Spirit Tech: from techniques to technology

From hallucinogenic drugs to deep brain stimulation, we are constantly finding new ways to foster or deepen spiritual experiences. The sheer range of technology available today that aims to create, guide, and optimize spiritual experiences is dizzying. You may be picturing Persinger’s dubious god helmet or virtual reality experiences like something out of Lawnmower Man, but this stream of tech has transformed from its earliest iterations. What are we to make of these emergent technologies and their claims to offering better roads to spiritual experiences?

Wesley Wildman and Kate Stockly tackle this question head on in their new book, Spirit Tech. In their capable hands, the book ventures through the Scattered Supermarket of Special Spiritual Services. In that sense, it is almost like a guidebook to a foreign land as they introduce prime examples of each type of spirit tech. From Buddhist monk-neuroscientist teams that are seeking to make deep meditative states more accessible, to pastors leading VR churches, to retreat centers trying to tap into the healing potential of entheogens, the people and practices you meet in Spirit Tech may seem like something out of science fiction.

But, this isn’t a voyeuristic trip to gawk at the weird things people do. The expertise Wildman and Stockly bring as religious studies scholars on this journey is crucial, because a key skill when studying religion is to move past the initial judgment of new and odd practices or beliefs. Scholars are trained to prioritize curiosity over judgment.

If you’re anything like me, then your initial reaction to hearing about people sending electromagnetic beams into their basal ganglia is some blend of incredulity and disdain. But this dismissive reaction fails to really see these new practices and therefore is in no position to understand them in all their ambiguity and potential. Wildman and Stockly cut right through derisive attitudes by addressing two of the core concerns that emerge around spirit tech: Are these experiences authentic? And is the tech safe? In continuing this blog series, I’ll be taking each of these up.

Before getting into those questions, however, I want to acknowledge a deeper point that frames the way they address these concerns. Throughout Spirit Tech, I find Wildman and Stockly to be coming from the assumption that we, as humans, have been up to this sort of thing for a long time.

Just think about the wild assortment of behaviors we’ve developed that seem to be specifically aimed at fostering particularly intense experiences. As a species, we perform painful religious rituals. We fast, we go on long meditation retreats, we join with huge groups in collective movements and song, we drink and eat things that make us sick, but also radically alter our perception. The list goes on. You’d be hard pressed to find a group that didn’t/doesn’t have some sort of ritual practice built around creating and sustaining intense experiences. If you want to think about these new spiritual technologies as crazy, then you’ve got to admit that we’ve been crazy for long before computers and pharmaceuticals hit the scene.

Recognizing the long and diverse range of spiritual techniques makes these new spiritual technologies almost seem inevitable. Of course, we’re going to use whatever new tools we have in order to create, continue, or control these intense experiences. I find that acknowledging this continuity helps to take some of the skepticism out of our initial response to hearing about this tech. Instead of dismissing it as kooky new-age stuff, we’re in a better place to understand what this tech is, how it works, who is building it, and who might benefit from it.

Once you’ve got a clearer picture of what this tech is all about, then the ways in which it is radically different from prior spiritual techniques also comes into sharper focus. What would happen if entering deep meditative states became as accessible as going to the movies? How will religious traditions transform if their communities are increasingly gathering in virtual spaces? What do people risk by experimenting with these new spiritual tools? I’ll be tackling these questions in later posts, while also diving into some examples of these new technologies.

In order to be prepared for the way these technologies may transform our personal and social worlds, we must first understand them. And in order to understand them, we can’t dismiss them as the bizarre detritus of burning man festivals. As Wildman and Stockly put it:

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.”

Written by Jonathan Morgan, Postdoctoral Fellow. February 18, 2021.