Here we will examine how religion is entangled with artificial Intelligence (AI), some predictions of the future impact of AI on religion, and why scholars of religion need to in their professional work come to terms with the developments and future of AI.
Several reasons underscore the importance of engaging this field. First, there need to be more researchers active in this area as the “number of scholars engaging in AI and religious studies professionally can be counted on your fingers” (1). AI is expected to be disruptive to society and, by consequence, become entangled with religion (2). As Beth Singler explains, “With regards to religion, the perceived potential impact of AI on how we see the human, a domain traditionally circumscribed by religious ideologies for many cultures, is tied with the perception that religion will also be altered as our perspective on ourselves and our future is shook by this exponentially changing technology” (3).
Those holding to what we call the ‘eliminationist’ view, moreover, think AI will have the answers and solutions to existential questions and fears experienced by human beings (e.g. mortality) traditionally answered by religion and thus remove the need for religion itself (4). On the other hand, AI might serve to reinvigorate religion by engendering the production of new religious movements (NRMs) (5).
AI is relevant to the discipline of religious studies. Scholars of religion will increasingly be utilizing AI in their professional work (6). This need not necessarily be seen as a negative since AI’s application could facilitate new and novel methods in research. AI’s applicability to religious studies does, however, raise important questions, especially since it is in its infancy: How might AI look in the scholar of religion’s work? Could it assist in fieldwork and understanding religion itself? What potential exists in using AI simulation software to conduct experiments, perform classification of data, and detect patterns in the data? Will AI help the scholar sift through an enormous amount of textual data to make his work more efficient? These questions will only find answers in the future.
Scholar of religion Randall Reed attempted an experiment by applying an AI computer software to the Pauline letters in the New Testament to test the AI’s reliability in distinguishing between epistles that are authentically Pauline versus those which are disputed according to mainstream scholarship (7). Reed’s was an interesting effort in applying AI to biblical studies and potentially religious studies (which was ultimately his goal, namely to find a way that AI could be useful to his discipline), although the results of the test were inconsistent and evidenced the limitations of current AI software for research purposes.
Speculation is that AI might even become God-like when it “evolve[s] to the point where it will know more on an intellectual level than any human. And not long after that, AI might come to know more than everyone on the planet combined. This is the point where AI will become more like a God” (8). Anthony Levandowski, an engineer and the founder of the recently dissolved AI religion Way of the Future, states that such an AI will not be “a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” (9).
When AI becomes this advanced, people, some think, might look to it for guidance rather than to traditional religion (10), especially since humans tend to place their trust and obeisance in things more powerful than themselves (11). AI will supposedly satisfy this religious impulse to seek answers and guidance from that which is greater than themselves. Imagine, for instance, an AI that could answer all deep existential, philosophical, and religious questions from every worldview and faith of the world coherently in a way that appeals to millions. What impact would this have on traditional religion? Might it influence the believer’s understanding of his sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an? Might it be AI that answers the religious questions traditionally answered by religious texts? And how might this practice change belief in God or one’s conception of having a relationship with God?
On the more radical extreme, some propose an eliminationist view that predicts the demise of religion in the face of AI that will expand the human mind to reach mental enlightenment: “Humanity will no longer need a God to fulfill a role to help them satisfy the human desire to connect to higher powers. With the help of artificial intelligence, a new form of collective consciousness will be designed to challenge and replace religion” (12). According to another eliminationist perspective, AI will overcome problems traditionally nurturing the religious impulse,
“Religion in these cases is framed as a superstition and as providing appeasement for earthly suffering: If we survive and science progresses, we will manipulate the genome, rearrange the atom, and augment the mind. And if science defeats suffering and death, religion as we know it will die. Without suffering and death, religion will have lost its raison d etre. For who will pray for heavenly cures, when the cures already exist on earth? Who will die hoping for a reprieve from the gods, when science offers immortality? With the defeat of death, science and technology will have finally triumphed over superstition. Our descendants will know, once and for all, that they are stronger than imaginary gods” (13).
But the eliminationist’s prediction of traditional religion’s demise in the face of AI is not at all immediately clear or obvious, which makes such a prediction speculative at best. There are just too many factors, scenarios, potentialities, and possibilities of religion and humanity’s future that, for now, renders such a prediction impossible to make. To cite an example that could muddy the waters, it is not necessarily clear that an incompatibility between traditional religions and AI exists or is as pronounced as eliminationists assume. For example, Anne Foerst, a theologian and specialist in AI and robotics, notices how humanoid robots offer insights about humanity’s creation that balances out with what is taught in the book of Genesis in the Bible. She argues that the insights drawn from both sources complement one another and offer greater meaning when viewed together (14). Christopher Benek, a pastor and Christian transhumanist of the Christian Transhumanist Association, claims that advanced AI is compatible with traditional Christianity and that like humanity’s scientific discoveries before AI, AI can be considered just another technology humans have created under the guidance of God (15).
Further, it is likely, based on precedent, that if there are perceived tensions between traditional religion and AI, religious thinkers and theologians will revisit and refine their beliefs instead of dismissing them. This is not to mention how religious believers and leaders might react to AI in the future, another area currently lacking research in contemporary religious studies and sociology of religion. There is also, as we shall see, the likely prospect of new religious movements (NRMs) emerging imbibing AI elements.
This is not, however, to reject the notion that AI might become God-like. One day AI might be so advanced that people will not be able to hide from it and be seen and heard at all times. AI will become like God whose “ever-watchful eye is always on the world, seeing the sparrow fall, the grass grow and every secret transgression being committed” (16). At the very least, AI will become intrusive and intrude on various life domains. AI is already disrupting employment, businesses, industries, the way people think about themselves, and, as some argue, religion. Possibly, many activities traditionally performed by religious figures will be taken over by AI and automated robots (17). Already in 2017, a robot priest called BlessU-2 was created commemorating Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg. It is now possible for people to be blessed by a robot that has over forty Bible verses programmed into it (18). BlessU-2 is not the only of its kind to exist (there is a temple in Japan with a robot priest) and might be informative concerning how religion will look in the future.
On the other hand, some predictions suggest that AI could serve to cultivate religion. When robots become the main working class, it may afford people to have more time to spend on important aspects of their lives like with families, friends, and neighbors, and, perhaps, with spiritual and religious pursuits. But this prediction must be held tentatively as it is difficult to predict what kind of jobs future AI technological change might produce to keep human beings active (19). Historically, often what has been predicted to cause job loss has also produced new, unforeseen areas of work ripe for human employment.
Beth Singler argues that although AI will be disruptive to religion, it will also reinvigorate it. AI will serve to facilitate the production of NRMs, a prediction based on the precedent of nascent technology inspiring the religious impulse. Singler points to New Age spirituality boosted by the development of the internet leading to claims of telepathic communication and devotees sharing in that holistic cosmos across a “Net” (20). One might point to NRMs holding to a fascination with technology and science (e.g. the Raelians who believe that through cloning it is possible to attain immortality and the transmission of human consciousness between clones, as well as Scientology) and those NRMs embracing AI and transhumanist ideas such as The Order of the Cosmic Engineers (OCE), The Turing Church of Transcendent Engineering, Christian Transhumanist Association, and so on. Technology and science engendering NRMs offers a strong challenge to the eliminationist perspective, as well as the secularization thesis.
As such, AI is both significant and relevant to scholars specializing in NRMs, although we must hold predictions of their success tentatively (24). For example, the recently dissolved The Way of the Future promoted itself as a religion — it self-described its focus as the “worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software”— that, despite initial thoughts of its success, was dissolved after legal disputes regarding its founder, Levandowski. Could this be the future of other AI-inspired NRMs, or will they find other means through which to sustain themselves? Such questions aside, unpredictability need not be considered negatively but also perhaps as a means for the scholar of NRMs to explore possibilities and offer conceivable scenarios of religion’s potentialities in ever-developing and world-shaping AI future.
Although some of these transhumanist movements are overtly religious (e.g. The Turing Church, for example, wishes to “go to the stars and find Gods, build Gods, become Gods, and resurrect the dead from the past with advanced science, space-time engineering and ‘time magic’” (21)), others, while also sharing religious sentiments, deliberately separate themselves from religion. OCE, for instance, calls itself an “un-religion” and stops “just short” of being atheistic. It holds to a worldview devoid of god(s) and its members reject a supernatural God (22). Many apocalyptic AI advocates—those hoping for a Virtual Kingdom in a mechanical future in which there will be no more death and pain—are contemptuous of religion by seeing belief in spirits and souls as human weakness and a psychological crutch for dealing with death (23). AI advocates believe they cannot rely on divine agencies and worry that instead of seeking scientific advancement people will go back to religious superstition instead of pursuing scientific advancement. AI advocates instead emphasize mechanical and human evolution that will aid in attaining the ideal Virtual Kingdom of the mechanical future.
Scholars of religion can provide helpful analysis in many areas. There is, at the moment, a lack of knowledge of how religious leaders will respond to AI. Although theological implications of AI have received study in the Christian tradition (25), we also need researchers to investigate how religious leaders and devotees of various faiths are responding and will respond to AI’s influence on religious practice, discourse, interpretations of sacred texts, and how believers make sense of AI by combining perceived disparate elements into a narrative consistent with their faith. What about the programming of religious beliefs into AI? This point is being considered,
“Suppose it is true that religion benefits social behavior… suppose we come to the conclusion that religion is beneficial in terms of regulating human behavior; should we equip robots with such a component? I don’t see why not. Let’s give robots the illusion that there is a robot God, and they are going to be punished if they act improperly, and they should be nice to each other because other robots have feelings, too. All the emotional charges that we associate with religion and morality could be programmed in that way on a machine” (26).
What can scholars of religion contribute to this debate? Already we can perceive the relevance of theologians, ethicists, and philosophers who will be called on to contribute to creating AI with ethical beliefs. Is there an area where scholars of religion can be relevant here too? Given the rapid development of AI, its likely disruption(s) of society, and entanglement with religion, scholars of religion need to engage the topic.
1. The Religious Studies Project. 2019. The Promise of Reincarnation in the Grundtvig AI. Available.
2. Singler, Beth. 2017. “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion For the Religious Studies Scholar.” Implicit Religion 20(3):215-231.
3. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 219.
4. Rendsburg, Melissa A. 2019. “The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Religion: Reconciling a New Relationship with God.” Cyber Security and Artificial Intelligence. pp. 1-27.
5. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 223-224
6. Reed, Randall. 2021. “A.I. in Religion, A.I. for Religion, A.I. and Religion: Towards a Theory of Religious Studies and Artificial Intelligence.” Religions 12(401):1-16.
7. Reed, Randall. 2021. Ibid.
8. Rendsburg, Melissa A. 2019. Ibid. p. 20.
9. Harris, Mark. 2017. Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence. Available.
10. Rendsburg, Melissa A. 2019. Ibid. p. 19.
11. Sulleyman, Aatif. 2017 Elon Musk slams proposal to create an artificial intelligence ‘god’ that people will worship. Available.
12. Rendsburg, Melissa A. 2019. Ibid. p. 18.
13. Messerly, John. 2015. The end of religion: Technology and the future. Available.
14. Foerst, Anne. 1998. “Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 33:91–111. p. 109.
15. Solon, Olivia. 2017. Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god. Available.
16. Reed, Randall. 2021. Ibid. p. 1-2.
17. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 222.
18. Sherwood, Harriet. 2017. Robot priest unveiled in Germany to mark 500 years since Reformation. Available.
19. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 221.
20. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 224.
21. Prisco, Julio. 2014. “Religion for the cosmic frontier.” Paper given at the 2014 Mormon Transhumanist Conference.
22. Prisco, Giulio. 2012. Order of Cosmic Engineers. Available.
23. Geraci, Robert. 2011. “There and Back Again: Transhumanist Evangelism in Science Fiction and Popular Science.” Implicit Religion 14(2):141-172. p. 143.
24. Singler, Beth. 2017. Ibid. p. 225.
25. Foerst, Anne. 1998. Ibid.; Herzfeld 2003; Herzfeld, Noreen L. 2003. “Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 37(2): 303-316; Gardner, Stephen Robert. 2006. “Transhumanism and the imago Dei: Narratives of apprehension and hope.” Diss., The University of Auckland; Dorobantu, Marius. 2021. “Cognitive Vulnerability, Artificial Intelligence, and the Image of God in Humans.” Journal of Disability & Religion 25(1):27-40.
26. Wexler, Ellen. 2018. “Author Interview| Judea Pearl: When Computers Understand Why.” Moment Magazine.