Issue 8 / Bodies

August 03, 2019
A photo of the exterior of a Mormon temple.

Gilbert Arizona Temple, a Mormon temple in Gilbert, Arizona. Photo by Joe Cook on Unsplash.

Mormon Mommies Will Never Die

Tamara Kneese, Benjamin Peters

In the desert, a group of Mormon transhumanists are trying to create heaven on earth.

You’re scrolling through photos of a young mother, posed in yoga gear, surrounded by her three doting children and adoring husband. They are enjoying hot chocolate together. They are hiking a mountain path. They are visiting the Salt Lake Temple.

This is usual fare for Mormon mommy social media. But if you keep scrolling through this particular Instagram feed — Blaire Ostler’s — you will see something unusual: images of her and her family holding rainbow protest signs proclaiming her bisexuality and queerness, and inviting passersby to give her a hug. The comments hint at controversy: “Blaire, I’m so sorry for all this hate you’ve been receiving. That whole ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ thing seems to have gotten lost.”

Scroll further and you will find Ostler contemplating a better future: “I am here to build that future — the future in my dreams where love and compassion greeted queer people, where mothers could have babies, and people didn’t have to die in childbirth. Perhaps in that future world no one had to die at all.” Her greetings on Instagram this Easter: “May you live forever.” 

Ostler is a Mormon, a mother, a queer philosopher, and a transhumanist. She is a board member and former CEO of the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), a Utah-based nonprofit that combines transhumanist ideas with Mormon teachings. She draws ire from conservative Mormons for her liberal and inclusive stances as well as from some transhumanists for her status as a non-technologist. “Hell, I couldn’t even get my Facebook notification preferences worked out without help,” she admits. 

Ostler is an unlikely mixture of elements. But sometimes it takes unlikely mixtures to illustrate how theology and technology overlap and intertwine in the deserts of the American West. Mormonism and transhumanism might seem worlds apart, but they share a common hope. Both seek to solve, by practical means, the problem of death. 

Men of the West

In 2006, Lincoln Cannon and thirteen like-minded Mormons founded the MTA in Utah. Lincoln is the organization’s former president, as well as the CEO of Thrivous, a company that sells life extension supplements. While not formally affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name for the mainstream Mormon faith), the MTA’s 800 or so members are mostly Mormons in good standing with the church. They are also in good standing with the ragtag assortment of ex-Mormons, other Christians, and secularists that the association attracts. The MTA styles itself as both distinctly and not exclusively Mormon in its approach to transhumanism; the group features secular keynote speakers alongside the faithful at its annual conference in Salt Lake City.

Still, a Mormon outlook is central to the MTA. Its members see Mormonism and transhumanism as deeply compatible. Both worldviews believe in a material cosmos: nature, the supernatural, and humans are all made of matter. Thus, the common task of humanity is to collapse the material divide between the mortal and the immortal: to render earth into heaven, to make mortal bonds and bodies eternal, and to continue our collective life into the afterlife. Science and technology are not alternatives to religion, so much as they are the tools for realizing its most sweeping revelations.

These ideas, whether in their Mormon or transhumanist form, share a common origin in the American West: both Silicon Valley and Salt Lake are profoundly Western places. Until recently, the MTA website indulged in the aesthetic of lone, muscled men set against mountain backdrops, conjuring images of the frontier. Silicon Valley has long had a similar fascination with frontiers, most famously the “electronic frontier” described by John Perry Barlow. But the frontier is always seen as a site for frontiersmen — which brings us to another affinity between the transhumanists of the MTA and those of Silicon Valley: their overwhelming maleness.

Over the phone, Lincoln Cannon tells us that the MTA was initially “male and nerdy, but there is nothing in the ideology that necessitates that.” Even so, most of MTA’s board members are male. Indeed, the masculinism of transhumanism — and the frontier communities that have nourished it — is what Blaire Ostler is trying to undo.

Social Reproduction in Salt Lake

The deserts of the American frontier have incubated many different survival cultures over the centuries. But they have one thing in common: a history of charismatic men taking positions of public power while women do the work of communal living. 

Ostler challenges both patriarchal Mormonism (keep the faith and the family until you die) and masculinist transhumanism (deep freeze your head or blast off into space before the world dies). She is innovating an alternative feminist vision of survivalism that is embodied, gendered, and peculiarly Mormon: her survivalism scales to the point where one, or rather many united in love, might one day become gods. 

In the modern imagination of theogeny, self-made gods are seldom women. At a funeral in 1844, Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, declared that “God himself was once as we are now.” In 1968, Stewart Brand — perhaps Silicon Valley’s most important prophet — began his influential Whole Earth Catalog with the sentence, “We are as gods.” 

But gods, for Mormons at least, are not exactly self-made: the unsung heroes of Mormonism are pioneer mothers, not entrepreneurial men. The westward expansion of the American frontier took early Church members into the Salt Lake Valley, fueling a masculinized Mormon survivalist culture. But the twentieth-century domesticated and feminized that culture by emphasizing provident living, carefully planned family finances, food storage, emergency preparation meant to ensure against a rainy day — and perhaps even the Second Coming.

Mormon women have led most of that work. In the current generation, they have taken to the internet to continue the tradition. They write as Mormon mommy bloggers and create Pinterest prepper boards, where they trade photos of emergency kits and recipes for baking hardtack. And they often court controversy: the spouse of MTA board member Ben Blair is the best-selling DIY lifestyle author and Mormon feminist Gabrielle Blair, who tweets under her celebrated blogger handle “Design Mom” on topics sensitive to Church policy, such as abortion.

Building Zion 2.0

While Ostler inhabits this world, she sometimes catches flak from more mainstream Mormon feminists for her unusual critique of Mormon patriarchy. Instead of rejecting what is usually seen as Mormonism’s most conservative nineteenth-century practice — polygamy — she reclaims and re-configures it, arguing that polygamy sets the precedent for both queer and Platonic eternal family relations in which any person may be sealed forever to any loved one, regardless of sexual preference or gender. For her, polygamy does not reinscribe abusive patriarchal power. Rather, it offers the potential to create embodied communities of love sealed together forever.

Her criticisms of transhumanism are also rooted in bodily relations. She, like most MTA members, does not advocate “mind uploading” and calls the afterlife of a disembodied avatar “not living at all.” She calls out the “prepper bunker billionaires,” such as Peter Thiel and top executives at LinkedIn, Reddit, and eBay — many of whom are also transhumanism enthusiasts — for their selfishness. “[I]nstead of using this money to save yourself at the end of the Singularity or apocalypse or whatever you want to call it, you could actually be part of the solution,” she tells us in an interview. “Sheer survival isn’t the goal.” She criticizes the toxic privilege in running away from death or disaster instead of caring for “a sick grandmother, feeding three kids, and working multiple jobs.” 

Collective care work is central to her radical feminist interpretation of transhumanism. Inspired by critical theorists like Donna Haraway, Ostler celebrates feminist transhumanist technologies that let women control their reproductivity — birth control pills, tampons, breast pumps, and baby carriers. She sees transhumanism as another technology of reproduction: the reproduction of life beyond death. Her website also differs aesthetically from both the MTA’s mountainous Manifest Destiny vibe and the secular transhumanist cyberpunk (think men wearing VR goggles). Instead, Pinterest-ready images showcase what she calls “identity, the female form, humanity, and the realness of the body.” 

The MTA appears to be listening. In an interview, former MTA president Lincoln Cannon noted how the fluidity of gender gives no guarantee that a man now will remain a man in the hereafter. Meanwhile, the MTA continues to welcome more Mormons put off by conservative interpretations of Mormon doctrine, particularly those who are women, trans, non-binary, and queer, as well as those outside the Church frustrated with disembodied and sexist aspects of secular transhumanism. 

This mix can be volatile. The MTA contains many tensions: one anonymous member who self-identified as a “microaggressing cis white male heteronormative patriarch” recently bemoaned having to endure “yet another Blaire Ostler tirade anti-patriarchy/pro-Queer” in the MTA newsletter every week. “We look to the MTA,” he continued, “to get us into AI, Stem Cells, Gene Splicing, Telomere Lengthening, Singularity theorizing, Nano, and Simulation Theory, all in service of spirituality.” 

Not everyone agrees with Ostler’s approach. Even so, queer theology is making inroads in some unexpected places. In April 2019, the Church reversed a recent policy and decided to allow the children of same-sex couples to be baptized once again. The Church’s vision of the present and Ostler’s vision of the future are still separated by many worlds, but they now have some queerness in common. 

Ostler and her kin remind us that tech entrepreneurs are not the only ones who call upon angel investors to fuel utopian ambitions. They imagine science and technology as the moonshot means for achieving great things. But unlike their Silicon Valley counterparts, their imagined futures are embodied and collective. Against the disembodied and individualist focus of mainstream transhumanism — which often manifests as a kind of lone-male immortality worship — they believe that Zion 2.0 will be built out of the messy soil of our bodies, our blue planet, and our communal commitments to one another. They don’t want to bring heaven down to earth so much as to create heaven out of earth, together.

Tamara Kneese is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Director of Gender and Sexualities Studies at the University of San Francisco, and the author of a forthcoming book on digital posterity for Yale University Press.

Benjamin Peters is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa, and the author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 8, "Bodies". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.