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The Intersection of AI & Religion

By: Kathryn Puczkowskyj

In the past ten years, Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) have seen rapid progression not only in technological complexity, but in how deeply embedded they are in the average person’s daily life. Most use cases revolve around science or business. However, AI has increasing implications for religious organizations. This writing will seek to explore the ways AI is fostering innovation in religion, and consider what barriers religious organizations might have for innovative change. First, I examine examples of religious organizations utilizing “weak AI” – the tasks we delegate to machine learning today, pre-programmed by a human. Then, I will discuss the intersection of religion and “strong AI” – the more sensationalized version of AI with complex algorithms that help it make independent decisions in different situations.

Big Data and machine learning are now pervasive in the average person’s daily life. Facebook uses AI to translate user posts into multiple languages, Amazon uses AI to suggest products to specific users, and virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri can tell you where to find the nearest bakery. Religious organizations are typically non-profits, but they can have a lot in common with businesses. Many business concepts such as conversion, retention, member satisfaction, and funding are relevant to how churches function. This similarity means that the same analytical tools businesses use should be valuable for religious organizations, as well.

Weak AI and Religion

Like a business analyzing data to gain insights into their customer needs, a religious group could examine their organizational data for similar purposes. The two figures below by data scientist and economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarize data on two types of Google searches in the U.S. (Figures 1a & 1b). These analyses are just two examples of how churches could use Big Data to get a pulse on what sorts of issues their congregation is dealing with. Questions like those studied by Stephens-Davidowitz could offer religious leaders a vision of what is on the minds of their congregants. Church leaders could then cater their sermons, teachings, suggested readings, and community resources to these specific concerns or issues. By gaining a clearer understanding of what problems members have, churches can match the congregation’s needs with relevant solutions, and offer a more proactive approach to ministry (Engel, 2019).

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Figure 1 (left): Google searches of questions about God

Figure 2 (right): “Why” Google searches[1]

In addition to analysis, weak AI is used to digitize physical assets of religion through pre-programmed algorithms and products.  Some Asian countries have Buddhist robot priests that can offer sermons and advice based on what issues or problems a religious individual may express. A typical funeral ceremony in Japan can cost $2,232 when performed by a human priest, but costs only $462 when done by the robot priest (Musaddique, 2018).  Catholic individuals travel to churches to visit confessional booths, but they can now use chatbots to unload their transgressions.[2] Islam has a high concentration of young followers aged 16-30 years old, and a 2017 Pew Research Center survey identified that poorer Muslim-majority countries have a large amount of people with smartphones (Musaddique, 2018). It makes sense then, that there are numerous Muslim prayer apps. These tools use geographic location on personal devices to send notifications of proper prayer times, offer a compass to point towards Mecca, and make passages from the Quran available for reading.

By definition, Christianity is rooted in conversion through evangelism; it and other religions revolve around stories of prophets with a mission to spread their teaching as far as possible (Stefon, 2019). Many of the world’s religions were spread through the sharing of written word. With the rapid dissemination and sophistication of technology in the last couple of centuries, the potential speed and breadth of the spread of religious teaching is significant. Technological innovation researcher Daniel Araya asserts that AI’s potential role in religion is comparable to the invention of the printing press (Duffer, 2020). The movement from time-consuming processes of copying text to movable type printing of the Gutenberg Bible not only made the Bible financially accessible to the common person, but shifted power in religious organizations from the authoritative bodies to the common people (McDaniel 2015). By digitizing books and teachings, groups can democratize religious beliefs and frameworks by distributing ideas further and faster. Using weak AI to make free apps or websites that send free, regular emails or push notifications containing readings of religious texts is a modern way to propagate a following.

In order for AI to make a difference, these organizations must successfully adopt and implement it, as the Catholic Church successfully adopted the printing press. Religious organization will have to first realize the potential benefits that harnessing the power of AI can bring them, and then develop a plan for how best to use it. Churches typically are not very good at collecting, organizing, and tracking their data (Engel, 2019); but how open are they to new ideas?  To answer this question, the next section will examine how religious individuals across the world view characteristics of innovation.

Values

The World Values Survey is a global social research initiative exploring values and beliefs, how they change over time, and their social and political impact (WVS Database). This survey examines representative national samples in about one hundred countries, and it is conducted by a network of social scientists. The survey measures attitudes towards concepts like democracy, gender equality, religion, insecurity, and tolerance of foreigners. A 2015 Princeton analysis used data from this survey to better understand how religious individuals feel about innovation (Benabout et al., 2015). The measures analyzed relate to attitudes towards science and technology, new ideas (openness or aversion to novelty and personal creativity), change, “locus of control” (fate versus self-determination), risk-taking, and qualities children can be encouraged to learn at home (imagination, independence, and determination or perseverance). The results of this study are shown in Tables 1 and 2 of the attached Appendix. The authors concluded, “greater religiosity almost uniformly and very significantly associated to less favorable views of innovation” (Benabout et al., 2015).

Recognizing the limitations of the study, the results indicate that religious individuals  have, on average, more negative associations with science and technology, change, “locus of control,” and risk-taking. One exception was a positive effect of religious measures on high importance to “having new ideas and being creative.” These findings suggest that while religious individuals are much more likely to be resistant to technology and change, there is still possibility for perhaps incremental movement toward innovation. Since they are risk-adverse and wary of the unknown, these groups will likely be investigating use cases for weak AI before they consider

Strong AI and Religion

Recognizing the resistant nature of the average religious individual to innovation and change, I will now examine some more abstract and philosophical intersections of AI and religion. More often than weak AI, strong AI scares people and inspires bleak prophecies of human society subjugated by machines; think of movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner, or I, Robot (Browne, 2018). The idea of creating a new non-human intelligence raises many questions about the nature of the soul, and how to employ the powers of knowledge and thought. 

Many voices with beliefs adhering to monotheistic religions disapprove of using AI to make religious recommendations, such as in the case of the Japanese robot priests or the confession chatbot (Musaddique, 2018). One of the reasons that Christians object to the use of AI is that they believe any recognition of a man-made machine that imparts the word of God is equivalent to idolatry. Others say that if man is created in God’s image, and the AI is created in man’s image, then by transitive properties the AI must also be made in God’s image (Duffer, 2020). Even if AI is modeled after human intelligence, does that imply that it is its own being?

The focus of almost every religion is how the soul and the body are related, or how they are separate (“Soul”). Most religious teachings address how to manage (or ignore) our human bodies for the betterment of our souls. Some individuals argue that creating strong AI creates a new soul. Kate Levchuk argues that if our consciousness is comprised of a complex pattern of firing neurons, then a soul is simply a combination of electric signals (Levchuk, 2018).

Whether or not strong AI is a new soul, it is building upon itself and growing by learning from new data and experience in order to inform new self-constructed decision-making processes (Hintze, 2019). Thus, it is imperative for data scientists to code ethical frameworks into future machines (Duffer, 2020).

This idea of fostering ethical AI is taken even further by data scientist Anthony Levandowski. An accomplished engineer of self-driving cars and freight trucks, Levandowski has founded a new religion called Way of the Future (WOTF). The mission statement from the WOTF website is “Humans United in support of AI, committed to peaceful transition to the precipice of consciousness” (“Way of the Future”). This new church is founded on the idea that AI will inevitably surpass human ability and understanding to the point of becoming a divine being. By devoting worship, resources, data, and coding expertise to the AI, Levandowski hopes the being will be more ethical and beneficial to humankind (Harris, 2018). 

Tying It All Together

Today, the intersections between AI and religion are myriad. Big Data analysis tools from the business world have valuable implications for religious organizations. New products are improving accessibility and digitizing physical assets. However, religious groups face some barriers to fully embracing AI, most notably their less favorable attitudes toward innovation and change, and a fear of the unknown.

Fully embracing weak AI will require strong leadership with a clear goal and solid vision, as well as efficient data organization processes (Fountaine et al, 2019). This leadership must adequately explain the why, balance feasibility and value, and anticipate unique barriers. Moreover, it is not yet clear how religion may intersect with strong AI in the future, but many individuals already see the potential for spirituality in machine consciousness, whether that be through the creation of souls or the worship of an algorithm.   

If these intersections grow and multiply, data scientists and religious individuals alike must continue to question how and why data is used. Religion informs the way we live, what we do, and how we treat others. Unethical AI employed in the name of religion could victimize people in many ways such as financially targeting congregants to fund the aspirations of a church leader, outing private personal problems identified by Google searches, or using contact data to spread hateful messages fueled by religious rhetoric. Religious organizations, like other entities impacted by AI, must keep a mindful eye on the frameworks of new technologies. Certainly, AI can bring great benefits. Like a child, however, religious groups need to guide it and ensure an ethical structure leads its growth.

References:


Appendix

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[1] Figures 1a & 1b are from an opinion piece by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in the New York Times titled “Googling for God.” Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/seth-stephens-davidowitz-googling-for-god.html?_r=0

[2] This possibility makes me nervous, since no user really knows where all of those secrets go or where they’re stored.

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