Deus ex Machina: Artificial Intelligence and Religion

POSTED BY   Michele Baker
3rd February 2017

I am broadly fascinated with how our evolution from human to machine is going to take place in all aspects of how we live. From the recent discussions in the European Parliament about legal governance of AI, to the TV  shows and movies documenting how popular culture is receiving and pre-empting some of the probable developments, I find the entire concept of AI absolutely captivating.

Perhaps it’s the state of things today that’s getting to me; to quote Roland Barthes:

“There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it.”

With that in mind, I wonder how the long-established, and – let’s face it – largely antiquated major religious institutions of this world will accept our new creations?

I, personally, am atheist, in that I do not subscribe to any particular religious dogma. But that doesn’t mean that I am not deeply intrigued as to what religious leaders think about the rise of the robots.

If a robot can think, feel, empathise; if it is truly sentient, then does it have a soul? Amongst hundreds of other questions being raised by the continuing growth of artificial intelligence technology, this matter of the soul is one I find utterly intriguing. It’s also a question that theology will also need to address, and soon.

I think it would be thrilling to discuss viewpoints from a range of major religions, but – alas – I would need a bit more time to source some material. So, I’ll stick with that good old fashioned Christianity one, as did Jonathan Merritt, who wrote the article which inspired this piece.

Pope Francis and the Martians

Pope Francis has so far proved to be an unprecedentedly progressive force within the Catholic Church. A rather extreme analogy he drew recently is particularly interesting in terms of how far the welcoming arms of the Church should spread.

“If—for example—tomorrow an expedition of Martians came … and one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen? When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way.’”

Whilst the Martian analogy is a little tongue-in-cheek, the statement has some fascinating overtones when we look at artificial intelligence. And it’s a question that, no matter how far-fetched it may seem, does bear consideration. If we are approaching the singularity, whether soon or in the next century (depending on whose opinion you subscribe to), and the machine is the next stage of human evolution, what do the major religions think is the best course of action?

Artificial Intelligence and Religion Disruption

This question of artificial intelligence and religion is undoubtedly disruptive to theology. But perhaps no more so than Galileo’s heliocentrism theory of the 1600s, or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Both these milestones in scientific discovery constituted a massive overhaul for the Christian Church, which had to scrabble around to reassert its validity in the face of them. In the case of AI, however, there is an opportunity for Christianity to embrace our synthetic friends from the offset, particularly when the Pope has already said that baptising Martians would probably be God’s will.

The Soul

That being said, there’s a tension here. God, so the Bible teaches, created humans in His own image, including breathing into us His living soul. Theologically speaking, therefore, can a sentient machine, created by humans, really have a living soul, too?

What on Earth is a soul, anyway? If you’re religious, you may have some very specific ideas on the answer to this question. But for the rest of us, there’s still much debate over whether or not the soul even exists. Is it a synonym for consciousness? And, speaking of consciousness, what is that exactly?

In the Channel 4 TV series, Humans, which I have alluded to in previous posts, consciousness is aligned with the concept of free will and emotion. Robots can be made conscious through the integration of a specific set of code, at which point they seek equality with humankind. The series presents a pretty convincing argument as to the reasons this equality should be granted, whilst still raising the argument that persists in this case of theology: you cannot tell if someone is conscious, and whether they have a soul.

Robot Christians: Sinners or Saints?

The story of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most important symbol in the Christian faith: Jesus died for our sins, to redeem us. To redeem “all things in creation”, and open us to reconciliation with God in the face of those sins. So, does ‘all things in creation’ extend to AI? Are bots sinners who can be saved? Did Jesus die for robots, too?

And if we programme our artificial intelligence with Christian morality and values, to assert at all times that to commit no evil is the ultimate good, would AI be better Christians than humans? Would robots go to church; would they pray?

Does God receive prayers from any kind of intelligence, or just that of humans?

What are your thoughts?

Whether you are religious or not, this is undoubtedly a topic that will elicit some strong opinions. It’s also a discussion that we think really deserves some serious airtime. We’d love it if you could get in touch on Twitter and let us know how you feel about artificial intelligence and religion.


 

 



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Michele Baker

Michele Baker is the Senior Content Strategist at TDMB. She began her journey into tech marketing via a Masters in Creative Writing, evolving from a prize-winning poet and short story writer to a futuristic content guru. Michele now writes endlessly about all aspects of technology, hosts the TDMB Presents… tech podcast, and speaks at numerous tech and marketing events.

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