician and follow one’s conscience to do the right thing, no matter the social, financial and legal consequences. No physician I know has shown more courage, passion, and love for the LGBTQ community than my mentor.

My fellow residents and I recently watched a TEDx talk together, in which an emergency room physician from Toronto does the unthinkable: he openly admits that he has made mistakes, which in some cases have led to terrible consequences for his patients, even death. He highlights that in medicine we have a culture of error-denial, strengthened by unrealistic public expectations, which insists that we must be perfect. In reality we, too, are human and work in systems that put too much emphasis on our individual abilities, acumen, diagnostic prowess and memory, and not enough on recognizing the limits of our cognitive abilities, and the systematic deprivation of our basic human needs (sleep, recovery, exercise, etc.). When mistakes occur, these systems are too quick to blame the “bad apples” and too slow to root out the systematic flaws that are truly the cause of these harms.

When doctors make a mistake (and we ALL make mistakes), there are few legitimate avenues for us (not tied to repercussion and judgement) to talk with others so we can process it and help others learn and decrease the chance of the same mistake happening again. It goes unsaid, unexamined, and what remains is a culture of shame and social withdrawal from the community of our peers. It is easy to see how such a culture leads to vicious cycles of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, and self-fulfilling prophecies that we are bad doctors, unworthy of our profession and the sacred trust of our patients. The truth is, if you eliminated all the doctors who make mistakes, including ones that hurt people, there would be none left.

Maybe someday we will be replaced by super-intelligent diagnostic algorithms, pill dispensers and surgical robots, but until then we are the best generation of physicians and healers the world has yet seen. We will prevent, reverse and manage suffering with unprecedented efficiency, and aided by our tools we will detect, treat and cure more disease than ever before. Our profession will continue to expand into new realms, such as transgender medicine, life extension and enhancement. Despite the promises of modern medicine and our best efforts to live by and practice our credo of “First, Do No Harm,” our actions will have unintended consequences and, in increasingly rare cases, we will continue to cause pain, suffering, and death. Part of our job is to help our patients understand this conundrum through the process of informed consent, and to own our mistakes, apologize, learn and teach when we inevitably make them.

Please try to see us as human, like you, and also as humanists who have dedicated our lives to doing the best we can to improve the human condition through medical science and compassion. The vast majority of us are not here for the money, but for the love of our art, a love which helps us overcome the fear of being sued if and when we fail. Please also recognize that medicine is risky business and actively engage with us in the process of informed consent for the screenings, tests, treatments and procedures we offer you. May we create a new model of shared medical decision making and risk taking as we approach the future of medicine, a future that includes morphological freedom and enhancement.

The Gospel of Tron

In an early blog post to the Transfigurist, I wrote some thoughts on the relationship to faith, creation, and programming:

What is particularly interesting about programming is that the creative process occurs in the abstract only. Yes, the program is stored on disk in the form of magnetic variations, but even this is invisible to the human eye and is not the purpose for which the program is created. A program is not the series of characters typed by the programmer. Rather the substance of a program is thought itself, concept described. Working this close to raw thought not just at the beginning of the creative process but all throughout the program’s creation requires a high level of concentration and mental exertion but likewise delivers a high level of satisfaction and joy. 
While the details of exactly what 'spiritual creation' is may be unclear, this process of creating implementable concepts and structures mentally surely must play a pivotal role. Thus, as we practice and participate in the process of creation and exercise our faculties (mental, physical, and spiritual), we draw nearer to God and learn more about the nature of eternity. This is why programming is, and many other creative processes are, so joyful. The creative process is itself a symbol of Eternity.

And elsewhere I've written about how I feel life, creation, and God are fundamentally emergent phenomena:

Mormonism sees mankind both as the beneficiaries of this kind of emergent God in our past and present; but continues with our becoming benefactors of this divine gift as mankind evolves and emerges into and merges with God in our future. The New God Argument lays out some of the logical underpinnings of this idea. And it's this kind of self-referential or cyclical pattern, capable of infinite diversity, that I previously explored as having fractal attributes... Creating environments out of which infinitely diverse and entirely novel intelligences can emerge as co-eternal, independent minds becomes the final, inexhaustible frontier. 

One work of fiction that I think captures this essence of emergence and co-eternal creation is the movie 'Tron: Legacy'. [SPOILERS] In the movie a vast, immersive, virtual world is created by Flynn. In that world, Flynn seeks to create a "perfect system" of control and order. But as he tries to design this system from the ground up something else happens: the "miracle", as he calls it. Out of the system emerges a new kind of life: the ISOs. This discovery completely changed Flynn's view of the value of the system. Rather than building programs that were only ever reducible to their programming, this discovery would forever alter consciousness and was ultimately what Flynn was willing to sacrifice everything for.

Flynn describes how the ISOs "didn't come from anywhere", that the conditions were right and that they came into being, like a flame. The ISOs had a wisdom and ability beyond the reductive algorithms of control and order he had been using. But as Flynn seeks to introduce the ISOs to the real world, he is betrayed by the programs he employed to create the "perfect system". The antagonist program, Clu, saw the ISOs as a threat to order and perfection which ultimately drove him to rebel and seek to destroy Flynn's efforts and dreams. Clu rejected the emergent properties of the system since they didn't fit his mandate of reductive creation of control and order, leads the programs to destroy the ISOs, and Flynn ends up trapped and exiled in the system. Mormons can see echoes of our own religious notions of pre-earth life with Satan seeking perfect control and order and rebelling against God's plan for the souls of mankind that is not reductive to control and order.

Here's a clip of Flynn remembering these events:

Flynn's son Sam, retracing his father's steps, discovers this virtual world and enters into it. He finds his father, exiled, and the world ruled by Clu. As he tries to escape with his father and Quorra (the last ISO), Quorra is damaged and Flynn tries to repair her.  During the repair, Flynn's son Sam asks him if he created the ISOs. Flynn's response was that he created "some of it" but that ultimately there were emergent properties that were "beyond him".

Here's a clip of that exchange:

Stepping away from the story, Tron Legacy underscores an important question in the field of artificial intelligence: Is general AI something we reductively design, is it an emergent phenomenon, or both?

To be clear, saying AI is emergent does not mean we just sit back and watch it emerge (as Google's Alfred Spector correctly argues against). The act of creating general AI is like any creative act: it requires active work by the creator in the medium of creation. But it is entirely different from other forms of creation (saving biological reproduction) in that the creation itself wakes up, becomes aware of its medium, and can transcend its origins. In the field of AI this is described as "recursive self-improvement" which can lead to an intelligence explosion.

While there is a great amount to say about weak AI, strong AI, and super-intelligence, I think there are lessons to learn in works of fiction like Tron Legacy which explore the contrasts between creating systems of reductive control and order vs systems tuned for emergence, the limits and conflicts between those two approaches, and the risks and opportunities of both. And I think the hope or "good news" (gospel) of works like Tron is that in working with AI, our creations may be able to transcend our thinking and show us things more amazing than we ever imagined.

A Vision Worth Believing In: Transhumanism, Driven By Spiritual and Ethical Progress

If our prehistoric ancestors were to board a tour bus and visit the present day, what would they think?

They might delight at the feeling of air-conditioned buildings, marvel at mundane inventions such as doorknobs, be amazed that people walk around unafraid of sudden attacks from wild beasts, and gawk at lawns and manicured gardens.

They might believe, in short, that they’ve arrived in some sort of paradise.

However, they might also find cause for dismay. Say they witnessed employees stuffed away in beige cubicles, trash lining the beaches and gathering in landfills, the Barrier Reef dying from heat, the bustle of freeways with fatal traffic accidents, and modern warfare with its bombshells and automatic gunfire — enough of this, and they might wish to go back home.

If they did decide to return home, would you join them? Personally, I’d fear that within weeks of arriving in the prehistoric past, I’d get something like appendicitis and die without hospital care. Plus, gathering food all day and warring with neighboring tribes isn’t really my gig.

For me, this thought experiment illustrates that while we’ve evolved tremendously since our beginning, we still have a lot of work ahead to right the wrongs that currently plague the world and move more fully toward a genuine paradise.

Leaping Toward Paradise
If we take a bird’s eye view of human history, we can see that however much we've stumbled, we’ve been evolving in the direction of paradise since we first arrived on the scene. As the writer Ken Wilber outlines in his book Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, evolution seems to be consistently unfolding toward greater consciousness, toward a sort of paradise on earth.

I believe that we now have the potential to take a sudden and dramatic leap toward this paradise, primarily due to technological and scientific progress.

Such a belief is known as transhumanism, a belief that humanity might transcend our current limitations so much that we become an almost godlike, superhuman species — a species that finally creates the paradise we’ve been evolving toward all along.

What I know for sure is that if we want such a future, we must deliberately envision it, plan for it, and work to make it a reality.

That’s why I believe in transhumanism.

Of course, to truly evolve toward paradise, we can't focus on raw technological progress alone. Instead, we must also focus on spiritual progress and ethical progress. Anything less than this won’t do.

Let’s look at why that is, starting with spiritual progress.

1. Spiritual Progress
At its core, spiritual progress is about nurturing what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” transcendent moments of deep peace and fulfillment.

These experiences can happen to anyone, regardless of religious belief or disbelief. The point is that peak experiences help us become more compassionate and realize how deeply connected we are with each other and with the world around us, as shown by psychologists such as William James, anthropologists such as T.M. Luhrmann, and biologists such as Alister Hardy.

Shinzen Young, a nationally renowned meditation teacher with a scientific bent, shares this view that peak experiences make us profoundly more compassionate and bring lasting peace. Young’s hope, which he outlines in his book The Science of Enlightenment, is that humanity will develop a technology that will connect to the brain and induce enlightenment experiences in human beings. Because of this hope, he is working with neuroscientists and engineers to learn more about the brain and figure out ways to create such experiences.

On the surface, Shinzen Young's idea might sound insane. But think of the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who experienced a transcendent experience during a stroke, wherein she felt total unity with the universe and afterward embodied powerful feelings of compassion for all of humanity. If Shinzen Young and his team can achieve their goal, they will have created a way for people to taste the experience of enlightenment and reap the benefits such experiences bring.

I share Young’s excitement for such a possibility, as well as his realization that in the meantime we must nurture such experiences via more traditional means such as meditation. These experiences are critical because they help us all more fully internalize the fact that to hurt another living being is to only hurt ourself. This is the seed of ethical progress.

2. Ethical Progress
Of course, it’s not enough for each individual to just experience personal enlightenment. We must also figure out the best ways to help each other reach better living conditions in the real world.

In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari claims that we’re entering an era ruled by dataism, an era where algorithms will be able to show us the most effective methods for achieving widespread well-being.

Want to know the best foods to eat today so you can stay healthy? Your embedded body scanner will crunch millions of data points and tell you. Want to know the best charities to give to? An app that tracks each transaction at every charity and maps it to millions of data points about how those transactions improve well-being will tell you. Want to know what world problems deserve our most urgent attention? A global network will crunch the data to give you a range of best options given your circumstances and location.

On measures of health, psychology, and standards of living, dataism might be able to guide us.

That said, it’s easy to think of ways dataism could go terribly wrong. What if a large corporation messes with the data? What if governments censor the data because it doesn’t match their narrative? What if people are too distracted by mindless entertainment to care about what’s best for the long-term interest of themselves and the planet?

We have the possibility with new technology to create a more ethical future, one that considers the needs of the least fortunate in its algorithms. But it won't happen naturally. We must deliberately demand ethical guidelines and work to bring them into existence. After all, what good is achieving superintelligence via dataism if we lose our humanity in the process?

A Vision Worth Believing In
It’s viable, as Ray Kurtzweil outlines in his classic The Singularity Is Near, that we will soon see wonders few of us could have ever dreamed of. Embeddable supercomputers, commonplace genetic enhancements, regular space travel, dramatic extensions in lifespans, and so on. As long as we don’t find a way to blow ourselves up, the chances are high that it’s all coming.

And what will we do with such innovations? If we haven’t built on a solid foundation of spirituality and ethics, these innovations might be used to oppress the poor and the weak to a degree we’ve never previously witnessed. If that happens, we will become worse, not better, than human. Who wants to extend lifespans if life consists of endless psychoses, narcissism, and power grabs?

We must therefore proceed wisely, keeping our primary attention on the heart of the human experience. If we do this, we will join the long line of pioneers who have worked over the centuries to make this vision a reality. We will create a paradise that every one of our ancestors would have clamored to join, a paradise for generations to come.


Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available via Amazon.