Most Americans are put off by the idea of using science to ‘enhance’ human abilities — and these attitudes are strongly connected with people’s religiosity.
That’s according to a new Pew Research Center survey, which looked at public attitudes about human enhancement technologies.
We may all want to be sharp, strong and healthy but, as the survey found, most people are worried about the use of emerging biomedical technologies that seek to push the boundaries of human capacities.
Researchers looked specifically at three emerging technologies: gene-editing techniques that could give healthy babies a reduced risk of disease; computer chips implanted in the brain to improve concentration and information processing; and transfusions of synthetic blood designed to increase oxygen levels for greater speed, strength and stamina. In surveying more than 4,700 U.S. adults, they found that around two-thirds of Americans are worried about each of these technologies.
Religion played a big role in shaping people’s views. On avera ge, the more religious Americans were, the less likely they were to want these biomedical enhancements, whether it was for themselves or for their babies.
David Masci, a senior writer and editor at Pew, said he wasn’t “terribly surprised” that people with higher levels of religious commitment, as well as those belonging to more theologically conservative traditions, tended to be more wary about the prospect of human enhancement.
Only 41 percent of Protestants and 48 percent of Catholics said that they would want gene editing for babies to greatly reduce the risk of serious disease. This contrasts with 75 percent of atheists and 67 percent of agnostics who said they would want gene editing for their baby.
By and large, atheists and agnostics believe that gene editing does more good than harm. About six-in-ten atheists and half of agnostics said that gene editing has more benefits than downsides. Those who are religious, however, were more divided on the issue. For example, Protestants were roughly divided into thirds in saying that gene editing does more good than bad, vice versa, or has equal benefits and harms.
Similarly, the majority of religious Americans, regardless of whether they claimed to have a high, medium or low level of religious commitment, said that they would not want a brain chip implant.
White evangelical Protestants were the least likely to want any of the three enhancement technologies, while across the board, atheists and agnostics were the most ready to embrace the technologies.
Of the three technologies, atheists and agnostics most readily accepted gene editing for babies. Three-quarters of atheists said they would want gene editing for their baby, compared with just over half who were comfortable with synthetic blood transfusions and brain chip implants.
Masci said that this may be because gene editing “is often presented as something that could help your child grow up to be a healthier person” by editing out genetic predispositions to specific diseases. In this way, gene editing “can be seen in a more therapeutic light” than the other two enhancement technologies, because it is not necessarily about making a child “blonde, strong, a super genius,” he said.
In several cases, those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular” had similar levels of aversion to these technologies.
For example, 33 percent of these “nothing in particular” respondents said they would want an implanted device to improve concentration and information processing capabilities, similar to the 31 percent of Catholics who said the same. Similarly, 37 percent of “nothing in particular” respondents were comfortable with synthetic blood transfusions, closely resembling the 35 percent of Catholics who said the same.
Masci explained that this is because those who describe their religious affiliations as “nothing in particular” do not necessarily reject the existence of a god. They may still be spiritual and believe in a higher supreme being, Masci said, and those beliefs may inform their attitudes towards enhancement technologies.
For some, the question of whether to accept technology-enabled human enhancements is much easier to answer in the abstract than in person.
“I think that’s one of those things where you don’t realize the religious effect it has on you personally until it affects you personally,” said a 40-year-old Hispanic Christian man from Phoenix. “It’s easy to say no, that’s OK, that’s OK, until it’s you and then you have to deal with it, you have to sleep at night.”
Others thought that concerns about meddling with God’s plans are overblown because, as one man in Atlanta put it, doctors are “already playing God now.”
A 44-year-old white mainline Protestant man from Birmingham, Ala. said, “I think God has given a doctor the talents to fix us. … I think he has given these people the talents to do so. I don’t think it is the doctors or medical gurus [trying] to play God.”
Some took the view that future enhancements aren’t that much different from the existing medical technologies that we already use without qualms.
“It’s just enhancing what we already have. It doesn’t imply that it’s changing how we think,” said a 46-year-old white evangelical Christian woman in Atlanta “…Really, what’s the difference between [a brain chip] and taking a bunch of vitamins that improve our memory?”
Still, fears and worries about the ethics of tinkering with our mind and body persist. Some Christian respondents said that these new technologies hark back to the “mark of the beast” in the Bible’s book of Revelation.
Asked a 34-year-old white evangelical Protestant woman in Birmingham, “If you have studied the Bible or gone to church or whatever, could this be like the mark of the beast?”
However, while white evangelical Protestants are the most wary about human enhancements, mainline Protestant denominations are much more open to their members taking advantage of enhancement technologies.
Buddhists and Jews are also likely to embrace human enhancement because the technologies align well with the religions’ tenets of helping others, improving the world, and alleviating suffering, Masci quoted Jewish and Buddhist experts as saying.
And, as a Lutheran theologian put it to Masci, “I think [mainline churches] will see much of this for what it is: an effort to take advantage of these new technologies to help improve human life.”