Tag Archives: tower of babel

AI and Religion

March 2018 Pulse

Reader’s Question: How would you envision pastoral ministry in an age of robots with Artificial Intelligence.

I would like to broaden the question by examining some of the ways in which AI could impact religion, and the issues and questions this might raise.

In September 2017, The Guardian reported that Anthony Levandowski, the engineer in Silicon Valley behind Google’s Waymo, has founded a new techno-religious pseudo-cult called ‘Way of the Future’, dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence.

According to some sources, the mission of this ‘church’ is ‘to develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society’. In his apocalyptic vision of AI, the autonomous cars guru does not only envision that AI will bring improvements to human lives but that it will one day demand our worship when it acquires ‘godlike’ qualities (e.g., omniscience).

There is little doubt that AI would become more and more ubiquitous in our world as the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a neologism coined by Klaus Schwab – marches relentlessly on. From mobile supercomputing to intelligent robots to autonomous weapons, AI is set to impact society in many and varied ways.

Scholars maintain that there are two types of AI. What is mostly used today is narrow or weak AI, designed to perform specific tasks such as internet searches or driving a car. But many researchers hope to create general or strong AI that has the capacity to outperform humans in every single cognitive task – although some have questioned if this is in fact possible.

Authors like Russell Bjork have argued that creating machines with strong AI can potentially have an idolatrous outcome as they might usurp the place of God himself. In her article entitled, ‘Creating in Our Own Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Image of God’ Noreen Herzfeld perceptively points out that ‘If we hope to find in AI that other with whom we can share our being and responsibilities, then we will have created a stand-in for God in our own image’.

Thus, we enter into a dangerous and dehumanising bind: we create machines with superior intelligence and then worship them as our new gods, thereby becoming enslaved by the very things we have fashioned in our own image.

Writers like Cody Volkers have compared this desire to develop strong AI with the creation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). But this attempt, Volker rightly asserts, will only end in failure and judgement.

‘When humanity grasps for God-like status’, Volker writes, ‘it is condemning itself to God’s curse. This applies for all history, including today in the pursuit of AI. In conspiring to create AI that takes on divine attributes, such as omniscience, the only outcome can be failure – and judgement’.

Another side to this debate about the impact on AI on religion has to do with the possibility of creating robots in the future that display such intelligence and humanlike emotions that they are even regarded as sentient entities.

Robots with weak AI are already in high demand. For example, in 2014 a Japanese company created a companion robot called ‘Pepper’, equipped with weak AI. Pepper went on sale in 2015, and it was reported that within one minute, the initial 1,000 units were sold out.

Companion robots and robots that are designed to take care of the elderly have sparked a discussion in some circles about whether one could envision a day when intelligent robots would replace pastors. Some scientists debate the possibility of not just programming a robot with general rules of ethics, but with specific Christian values as well.

Rev Christopher J. Benek, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the founders of the Christian Transhumanist Association believe that a robot with ‘the passion of a Billy Graham and the justice implications of a Martin Luther King and the theological consideration of an Augustine’ would gain a large following.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Benek mooted the idea of robot preachers that could ‘use the inflection and verbal prowess of a Billy Graham or a Martin Luther King and the compassion of Mother Teresa’. ‘That would allow people’s needs to be met because a lot of times we pastors can’t do that’, he adds.

This discussion brings us to the question of what constitutes personhood. Can a robot with super intelligence and that is able to display humanlike emotions be said to be a person? Or, to put the same question differently, can we say that such robots have souls?

Philosophers who argue that personhood may be said to be present when a set of qualities or capabilities – e.g., reason and emotion – are evident would be inclined to believe that machines displaying them can be said to be persons or possessing personhood.

This view, however, is mistaken. In the first place, intelligent autonomous robots that display human traits are in essence only machines that are programmed in this way.

It would therefore be a mistake to conclude that such a robot could be the bearer of the image of God. Only human beings are created by God to be the kind of creatures that by divine grace can reflect their Creator. Only human beings are created with the capacity to be in fellowship with their Creator and with each other.

Thus, a robot with super intelligence that displays human emotions can utter the words of the Lord’s Prayer (perhaps in 50 languages!), but it cannot pray.

In similar vein, the robot that appears to be able to provide sensitive ‘pastoral’ counsel is in fact unable to establish a real relationship with his counselee, since social robots do not experience emotions (the ‘emotions’ it displays are merely simulacrum of human emotions, not the real thing). And according to John Redstone, the empathy that people have with social robots is nothing but a perceptual illusion.

Put differently, the relationship between a human being and a super-intelligent and autonomous robot will always be an I-It relationship. It can never be an I-Thou relationship.



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.

The Two Kingdoms: A Christian Perspective on Church and State in Singapore

October 2015 Feature Article

From the “culture wars” and heated debates over casinos, abortion, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, to evangelistic efforts and charitable works, many wonder what the proper relationship between religion and state should be.

Aggressive secularists argue that Christians should not “impose” our religion on others in a multi-religious society like Singapore and “keep religion separate from politics”. Some Christians think that we should not be concerned about “politics”, but should focus on “preaching the Gospel”. Others think that we should be deeply concerned about laws like Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sodomy.

How should Christians understand the relationship between Church and State?

It is well-known that Jesus did not come as a political Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. As then-Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan once said, “one of the reasons why Jesus Christ disillusioned the Jews of His time was… that He refused to become a political leader to help the Jews throw off the Roman yoke. And He was interested in changing individuals, not the society directly, but change society by changing individuals.”[1]

Nevertheless, we can learn much about the roles of Church and State in Jesus’ response when the Pharisees asked whether they ought to pay taxes to Caesar. Referring to the image of Caesar on a denarius, Jesus replied them, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJV)

During the Protestant Reformation, German reformer Martin Luther saw in Jesus’ profound statement a distinction between Two Kingdoms which God has ordained: first, the Kingdom of God (the Church) which He rules through His Gospel and, second, the Kingdom of the World (the State) which He rules through His Law.

This became known as the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the basis for much of our modern understanding of the Separation of Church and State.

The Doctrine emphasises that the Church should focus on preaching the Gospel for the salvation of all. As a result, it is not the role of the Church to govern matters of life and property, which are matters for the State.

On the other hand, the State should devote its full time to governing temporal matters, as servants sent by God “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:14ff). Just as the Church should respect the political independence of the State, the State should also respect the autonomy of the Church in its religious affairs. For example, the State has no right to dictate how the Church should preach the Gospel, choose its clergy, or conduct itself in worship.

The Protestant emphasis on justification by faith led to a third principle – freedom of religion – which is now recognised as a fundamental human right. Since faith is the work of the Holy Spirit and “a free work, to which no man can or should be forced”, human authority should not try to coerce religious belief.

Because human authority is delegated by God, there are limits to human government. Hence, if any human authority commands things that are contrary to God’s Laws, we should “obey God rather than men”, as the apostles did when the Sanhedrin commanded them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:29ff). In a modern context, Christians should exercise conscientious objection by refusing to participate in abortions or same-sex marriages, even when threatened with punishment.

The final principle is that of vocation (i.e. God’s calling). Implicit in Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar” and “render unto God” is a call to discipleship; if the denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image, then we ought to render ourselves to God because we bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27)! It is a call to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29).

Thus, each of us is called to live out the Gospel in full wherever God has called us, whether as pastors, politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any other vocation. Given that disciples of Jesus Christ are ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the world (John 17:6-19), we cannot ignore political developments around us. Instead, a faithful preaching of the Gospel will always minister holistically to people at all levels of their being, i.e. heart, soul, mind and strength (emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and physically).

Taken holistically, the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms has several important implications for the Church in Singapore.

Firstly, the Church and pastors should always focus on preaching the full counsel of the Gospel both in season and out of season, including on “controversial issues” such as the sanctity of human life from conception and the sanctity of marriage, and to equip believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17). We should never compromise our calling to speak the truth in love, however politically-incorrect certain parts of the Gospel may be for the season.

Secondly, while it is not the vocation of pastors to advocate for political causes, it falls to individual Christians to minister the Gospel at our workplaces, schools or in the public square where God has placed us. Furthermore, in a democratic society like Singapore, each individual Christian can and should exercise his or her rights to freedom of speech and religion to speak truth to power.

Thirdly, in the midst of an increasingly complicated world, we should remember that politics is not salvation. While a godless world has to rely on human politics to build its Tower of Babel – its own idea of utopia here on earth – we look to Christ our true salvation, whose kingdom “is not of this world” but “from another place” (John 18:36).

Ultimately, as citizens of Two Kingdoms and “aliens” in this world, we know that God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. Meanwhile, we are each called to remain faithful with all that God has entrusted to us as we look to the day that Jesus will return as King to manifest His kingdom in full.


Darius-Lee-202x300

Darius Lee is a lawyer in private practice and a member of the Global Young Reformers Network Steering Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. Darius holds religious freedom, marriage and the sanctity of human life in high regard, and has defended these important values and rights on various platforms. He has written about his journey of discipleship and passion for matters of justice and righteousness in his book, ‘Like a Fire in My Bones: A Journey of Discipleship’.

 


Notes:

[1] Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, Singapore Parliament Reports (23 February 1990) at col. 1170