Should Christians take “smart drugs?”

August 23, 2018

Pharmacological Neurological Enhancement (“PNE”) is the use of drugs to improve brain function to a beyond-normal level. Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, has become increasingly popular among students to improve study habits and test-taking abilities, even though the purpose of Ritalin is to treat symptoms of ADHD. This is just one example of common use of PNE. Although this is a relatively young area of study within the sphere of medicine, its ethics are already subject to widespread debate. As Christians, we have a responsibility to consider if participating in PNE, now or in the future, can coexist with following Christ in the best way possible.

The difference between treatment and enhancement

There is vast confusion, even in the medical community, regarding what qualifies as cognitive treatment and what qualifies as cognitive enhancement. Typically, treatment is considered anything done with the intent to cure an illness, whereas enhancement is considered something which propels brain function to a level beyond what is normal. That which is not medically necessary is usually considered enhancement.

But often, there is fierce debate as to what is medically necessary and what is not, what is normal brain function and what is not, and even what qualifies as an illness and what does not. To simplify, let’s consider treatment anything that uses pharmacological methods (methods involving drugs) to cure an illness only, and enhancement anything that uses pharmacological methods to improve brain function where brain function is not at all impaired.

The value issue

There are plenty of moral concerns related to PNE, but let’s examine just a few. William Cheshire, a Christian ethicist and professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, has written extensively on this issue. His primary worry is that, if or when PNE becomes normal and even expected, human beings will be valued not for the Imago Dei they bear, but for the extent to which they are able to contribute to society. Overall intelligence will spike as a result of PNE, which will lead to the worth of a person derived from how smart he may become, rather than for who he is and who he was created by.

Cheshire is also concerned about how other important aspects of being human will be influenced. He notes, “Too much emphasis on cognitive productivity might damage our appreciation of the creative and sensitive natures of ourselves and others.” This is because if human beings are only focused on cognitive ability, then other, God-given aspects of life— “human inspiration, subtlety of language, nuanced humor, altruism, sacrificial love, relational commitment, religious devotion,” and others—will quickly fade from importance.

The social benefits

A person in favor of PNE will often argue that the benefits that will result from common use of PNE outweigh any moral concerns that exist. Social benefits of neuro enhancement include the ability of an airline pilot or a surgeon, for instance, to perform their jobs at a faultless level and stay alert for hours longer than they would otherwise be able. This sounds like a great benefit at first, but when we examine the logical implications of common use of PNE to enhance job performance, we encounter a serious problem—coercion.

Cheshire says this: “(the) use of technologies introduced as optional, once they are widely adopted, often become expected . . . (enhancers may) become a systematic instrument to nudge us more and more into a 24-hour society in which people are expected to always be available to perform.” This leaves individuals who do not wish to take these drugs in a place where they, practically speaking, have no real choice but to do so. And, as PNE becomes more and more common, becoming employed or remaining employed may even be contingent upon an individual’s willingness to participate. This potential all but eliminates respect for human autonomy.

A biblical understanding

We as human beings need rest, and often. We were not designed to function without ceasing. Our bodies have distinct and clear signals which let us know that it is time to rest. To ignore or artificially delete these signals can and will lead to harmful and even unforeseen consequences. And to recognize these signals is to recognize that we are not God, and that God sustains the world without our help. Rest can be an act of worship.

Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is true and proper worship.” What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? Well, it does not mean to modify ourselves away from how we were created. We are not to be automated sacrifices, or fake sacrifices, but holy and living sacrifices.

Technology is a gift from God, and growth is expected of Christians. But I urge you to consider if participating in PNE is truly a healthy form of self-improvement, or if its harmful implications may reject the way of Christ.  


Cheshire, William. “Drugs for enhancing cognition and their ethical implications: a hot new cup of tea.” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 6.3 (2006). Taylor & Francis. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1586/14737175.6.3.263

Maslen, Hannah, et al. “Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancement—How Neuroscientific Research Could Advance Ethical Debate.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A, 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4052735/

Mary Wurster

Mary Wurster grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, and currently attends Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. She will graduate with a degree in Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE) in May 2019, and she is considering seminary and/or law school in the future.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24