High-tech spirituality is coming soon to a brain near you—maybe even your own. Whether you embrace, disdain, or fear it, the development of technologies to expand the mind, and possibly the soul, is well underway, say the two authors of Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering (St. Martin’s, May 2021).
Wesley J. Wildman, a professor of philosophy, religion, theology, and ethics at Boston University, has examined spiritual experiences from multidisciplinary perspectives in more than a dozen books. Kate Stockly, a PhD student in Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies and a doctoral fellow in the Center for Mind and Culture (a Boston-based nonprofit research center), coauthored High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America.
Together in Spirit Tech, Wildman and Stockly lead a tour through what they call a “scattered supermarket of special spiritual services,” examining the wares now offered for expanding consciousness and assessing their potential benefits and risks. They visit leading-edge developers and delve into their offerings such as a “technoboost for meditation,” “neurofeedback-guided shortcuts to enlightenment,” “customized brain optimization,” a “God helmet” to “increase psychic skills,” and more.
These creations may be new, but the impetus that drives them is not. The book points out, “Religious groups and spiritual seekers have always used whatever means were available to attain their spiritual goals, from mantras to icons to relics to rituals, and today we are no different. What is different, and radically so, is the use of technological aids that are engineered to facilitate and enhance spiritual experience.”
Peter Wolverton, v-p and executive editor at St. Martin’s, expects a wide audience for the book, particularly among people who identify as spiritual but not religious (more than one in four U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center). “These people are interested in technology, and this is a book by experts who can safely give them guidance,” he says.
“We’re interested in the future of contemporary spirituality in general, and what is happening on the ground today is compelling and important,” Stockly says. “Are all these technological beeps and bings going to be a part of the way we ask questions about human nature and the beyond?”
For much of the book, the authors are cautiously optimistic, writing that “technology designed with compassion, wisdom, and healing intentions might just be the marriage between the modern world and spiritual salve that our 21st-century world is yearning for.”
Notice the word “might.” The boom in STEM-meets-spirit also raises questions in the book. Can artificial intelligence impart real wisdom? Can virtual experiences be sacred? Are tech-induced experiences ethical? Can they be authentically spiritual if they’re not spontaneous?
The answer to that last question, Wildman says, is yes. “People think spontaneity is a marker of divine origins. But if you talk to people who have done complex disciplines for years—virtue cultivation, liturgy, worship, prayer, meditation—there is nothing spontaneous about their transformative experiences.”
But one issue keeps the authors “wringing their hands,” Wildman notes. Can the potential for harm and abuse be kept at bay?
As Stockly points out, “All technology is a reflection of the power and intentions of the creators.” The book warns that “exploitation is what we need to be most on guard against, and when the cynical exploiters lay claim to sacred ground, we hope there will be a pitched battle. It’d be sad to see spiritually minded people stand by and allow the living temple of the human spirit to be overrun by heartless greed merchants for whom spirit tech is just one more product line to distract the masses from the harsh reality of corporate greed.”