(AI and Religion) Theology in the Age of AI: Navigating a Brave New Spiritual World
“The God Algorithm: Faith, Fear, and the Future of AI”
Major scientific advancements have historically impacted religious beliefs, question is whether AI could be a continuation of this trend. The development of AI allowed us to see practical applications in many different fields, as expected from that type of technology. But one field — religiosity and faith, in my opinion, especially needs attention, based on the rise and capabilities of Generative AI, and its ability to “master” human language. One of the first suggestions of the dangers came, some time ago, from Yuval Noah Harari:
“In the future, we might see the first cults and religions in history whose revered texts were written by a non-human intelligence,” Harari said in quotes carried by the UK Daily Mail. “Of course, religions throughout history claimed that their holy books were written by unknown human intelligence.”
And that possibility opens many different concerns and possibilities for future religious actors.
But let’s first start with possible positive interactions, and benefits that AI tech can bring to religious organizations:
1. Enhanced Understanding: AI can analyze religious texts to identify key themes and interpretations, enriching theological study. Thus making it easier to understand and more available to the general population of believers. AI could make religious services more engaging and interactive.
2. Community Building: AI-driven platforms can connect religious communities globally, promoting solidarity. That could be additionally fueled by the language-translation capabilities that are advancing at a great speed.
3. Virtual Worship: AI can facilitate online rituals and ceremonies, making worship accessible to those who can’t attend in person. Many discriminated groups could find new communities and chances to participate, from physically challenged people to minorities whose faith is suppressed in some countries. Or even going further — virtual biblical figures could offer guidance if we create their replicas based on available data.
4. Moral Decisions: AI can be trained in ethical frameworks derived from religious principles, aiding in complex decision-making, and in that way making this process possible in everyday life.
Obviously, all of those possibilities have their downsides, depending on the amount of usage.
And of course, there are some that might not be so good:
1. Ethical Concerns: The use of AI can conflict with religious teachings, e.g., creating life-like robots may be seen as playing God. There are some religions that are rejecting technology, now with interesting consequences.
2. Misinterpretation: Automated analysis of sacred texts could lead to erroneous or overly literal interpretations. Especially at the current level of development, where models are known to produce “hallucinations” and data that is not factually correct. If somebody would take it as it is, the question is what might happen.
3. Divisiveness: AI can inadvertently intensify religious prejudices if biased data is used in machine learning algorithms. Somebody with malicious intentions could also focus on extracting potentially harmful information from religious texts, and highlight them with more ease.
4. Loss of Rituals: As AI takes over the functions of religious communities, traditional practices, and the human touch could be undermined. It is hard to predict what might happen if there is a loss of connection between old-style communities which are recognized as an important segment of the life of believers.
And of course, we have many other very narrow ideas that could change current practices. Some are afraid that the use of AI for prayer responses and religious counseling could raise questions about the authenticity and spiritual depth of these interactions.
One of the most interesting and potentially most harmful and divisive applications might be one of attracting and recruiting believers from the OTHER religions, and converting them to the religion of the user of AI tools. We might call it Data-Optimized Evangelism, or Precision Faith Targeting but traditional methods of religious outreach might be overshadowed by these technologically advanced techniques. On the first level, it is already possible to finetune your religious message in a way that is easily understood and received by the message receiver. With enough data about a certain population, they could be targeted with optimized messages that are responding to their (perceived) desires, fears, and needs, all encapsulated in the narrative from a certain scripture. On the second level, with enough personalized data, it could be done, with even more precision, and targeting based on somebody’s level of education, economic status, personality traits, or any other differential factor. On the third level, it could be organized as believer conversion on steroids, with the usage of time-specific data, such as individual vulnerabilities and states of mind, through a day, week, or month period, in order to execute prepared communication at perfect timing.
Could we see over time, faith communities that will modify their teachings or practices based on what is “algorithmically effective,” thereby altering the course of religious evolution, and is it possible that religious organizations may begin to allocate more resources to data science and AI technology, impacting how they prioritize various aspects of their mission?
From the perspective of religious organizations and their global leaders, some decisions should be made, and very soon. Will they have more:
Internal focus — and use positive sides of AI technology, to influence their current members, make their faith of higher quality, and allow them to easily live by the holly books they believe in.
External focus: The main aim is to grow their religious base, spread the “truth” further and to more people, and convert them to their system of beliefs, with all the consequences it might bring — in the form of financial power and political influence.
And that decision might not be that simple. As we can see in some similar aspects, the decision about the focus will depend not only on the opinion and will of one organization (religion) but on those that others made. Because if some world religions decided to focus internally, but one or a few decided to take external, and aggressive focus, that might bring dangerous imbalance between them.
Simplified, AI could enhance religion, make religion obsolete, or become a new religion. The material existence of AI God would probably change the nature of religious faith.
How many believers would react positively to this statement? — “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.”