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The Scattered Supermarket of Special Spiritual Services
There is a depth to the potential of these technologies that is rarely addressed. Because this isn’t just about reducing stress. This is about a really mind-boggling possibility: What if the deepest aspects of human experience, which are often only accessible through twenty thousand hours meditating in a cave…, are all of a sudden accessible at the push of a button?
Whether we welcome it or fear it, the era in which we can use technology to induce, intensify, and even control spiritual experience has arrived. 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. Already, we routinely rely on technology to manage our health, sleep, moods, relationships, calendars, travel, and finances, so it’s really no surprise that we’re turning to high-tech aids for the spiritual journey. As these innovations are rapidly proliferating and becoming ever more sophisticated, we are on the brink of the next and potentially most transformative revolution in the practice of religion: an era in which technological advancement merges with spiritual seeking.
Welcome to the fascinating world of spirit tech, which is swiftly changing the way we practice our faith; the way we connect with religious communities and other spiritual seekers; and even how we experience the Sacred, find True Meaning, reach enlightenment, or whatever we name the ultimate goal of our spiritual quests.
In the fast-tracked pace of the spirit tech era, it’s already commonplace to worship remotely through livestreamed services and rituals (even before pandemics forced experimentation upon us), meet with religious leaders or spiritual mentors through Zoom or FaceTime, submit prayer requests online, and meditate or pray with the aid of an app. A quick survey of the App Store reveals thousands of apps that help you pray the rosary, sit zazen, harness the power of crystals, cast a spell, attend a live virtual darshan, monitor your chakras, or read any number of sacred texts, including the Torah, Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, or Guru Granth Sahib—and the options are steadily multiplying. Just as our smartphones and watches remind us to exercise, attend a meeting, or run an errand, they can now remind us to perform the sacred duties of our faith traditions. Naturally, those ubiquitous dings and beeps we’ve all grown accustomed to can be customized to virtually any sacred sound: an adhan (the Muslim call to prayer); the tone of a bell, gong, or Tibetan singing bowl; the thump of a tabla; a snippet of Gregorian (or Vedic or Buddhist) chant.
As amazing as all these developments are, what’s happening with smartphones and apps and web interfaces is really just the tip of a much larger and more complex spirit tech iceberg. Because of remarkable advances in technology, neuroscience, and psychology, we are increasingly able to measure spiritual experiences, describe them, and distinguish between them. We can evaluate their social functions, behavioral consequences, and health effects. We are also more and more able to trigger spiritual experiences, stop them, alter them, and even exert control over the way people interpret them. This is what we’ll be exploring in this book—the brain-based technologies of spirituality that carry the potential to be game changers for the way we practice religion in the twenty-first century and beyond.
Before we get into the specific types of spirit tech on the horizon, let us be clear about what this book is not. This is not a book about technology supposedly used to detect or monitor the activity of so-called spirits. If you picked up this book expecting ectoplasm detectors, let us save you some time and disappointment.
What we are discussing is the technology of spiritual experiences. Through the course of our research we’ve come to refer to this eclectic corner of spiritual exploration and practices as the Scattered Supermarket of Special Spiritual Services. Yes, this is a scholarly attempt at humor, but look a bit closer and you’ll see that the name gets at something unique about spirit tech. Pop into this very specialized market and you’ll find that it’s already well stocked with novel technologies people are using with the intention of enhancing spirituality—and the options are continually diversifying. People using one type of technology are often unaware of what’s on the shelves a couple of aisles over—that’s what makes the supermarket scattered. Nonetheless, spirit tech options represent a rapidly growing niche in modern economies, so it most definitely is a market. In fact, we predict that spirit tech will follow a trend similar to the massive wellness movement, which means it will soon be quite the economic juggernaut. And as spirit tech becomes more refined, it will move from a scattered supermarket of special spiritual services to a focused market with products tested and optimized for regular use and customized according to each person’s spiritual preferences and goals.
That’s a point worth lingering on: in the spirit tech era, not only are we more aware than ever of the astonishing diversity of religions and spiritual practices around the world, we are freer than ever to explore them and to incorporate what we like into our own faith journeys and practices. There are obvious exceptions, of course, but in cultures that enjoy a pluralistic attitude toward religious diversity, we are free to participate in a religion (or not), and free to mix and match from different faith traditions and practices. It is now no longer uncommon for a person to be a member of a Jewish synagogue as well as a Buddhist sangha, for example. Or for a mainline Christian to seek guidance from Jesus as well as from a psychic or tarot card reader. And this freedom to explore and customize applies doubly to spirit tech. Returning to our supermarket metaphor, we can shop from any aisle and there’s nobody telling us we can’t.
Psychotherapist and bestselling author Jonathan Robinson captures the sentiment of the spirit tech age: “I like playing mad scientist,” he says about his spiritual life. “You try one thing and see what effect it has on you.… Now everybody gets to play mad scientist.… You have to find what works for you. Because it’s not a one-size-fits-all world anymore. You know, we have personalized medicine, and now we need personalized meditation and personalized spiritual technologies that will get us to the next place. So it’s a really exciting time for people who are willing to experiment.”2
For decades now, risk-taking cybernauts and tech-savvy spiritual seekers have been doing just that: experimenting, innovating, disrupting, iterating, optimizing. Some were motivated by a quest to find a fast-track path to spiritual growth: Why spend twenty thousand hours meditating when you can reach deep states of awareness much more efficiently with an electrode-delivered intervention? Others were looking to control spiritual experiences in some way, such as triggering an encounter with the divine or enhancing a mystical experience. Still others sought to facilitate and deepen spiritual connection between spiritual seekers.
We’ll explore all of this in Spirit Tech. We’ll take you on a guided tour of the scattered supermarket of special spiritual services, showcasing the most exciting items on the shelves, and we’ll introduce you to the people who are building spirit tech applications and the people who are using them. We hope to do so in such a way that you can empathize with those who employ these special spiritual services. To that end, we present an array of perspectives from people who have embraced one or another form of spirit tech as part of their spiritual practice. We tell their stories with appreciation and curiosity rather than evaluation.
We’re sensitive to these concerns because we’re well aware that there are those who would dismiss spirit tech outright. Some are well-meaning religious people inherently suspicious of spirit tech. Why do I need a “God gadget,” the thinking goes, if I already have direct access to God? Others worry that these newfangled modalities will lead them astray from their spiritual path, or that they’re outright evil. Still others may protest that any spiritual experience that’s generated by an external source—whether that’s a spirit tech modality, a hallucinogenic drug, or a traumatic brain injury or illness—is not an authentic spiritual experience. Another group objects to spirit tech on intellectual or philosophical grounds. We know this group well because we’ve repeatedly come across it among scholars of religion who, for some unexplained reason and in advance of thorough investigation, feel sure that they can trust their first thought about spirit tech. The problem of bias in this corner of the world of religion and spirituality studies is very real.
The same goes for nonexperts of course, so we’d like to address this concern up front. Personally, we have found that trusting our first instincts when it comes to the brave new world of spirit tech does not work well, and we suspect it doesn’t work well for anyone. We need to let the data unfold first, and then invest in analyzing it carefully before coming to definite conclusions.
Here’s one example of an insight that studying spirit tech has brought to us. We’ll return to this later, but we want to show, right at the outset of this journey, how an understanding of spirit tech might challenge common assumptions about human spirituality.
Many people labor under the mistaken impression that spiritual experiences lie beyond human control and understanding—they have special meaning and importance partly because they hit us from out of the blue spontaneously. These people may be inclined to think this because they believe spiritual experiences have supernatural origins—origins that can’t be located within the causal web of nature. This assumption about spontaneity makes sense on the surface: the absence of any discernible causes at the onset of a spiritual experience really might be a marker of supernatural origins.
As it happens, we’ve come to think that the idea of nonnatural supernatural origins doesn’t make sense: any this-worldly effect always arises within a complex web of this-worldly causes. For the sake of argument, however, let’s take nonnatural supernatural origins seriously for a moment. The thinking goes like this: spiritual experiences with supernatural origins will be authentic precisely because of those supernatural origins, at least when they are angelic or godly rather than demonic, and the main marker is their spontaneity. Meanwhile, spiritual experiences with natural origins, lacking spontaneity, caused by machines, will be inauthentic fabrications. Thus, on the surface, spontaneity seems like a first-rate way to decide on authenticity.
However, this is a misconstrual of how conscious experience arises. As Mikey Siegel, one of the leaders in the spirit tech community and the author of our foreword says, “The perceived difference between ‘spontaneous’ or ‘natural’ experiences and ‘externally caused’ experiences is illusory. All experience arises within consciousness within a context.”3 Indeed, truly understanding the high degree of control people have always exerted over spiritual experiences challenges this connection between spontaneity and authenticity. The history of religions is full of examples of people using all sorts of materials, exercises, and artistic expression (for example, in architecture, song, or patterned movements) to prepare their hearts and minds and to set the stage for spiritual experiences.
Contemporary scientific advancements provide an evidence-based way to understand the complexity of causality—as Siegel says, “There is no distinction between internal and external, or natural and unnatural that stands up to investigation.”4 First, with sophisticated new measurement techniques, we now have a concrete grasp of the physiological correlates of many types of spiritual experiences, and the spontaneity factor seems unimportant as a predictor of what happens in brains. Second, by listening to hundreds of people’s experiences and reflections—many of which are featured in this book—we’ve gathered a nuanced understanding of the existential meaning that technologically enhanced spiritual experiences hold for people who have them. As far as we have been able to tell, these nonspontaneous spiritual experiences are every bit as spiritually authentic and behaviorally potent as the supposedly spontaneous experiences that arise in nontechnological, traditional settings. We think both sorts of experience—tech assisted and traditional—also yield virtuous qualities in individuals to about the same degree, and behavioral or emotional changes for good and for bad with about the same frequency.
We are reporting our personal impressions based on an unusually broad exposure to a wide variety of people and experiences, through our scholarly research activity as well as our personal affiliations, rather than on a scientifically established measurement. We’d love to study this issue more concretely. But it has been forceful enough as an impression to induce us to surrender any linkage between spontaneity and authenticity.
The insistence on spontaneity for authenticity may be an instance of a blind spot, dancing around the fact that humans have bodies that express all these experiences. Our bodies express even the experiences that some people say have no natural causes or conditions. But the more we conceive the experiences as bodily, the less plausible the claim of their unconditioned spontaneity becomes. It is not that we can prove spontaneity wrong. It is that we lose interest in defending the idea after a while. What difference does it make? Whether spontaneous or not, we eventually prefer to evaluate the authenticity of our spiritual experiences on other grounds—say, based on their effects in people’s lives. Emphasizing spontaneity also ignores the plethora of traditional methods that religious traditions have encouraged to consciously help bring about spiritual connections and experiences—fasting, trance states, prayer beads, and chanting, for example.
Sometimes the prizing of spontaneity is inspired by allegiance to traditional religious worldviews. For example, Christians and some other religious people say that the spirit moves where it will and can never be predicted or controlled. However, even this view can be conceptualized as a way of guiding one’s experience—it helps people cultivate the skillful means to better align themselves to the will of God. But spirit tech poses an additional sharp challenge to this perspective. When a spiritual experience triggered and shaped by spirit tech feels the same or even more meaningful and transformative than one unaided by spirit tech, and when both have the same types of benefits, the claim that it is impossible to predict or control spiritual experiences becomes tenuous. Most people with the relevant experience eventually just give up on that altogether and start believing the opposite: that to some extent, we actually do have some agency and co-creative role in authentic spiritual experiences.
Then there are the extreme views that go beyond spontaneity to a particular type of spontaneity: to be authentic and good, spiritual experiences must be caused by good supernatural beings rather than by evil supernatural beings. Those evil supernatural beings—demons or jinns, perhaps—are capable of faking spiritual experiences and thereby seducing people into taking the wrong spiritual path. This way of thinking lends itself to demonizing spirit tech with a flourish of rhetoric, playing on people’s fears in the absence of any useful information. In response, we are inclined to affirm the commonsense (not to mention biblical) approach to evaluating authenticity: by their fruits you shall know them.
We grow concerned when people who lack the relevant exposure and knowledge dismiss spirit tech prematurely, before they learn about it or properly consider what it means for people. It is not just traditional religious people who are inclined to sweeping judgments of this kind. Allergies to traditional religious interpretations of spiritual experiences can lead to equally strong conclusions about the authenticity and value of spirit tech. It is common for religious skeptics to reject spiritual experiences as nonsense, for example, or to frame them merely as side effects of a complex brain’s cognitive-emotional system with no more meaning or value than steam from a kettle. Naturally, spirit tech gets dismissed in the very same flood of annoyed but typically uninformed condemnation of spiritual experiences generally. Here again, we are worried about a blind spot, dismissing such experiences too quickly, too easily.
But to dismiss spirit tech prior to understanding it would be folly. As we’ve indicated, it’s already here, and it’s rapidly growing, both in terms of its reach and its sophistication. If there’s one thing that’s been proven time and time again, it’s that the manner and speed with which technological advancements will change our world is often beyond our wildest imaginations.
In the 1960s, sociologists studying religion began to predict the decline of religion once and for all, a position that would become known as the secularization thesis.5 These scholars were convinced that religious belief systems were being gradually replaced by knowledge gleaned from biology, physics, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and economics. This was not only the result of rapid advancements in science, which were progressively closing the gaps in knowledge that were previously filled by supernatural agencies—such as God, paranormal energy, ghosts, or spirits—but also of the accumulation of awareness and tolerance of other worldviews, religions, and cultures. People started to question the inevitability of their belief systems when they began to accept that other perfectly reasonable and even enlightened people held drastically different religious views. After all, they thought, how could it make sense to claim that throughout time and across the whole world, their specific tradition was the only one that interpreted the world and spiritual reality correctly?
And yet, those secularization thesis scholars missed the mark. Sociologists and scholars of religion have been surprised to find that, despite these logical and practical challenges, religious and spiritual belief and practice has, in fact, not declined in the way they predicted. Religion is on the rise in Asia and most of the global south. Even in secularizing cultures it has persisted, though it has also changed—with many traditional religious groups losing members rapidly, a few traditional groups growing at surprising rates, and a lot of nontraditional forms of spirituality springing up like unruly vines around decaying ruins. Overall, religion and spirituality continue to play a powerful role in many people’s lives, and religious institutions and rhetoric remain pervasive and hugely influential throughout most of the world. In fact, the scholar most famously known for developing the secularization thesis, sociologist Peter L. Berger, later retracted his theory and declared that religion is here to stay.6 Berger realized that secularization describes only a global, hypereducated elite and fails to describe the religious and spiritual lives of regular people.
By contrast with the molasses-like rate of change that characterizes ancient religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, contemporary people rapidly adapt their spiritual beliefs and practices to changing times. Religions and spiritual expressions have always shifted and changed, being shaped by their cultural contexts just as much as they contribute to the construction of those same contexts. So this flexibility of spiritual and religious ideas and practices is by no means a distinctly modern phenomenon. However, the specific ways in which spirituality and religion have shifted in our information age is truly spectacular. Not only are we surrounded in person and through media by a rich diversity of religious heritages and spiritual traditions that are dramatically different from our own, but the technological revolution has also transformed the way we do nearly everything, and that includes spirituality and religion. The reality of remote religion in the era of the coronavirus pandemic drives that home. And these adaptive transformations in spirituality are not slowing down.
Our technological control over spiritual experiences may be coarse at this point, but it is rapidly becoming more refined. Soon we will know a great deal more about the functional and anatomical neurology of many aspects of spiritual experiences, thereby exposing the relevant brain functions and structures to selective inhibition and enhancement. If our current pace of technological change continues, capacities for control that today come to us only in dreams and nightmares, in science fiction and fantasy, will in short order be familiar aspects of life.
Some spiritual and religious leaders bemoan this revolution, as we will see later. Others advise careful and cautious openness to change. The rapid pace of technological change is here to stay, but we have agency and power to join the conversation without fear, empowered by knowledge. We can even help shape the way our societies harness the growing force of spirit tech. As these technologies become better known and more widely accessible, their applications to spirituality will become even more important to understand.
Beyond understanding a basic taxonomy of spirit tech—what types of spirit tech are in use, what’s under development, what they purport to do, how to access them—we must also grapple with a host of ethical quandaries of enormous weight. What does the level of control afforded by spirit tech say about the authenticity of spiritual experiences? Can we trust the ideas they inspire us to believe? Will they help or hurt our religious communities? Does our ability to cultivate moral virtues effectively using spirit tech, perhaps in some cases more effectively than by traditional methods, oblige us to use it? Does our responsibility to protect vulnerable people, especially children, oblige us to resist it?
Evaluating these questions is the task of the final chapters. It is difficult to draw any sound evaluative conclusions, however, without first deeply understanding tech-assisted spiritual experiences from the perspective of those who undergo them: what they feel like, what they accomplish, why people turn to them in the first place. It is at this meaningful level of personal lives and practical decisions where moral quandaries and value questions are often felt most sharply. Thus, it is by means of the personal stories from real people throughout the book that we can best raise the vital questions about meaning, value, reliability, and safety.
The future of spirit tech is still being written. But it is clear that technology is rapidly changing the way we operate in the world and the way we experience reality—including sacred reality. Like many technological advancements that once seemed the stuff of science fiction, spirit tech is unfurling in spectacular ways and will soon be a regular part of life for ordinary people. It’s here, and it’s here to stay. We best be ready.
Copyright © 2021 by Wesley J. Wildman and Kate J. Stockly