“Playing God” to “Playing” God—A Latter-day Saint Retooling of a CRISPR Cliché
Bradley Thornock, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Rocky Vista University College of Medicine
The phrase “playing God” is an all too common refrain when talking about the possibility of modifying genes, especially in the germline. Such rhetoric has intensified in recent years with the advent of using CRISPR-Cas 9 in humans. It is generally understood that the warning against “playing God” is not necessarily about celestial worries as much as it is about terrestrial ones--a fear of the hubris of mankind, concerns with unforeseen harms and undesirable social implications. In this sense, “playing God” is a negative enterprise, not because CRISPR usurps some lofty Providence but because of its on- the-ground injurious potential. Yet, those with stronger religious inclinations are still more skeptical of genetic modification, whether for treatment or enhancement, when compared to their more secular counterparts. Calls for religious viewpoints on CRISPR have been answered by many faiths; however, some voices have yet to be fully heard. Once such voice is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though Christian, or at least Christian-adjacent, the Church still has many unique beliefs that can bring equally unique insights into the CRISPR debate. One distinctive Church doctrine deals not only with the literal theosis of mankind--that through exaltation humans can become gods—but of God’s own theosis--that God Himself is a sanctified and deified man, a kind of benevolent post-human. When viewed through this lens, the utilization of CRISPR can be seen as an evolutionary step toward our divine potential. The term “playing God” may also be seen in a different, more positive light. One “plays” God in the same way that a child “plays” astronaut: as a means of dreaming of and practicing for a possible future state of existence. Humans are currently no more Deities as children are jet-setting off to Venus, but play provides a pathway to such ambitions. Play acting, then, is not mere tinkering or superfluous distraction, but is, as Gadamir and Aristotle posit, a serious business that can unveil our true selves and potentialities. The resuscitation of “playing” God is important for even non-Latter-day Saints, since the ultimate question of genetic modification is not whether a post-human will be born, but what kind of post-human will he/she be. Scholars have advocated for a principle of precaution regarding genetic modification, but the specifics of how we ought to cautiously proceed are yet to be determined. Ruminating on what it means to “play” God can help fill out these gaps. What are the attributes of a benevolent post-human and how can we cultivate such characteristics via our use of technologies like CRISPR.