In one of Meshuggah’s most well-known tracks, New Millennium Cyanide Christ, we find an exploration of the themes of transhumanism and cults. Drummer Tomas Haake, who writes the lyrics for the band, said of the track in an interview with Greg Prato:
That’s more of a dystopian take on a sectistic or extremist kind of cult vibe. I remember the inspiration came from suicide cults and stuff like that where you have one leader that can take hundreds of people and just brainwash them and make them think he’s Christ or the savior.
In the lyrics, we see the transformation of the human, from a lowly being to a higher one: “I rearrange my pathetic tissue / I incise, I replace, I’m reformed / I eradicate the fake pre-present me / Elevate me to a higher human form”. And in transhumanist fashion, the physical body is replaced with machinery: “I replace my bones with bars”, but this also has the effect of blocking normal human functions that are seen as inimical: “My receiving eyes exchanged with fuses / Blindness induced to prevent destruction”, “Staples to pin it over my ears / Non-receptive of ungodly sounds / I disable the audio-generators of fear”, and “Hexagonal bolts to fill my mouth…Without speech there will be no deceit”.
So here we have the human acts of seeing, hearing, and speaking framed as destructive, and the purpose of changing the human form is to do away with the outcomes of these functions, like fear and lying. This is, in a sense, anti-transhumanist since the elevation of this being involves not enhancing its human functions but blocking them. Paradoxically, this creates a new entity that is not even human anymore since everything that makes it human, like the ability to lie and experience fear, is taken away.
This new human has its imperfections removed: “a smoothing of features”, “Completion of the greatest art”, “Humans, once astray, made divine / Stripped of congenital flaws”, but making this perfect human form lends to the dystopian vision that Haake has created: the being becomes a monstrous leader that is cultishly followed. The reference to cults is clear, with “new millennium” alluding to millennial cults, of which there are many, that speak of a coming fundamental transformation of society, occurring after a major event.
These groups – headed by a charismatic leader, often bestowed with divine qualities – predict and promise a new utopian age, yet the cults themselves are anything but utopian: they are marked by deception, manipulation, abuse, and – in some cases – suicide (e.g. the Jonestown massacre and the Heaven’s Gate cult) and violence (e.g. the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist acts). “The new millennium Christ” in Meshuggah’s track is, like many cult leaders, seen to be a flawless saviour, here “To save a failed humanity”, “Here to redeem all from lies”, just as Christ is said to have redeemed us from our sins. But this transhuman being is not truly a saviour; it is only followed as one.
Meshuggah’s track may refer to the Heaven’s Gate cult, founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in 1974. The members of this cult – a mixture of Christian millenarianism, New Age spirituality, and ufology – believed that by rejecting their human nature and leaving their bodies at the time when a supposed spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet passed Earth, they could ascend to a higher existence (the “Next Level” or “Evolutionary Level Above Human”). And so in 1997, 39 active members of the group, including Applewhite, died by suicide, coinciding with the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet. (The group was only known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’ in the last few years of its existence; before that, it went by the names ‘Human Individual Metamorphosis’ and ‘Total Overcomers Anonymous’.)
Just as in the Meshuggah track, the Heaven’s Gate cult was centred on removing human characteristics. Applewhite stated:
Since the Evolutionary Level Above Human has no mammalian or human members, they [group members] had to become “new creatures” who bonded in mind, spirit, and behavior – void of human sexuality, human binds, and addictions of this world and this civilization. Some in the class have chosen on their own to have their vehicles [bodies] neutered in order to sustain a more genderless and objective consciousness.
Indeed, some male members of the group, including Applewhite, voluntarily underwent castration to adhere to their strict lifestyle of asceticism. Rio DiAngelo, one of the group’s members, said that other followers were willing to end their lives because they were convinced that Applewhite “was the second coming of Jesus Christ”, and the leader claims as much in his writings:
This “return” requires that I prepare to lay down my borrowed human body in order to take up, or reenter, my body (biological) belonging to the Kingdom of God (as I did approximately 2000 years ago, as Jesus, when I laid down the human body that was about 33 years old in order to reenter my body belonging to the Kingdom of Heaven).
Given that the Heaven’s Gate cult was millenarian and Applewhite was perceived as the new Christ, it seems likely that this particular group at least partly inspired Meshuggah’s track. The reference to “cyanide” in the track, meanwhile, may derive from the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, where 900 members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult drank a flavoured drink mixed with Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, and Phenergan. (They didn’t drink Kool-Aid, as is commonly believed.)
Interestingly, transhumanism today has been described as cultish and the kind of language that humanists use is eerily religious. The movement has also been compared to millenarian Christianity. Meghan O’Gieblyn, a former evangelical Christian who discovered the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil, writes in a piece for The Guardian:
Like the theologians at my Bible school, Kurzweil, who is now a director of engineering at Google and a leading proponent of a philosophy called transhumanism, had his own historical narrative. He divided all of evolution into successive epochs. We were living in the fifth epoch, when human intelligence begins to merge with technology. Soon we would reach the “Singularity”, the point at which we would be transformed into what Kurzweil called “Spiritual Machines”. We would transfer or “resurrect” our minds onto supercomputers, allowing us to live forever. Our bodies would become incorruptible, immune to disease and decay, and we would acquire knowledge by uploading it to our brains. Nanotechnology would allow us to remake Earth into a terrestrial paradise, and then we would migrate to space, terraforming other planets. Our powers, in short, would be limitless.
Yet although few transhumanists would likely admit it, their theories about the future are a secular outgrowth of Christian eschatology. The word transhuman first appeared not in a work of science or technology but in Henry Francis Carey’s 1814 translation of Dante’s Paradiso, the final book of the Divine Comedy. Dante has completed his journey through paradise and is ascending into the spheres of heaven when his human flesh is suddenly transformed. He is vague about the nature of his new body. “Words may not tell of that transhuman change,” he writes.
Transhumanism offered a vision of redemption without the thorny problems of divine justice. It was an evolutionary approach to eschatology, one in which humanity took it upon itself to bring about the final glorification of the body and could not be blamed if the path to redemption was messy or inefficient.
The association of transhumanism with not just cults and religion but dystopia as well (as in New Millennium Cyanide Christ) can be seen in some of the proponents of this philosophy. For example, most histories of the movement attribute the term transhumanism to Julian Huxley, a British eugenicist, who said in a 1951 lecture: “Such a broad philosophy might perhaps be called, not Humanism, because that has certain unsatisfactory connotations, but Transhumanism. It is the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition.”
Huxley himself was inspired by the priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who Eric Steinhart considers the first transhumanist thinker to give “serious consideration to the future of human evolution” through the use of genetic engineering and technologies to achieve a new cosmic-intelligence that would transcend humanity itself. It’s important to stress, however, that Teilhard’s method of transforming humanity was rooted in his commitment to eugenics, which Huxley was also a proponent of. Indeed, transhumanism has a dark side, or dark possibilities, that should not be overlooked.
O’Gieblyn, whose thoughts on transhumanism can also be found in her book God, Human, Animal, Machine (2021), states “I had initially been drawn to transhumanism because it was grounded in science. In the end, I became consumed with the kind of referential mania and blind longing that animates all religious belief.”
Going beyond the human is alluring, as are those who promise to take us there. But given the ties between this utopian goal and religious fervour, we should be wary about any wish we have for human perfection and salvation. Dystopian transhumanism is, after all, a real possibility.