Tag Archives: creativity

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to Jesus Christ).


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

AI and Society

August 2015 Pulse

In the summer of 1956, a group of scientists gathered at the campus of Dartmouth University for a two-month workshop that would launch the modern artificial intelligence (AI) programme. At the end of the workshop, MIT scientists Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon and Ray Solomonoff together with six other researchers predicted that ‘Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.’

Since then, research in AI has advanced at a phenomenal pace as computers continue to double their capacity in information-processing power every two years. In 1997, ‘Deep Blue’ amazed the world when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. It is estimated that computers will have capacities equivalent to the human brain in the near future, around the year 2025.

Some scientists even speculate that it would be possible to create computers with advanced AI, which they call superintelligence. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as any intellect that ‘vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills.’

Scientists even think that it would one day be possible for superintelligent computers to engage in moral reasoning. Insofar as ethics is a cognitive pursuit, they argue, a machine with superintelligence should be able to solve ethical problems based on available evidence and logic better than their human counterparts.

To be sure, the possibility of creating such machines has led some scientists to express hope that they will help to eradicate some of the most crippling problems in our world.

As Bostrom confidently predicts, ‘It is hard to think of any problem that a superintelligence could not either solve or a least help us to solve. Disease, poverty, environmental destruction, unnecessary suffering of all kinds: these are things that a superintelligence equipped with advanced nanotechnology would be capable of eliminating.’

Others, however, are not so sanguine. In fact, some have argued the exact opposite: that the creation of superintelligent computers would spell destruction for humankind.

‘Within thirty years,’ writes Vernor Vinge in his 1995 book, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, ‘we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. Can the Singularity be avoided? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? What does survival even mean in a Post-Human Era?’

Both the optimism and fear surrounding AI are, however, misguided.

Superintelligent machines cannot solve the world’s problems like hunger, disease and poverty because these problems are the result of that destructive form of human inwardness called sin. Although superintelligent machines, like most of the science and technology already available can alleviate human suffering, they are unable to eradicate it.

Science and technology, however advanced, cannot bring about a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ – a man-made utopia, where the evils of the world are vanquished and where the deep fractures they inflict are fully healed.

To think that superintelligent machines can do better ethics than humans is to adopt the most naïve and reductionist concept of ethics. Ethics can never be reduced to a puzzle solving exercise.

Ethics has to do with human relationality, with our appropriate and positive response to each other and to the world in which we live. Only the creatures created to be bearers of the divine image are capable of this set of attitudes, judgements and behaviour we call morality or ethics. Ethical discourse and conduct are epiphanies of human transcendence which no machine, however intelligent, can replicate.

The exaggerated fears about superintelligent machines taking over the planet and orchestrating the extinction of the human species are also misplaced. In fact, they can distract us from the real issues surrounding advanced technologies.

These issues are not new. They have been with us since the dawn of modern science and technology. And they have to do not so much with how superintelligent machines can take over the world and destroy their creators. Rather, they have to do with how such technologies can be misused by some to the detriment of others.

As Joanna Bryson and Philip Kime perceptively point out: ‘The real dangers of AI are no different from those of other artifacts in our culture: from factories to advertising, weapons to political systems. The danger of these systems is the potential for misuse, either through carelessness or malevolence, by the people who control them.’

But there is one other aspect of this debate that perhaps is not given the serious attention it warrants. In reflecting on the development of any technology, it is important not only to ask what it can do for us. We must also ask what it can do to us.

As intelligent machines intrude into our lives and take on significant tasks, the way in which they may change how we perceive our own humanity and our relationships simply cannot be ignored.

AI may impact our society in radical and sometimes unwelcomed ways. And we must try to imagine how society should navigate around the changes they bring about by embracing some and by averting others.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.