*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat- yahoo.com*
Genospirituality: Genetic engineering for spiritual and religious enhancement
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2008; Volume 71: 825-828
The most frequently discussed role for genetic engineering is in relation to medicine, and a second area which provokes discussion is the use of genetic engineering as an enhancement technology. But one neglected area is the potential use of genetic engineering to increase human spiritual and religious experience – or genospirituality. If technologies are devised which can conveniently and safely engineer genes causal of spiritual and religious behaviours, then people may become able to choose their degree of religiosity or spiritual sensitivity. For instance, it may become possible to increase the likelihood of direct religious experience – i.e. ‘revelation’: the subjective experience of communication from the deity. Or, people may be able to engineer ‘animistic’ thinking, a mode of cognition in which the significant features of the world – such as large animals, trees, distinctive landscape features – are regarded as sentient and intentional beings; so that the individual experiences a personal relationship with the world. Another potentially popular spiritual ability would probably be shamanism; in which states of altered consciousness (e.g. trances, delirium or dreams) are induced and the shaman may undergo the experience of transformations, ‘soul journeys’ and contact with a spirit realm. Ideally, shamanistic consciousness could be modulated such that trances were self-induced only when wanted and when it was safe and convenient; and then switched-off again completely when full alertness and concentration are necessary. It seems likely that there will be trade-offs for increased spirituality; such as people becoming less ‘driven’ to seek status and monetary rewards – as a result of being more spiritually fulfilled people might work less hard and take more leisure. On the other hand, it is also possible that highly moral, altruistic, peaceable and principled behaviours might become more prevalent; and the energy and joyousness of the best churches might spread and be strengthened. Overall, genospirituality would probably be used by people who were unable to have the kind of spiritual or religious experiences which they wanted (or perhaps even needed) in order to lead the kind of life to which they aspired.
The genetic engineering imperative
The future continuation of modernizing societies (characterized by growth and progress in science, technology and the economy ) may depend upon rapid progress in, and widespread usage of, genetic engineering, since there are numerous processes of natural selection at work in advanced societies which are likely to have been increasing the proportion of deleterious genes and reducing the proportion of socially-useful genes over several generations – at least in developed nations ,  and .
Because these demographic trends seem to be so strong – yet unacknowledged and therefore socio-politically irreversible – one probable implication is that the development of genetic engineering (including gene therapy and related stem cell and embryonic biotechnologies, etc.) should be regarded as a social imperative, and pursued as rapidly as possible  and .
It is widely – although not universally – appreciated that genetic engineering might potentially be very useful. The most frequently discussed role for genetic engineering is in relation to medicine, where deleterious and disease-causing genes could potentially be corrected. Assuming genetic engineering were safe, available and affordable; many people would be pleased to utilize medical genetic engineering.
The second area which provokes discussion is the use of genetic engineering as an enhancement technology. For example, biotechnology will probably be able to increase intelligence, to improve happiness, and to boost physical skills or specific abilities such as music or mathematics. This is more controversial than the medical deployment of genetic engineering – nonetheless it seems probable that safe and effective genetic enhancements would be used by many people if they were given the choice.
But one neglected area of enhancement technology is the potential use of genetic engineering to increase human spiritual and religious experience – genospirituality or genospiritual engineering. I suggest that if, or when, such technologies become a potential choice – then genospiritual engineering will find plenty of takers.
Who would want to use genospiritual technologies?
Genospirituality would not be of interest to everyone, indeed I would expect there might be hostility to the idea both from convinced atheists who regard religious and spiritual matters as false, nonsensical and probably harmful; and from some traditionally religious people who would be suspicious of such apparently un-spontaneous and artificial religiosity.
However, other people will take the view that spirituality and religious experiences are real and definable subjective psychological states or human experiences. Leaving aside the question of whether these real psychological states and experiences refer to anything external, objective or supernatural; it could be argued that spiritual and religious subjective states may be regarded as valuable, desirable and/or biologically adaptive for at least some people in some circumstances.
So, whatever the cause of religiousness and spirituality, even if the cause is not accepted to be supernatural, it is at least plausible that significant numbers of people would choose to have such experiences if they could.
What benefits might be obtained from enhanced religiousness or spirituality?
The quest for a ‘meaningful’ life is of obvious and compelling importance for many people. Of course, there are plenty of people who find life meaningful and significant without the inclusion of any spiritual or religious elements. They are content to live their lives without either spirituality or religion.
But other people – probably the majority of the population in most countries – look for something more, or something else. They may find what they need from one (or more) of the major world religions, or from other churches, or from New Age type spiritual movements.
But a large proportion of the population of most countries apparently do not find what they are looking for in these social structures. These are the people sometimes termed ‘seekers’  whose life is spent searching for ‘meaning’ – this may take the form of trying-out many churches and spiritual movements, exploring art and culture, trying psychopharmacology (either from prescribed drugs or using self-medication with drugs such as alcohol), or sampling from the many types of counselling, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.
However, despite this multiplicity of possible sources of potential assistance, there are people who feel that their life or the world itself is lacking in meaning, they feel alienated and cut-off from experience, they do not feel properly alive . These are the people who may in future seek a solution to their insoluble problems in changing themselves by means of genetic engineering so that they can enhance their spiritual and/or religious capacity.
Other people who practice organized religion may nonetheless wish for more powerful experience, or for the potential to shape their own behaviours in a direction in-line with their hopes and beliefs. They are already religious, but wish to become more so.
Some potential uses of genospiritual engineering
It seems likely that soon the genes associated with an increased religiousness or capacity to have spiritual experiences will become known by genome mapping methods (which link variations in the genome with traits and behaviours) becoming ever-cheaper, more sensitive and reliable, and more powerful. Some of the discovered gene-behaviour associations will on further investigation then turn-out to be causal – and this would potentially enable genetic engineering (and therapy) to modify the behaviours.
If technologies are devised which can conveniently and safely engineer these genes causal of spiritual and religious behaviours, then people may become able to choose their degree of religiosity or spiritual sensitivity. In other words genospirituality may emerge with the potential to become a popular option among spiritual seekers and those engaged in a religious quest.
In order to clarify what might be the uses, I will describe a few sample spiritual or religious experiences that might be enhanced by genospiritual engineering.
It may become possible to increase the likelihood of direct religious experience – i.e. ‘revelation’, or the subjective experience of communication from the deity/deities . In the past it was unusual to experience direct communication with God/s, but perhaps this could be changed, and revelation might become accessible to a much greater number of people.
As another possible option, people may be able to engineer themselves to experience ‘animistic’ thinking – a mode of cognition in which the significant features of the world (such as large animals, trees, distinctive landscape features, or even some types of complex organization or technology) are regarded as sentient and intentional beings . Animistic thinking is typical of early childhood in all societies, and is also believed to be universal among those hunter-gatherers who were the ancestors of modern humans.
One advantage of such changes could be that an animistic person has a personal relationship with the world, because the world is seen as composed of active agents. By contrast, the more typical modern mode of thinking sees the world as an abstract system of passive objects moved by impersonal forces – and this can create feelings of alienation, loneliness and pointlessness.
Another spiritual experience which would likely be popular is shamanism  and . Shaman is the term used for the healers and ‘medicine men’ (or women) of many societies who may also do divination and make important decisions for the tribe – and characteristically their work is done by means of states of altered consciousness (e.g. trances, delirium or dreams) in which they may undergo transformations, ‘soul journeys’ and contact a spirit realm.
In modern societies, it seems that only a minority of people are able to enter shamanistic trances without some kind of technological assistance. Some artists and other creative people (including scientists) apparently do important work (for example experience inspiration, or gain sudden insight) in states of somewhat-altered consciousness  and . These mental states need not be regarded as supernatural; but may simply offer a different, more associative, way of thinking.
Shamanistic trance states can be difficult or impossible for people to achieve spontaneously and safely, and they may require the use of fairly extreme-measures such as prolonged dancing, drumming in groups, use of mind-impairing hallucinogenic agents or other technologies. Indeed, the measures necessary for modern individuals to induce a trance state at minimum time consuming and at the extreme are dangerous. It may also be several hours or more before the side-effects of a trance, or the method used to induce a trance, wears off, so that the person would be mentally unable to do responsible tasks such as child-care, driving a car, or operating equipment.
However, in principle, it may be possible to make genetic changes such that such trance states might be spontaneously attainable at will. Ideally, shamanistic consciousness could be modulated such that trances could self-induced only when wanted and when it is safe and convenient; and then switched-off again completely when full alertness and concentration are necessary.
Trade-offs and priorities
It seems likely that spirituality and religiousness will not be found to be under the control of single genes or even just a few genes, but rather caused by the combination of suites of alleles, each of which exerts a relatively small effect. Furthermore, some of these genes will probably be pleiotropic or multi-functional – such that altering spirituality will have side-effects in terms of altering other functions or behaviours.
Indeed, except where genospiritual engineering is merely correcting deleterious single mutations; it seems likely that there will be trade-offs (as there are likely to be trade-offs for most conceivable forms of enhancement technology). For example, higher IQ is predictive of longer life expectancy and greater wealth and social status in modern societies – yet increasing IQ may (at least above a certain point) also be associated in modern cultures with impairments from an increased tendency for short-sightedness to reduced fertility rates  and .
So we should anticipate trade-offs for increased spirituality. One possible example could be the possibility that increasing spiritual fulfilment might make people less ‘driven’ to seek status and monetary rewards. Greater contentment might benefit the individual but perhaps may not benefit society as a whole – if as a result of being more spiritually fulfilled more people worked less hard and took more leisure.
While greater religiousness may be associated with greater happiness, more altruistic behaviours and higher fertility , and these may turn-out to be significantly causal – it is possible that genetically-enhanced religiousness might lead to other problems. Perhaps churches would get too powerful and attempt to control science, technology and the economy with disastrous effects. Or perhaps church members might become fanatically loyal and too easily manipulated into dangerous behaviours.
On the other hand, it is also possible that highly moral, altruistic, peaceable and principled behaviours might become more prevalent; and the energy and joyousness of the best churches might spread and be strengthened.
In considering the desirability of genospiritual engineering, it is possible to take an ‘agnostic’ stance over whether or not spiritual and religious experience refers to an external and objective supernatural world. It might be agreed that, whatever the underlying objective facts might be, some types of religiousness and spirituality are plausibly associated with some good outcomes both in terms of subjective states of mind (making people feel better) and in terms of objectively observable social behaviours (making people behave better). There are also some disadvantages of spirituality and religiousness – so the outcome is likely to vary between individuals, according to the extremity of spirituality or religiousness, between religions and spiritualities, and between societies.
Whatever the answer in a specific instance, genospirituality would probably – if available – be used by people who were unable to have the kind of spiritual or religious experiences which they wanted (or perhaps even needed) in order to lead the kind of life to which they aspired.
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