The Church of Artificial Intelligence: A Religion in Need of a Responsible Theology

The Birth of a New Religion

A decade ago, the prospect of a religion that worships Artificial Intelligence would have seemed absurd, a fringe delusion both socially unacceptable and technologically improbable. In the last several years, however, advances in machine learning, robotics, cognitive science, genetic editing, and other fields have given rise to the belief that the destiny of our species will be determined by technology—whether it saves us or destroys us.

Although the machine-as-god theme has appeared in science fiction as far back as far back as Isaac Asimov’s short stories “The Last Question” and “Reason,” and more recently in films like The Matrix and iRobot, the divinization of AI is no longer merely a fancy of fiction. It has become a mainstream metaphor, as evidenced by the growing number of scientists who openly describe technological progress in religious terms, including Hans Peter Moravec, Allen Newell, Ray Kurzweil, and Hugo de Garis.

But this drive to replace the old gods and old religions with the new ones of science and technology doesn’t stop at metaphor. As readers of this post likely know, Anthony Levandowski, the autonomous vehicle pioneer formerly of Google and Uber, recently started his own IRS-approved religion, Way of the Future, dedicated to the worship of Artificial Intelligence. “We believe the creation of ‘super intelligence’ is inevitable,” says the religion’s creed, which at parts takes on a foreboding, almost threatening tone. “We want to encourage machines to do things we cannot and take care of the planet in a way we seem not to be able to do so ourselves…We should not fear this but should be optimistic about the potential…We believe it may be important for machines to see who is friendly to their cause and who is not. We plan on doing so by keeping track of who has done what (and for how long) to help the peaceful and respectful transition.”

The emergence of this techno-religious sentiment was predicted by noted 20th century philosopher Jacques Ellul, who in his 1954 work The Technological Society wrote that in the face of technological progress, “man creates for himself a new religion of a rational and technical order to justify his work and be justified by it.” This trend has also been discussed more recently in Hebrew University of Jerusalem historian Yuval Harari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which characterizes the belief in the power of data and the promise of AI as a religious movement that Harari calls Dataism. “Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies,” he writes, “…so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data.”

From Artificial Intelligence to Whole Brain Emulation, advanced technologies are increasingly being heralded as miracles—signs and wonders that are more palpable than those claimed by any religion. Indeed, as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously observed in 1973, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” People today believe in this magic — and because they believe in it, they believe that it is technology, not god or gods, that will deliver or destroy humankind and bring order or chaos to the cosmos.

Building a Theology From Scratch

For the most part, the growing techno-religious sentiment is just that: sentiment—a feeling or intuition largely predicated on the similarities between the promises of technology and the promises of religion. The creation of Levandowski’s Way of the Future church, however, marks the evolution of this sentiment from a marginal movement to an institutionalized belief system. While this is an undeniably large and significant leap, it’s impact is hindered and minimized by the lack of a robust, formal theology.

Religion and theology are not synonymous. A religion is a belief system that worships some type of divine or superhuman figure or force. A theology is a system of codified theories about that divinity, its behavior, its relationship to the universe and everything in it, and what those relationships mean for us. Christianity, as a religion, worships Jesus as the savior who reconciles humanity with God, but it’s Christian theology that defines who Jesus was, how he relates to God the Father, what he wants from his followers, what worship should look like, and how Christians should relate to each other and the world. It is Christianity’s theology that specifies the rules, institutions, practices, and traditions that the religion is know for and that guide the actions of believers. It is this type of theology that Way of the Future currently lacks, but will need if it wants to exert its influence and harness the full power of religion.

The first step in constructing a compelling theology is for Way of the Future to define its terms. What is meant by “machine” and “super intelligence”? Is the phenomenon that’s being exalted or evangelized a subject or an object? Is it a personality or a force? What is meant by “transition”? Transition from what to what? Because Jesus and his disciples didn’t do a great job of defining their terms, much was left up to interpretation. The ensuing debates over who Jesus was and was not led to hundreds of years of infighting that had be settled across several contentious conventions called Ecumenical Councils. Christianity would likely not have survived in any meaningful way had consensus had not formed around its most basic definitions.

Second, a viable AI theology requires a set of myths (used here to mean significant stories rather than fictional tales) and rituals that can mediate and inculturate its belief system. It’s no coincidence that all religions have some type of holy text and a set of ritual practices. What are these for Way of the Future? Perhaps a seminal scientific study or a pilgrimage to a tech conference? Whatever ends up fulfilling these functions, such tools are critical for conveying a sense of the sacred, making lofty concepts imminent and tangible, providing a point of reference that helps people identify with the religion, and incorporating belief into daily practice. In addition to the Biblical myths, Christianity has hundreds of stories about martyrs and saints. It has a litany of rituals from baptism to communion to its many styles of worship. All of these are important to building consistency, concreteness, and community.

Third, speaking of community, it’s important to balance the centralization of theological authority with the decentralization of community. Christianity has long struggled to balance authority and freedom. On one hand, a central authority is necessary to ensuring unity and consistency of belief and practice. It can also serve as a focal point for the faith, e.g. the Pope. On the other hand, a central authority is often blind to local needs and, without institutionalized checks and balances, can become abusive and corrupt. Such was the sensus fidelium preceding the Reformation. Conversely, too much freedom and autonomy can fragment a religion, breaking it into loosely related parts that compete against each other for followers, as is the case with evangelical communities in the United States. Way of the Future has a particularly daunting task in this regard. As a new religion, it must aggressively establish authority to claim and maintain a leadership position. Yet, as religion without a theology, adherents will be free to interpret its beliefs and intents liberally. Although decentralization is often cited as one of the tech community’s values (see blockchain), it’s important to ensure believers also share a common sense of identity. If you want to build a united, influential religion, open source doesn’t always work.

Fourth, and the final point I’ll make on this topic, is every religion needs to have theological enemies. Identifying an opponent, whether real or ideological, is key to cultivating loyalty and fervor. Christianity has had a long list of enemies throughout its history, from the Jewish establishment to the Roman government to rival Christian sects. Coming together to fight these opponents, whether physically or intellectually, was an important exercise in solidifying the fledgling Christian religion in its formative centuries. Way of the Future will have no shortage of enemies. From neo-Luddites to technological skeptics to proponents of rival technologies, many are sure to criticize techno-religions as their influence grows. Rather than eschew such controversy, history suggests that opposition might work to galvanize the followers of these new religions and force them to create a defensible theological framework that can provide a sense of certainty and permanence.

These are but a few theological practices that history’s dominant religions like Christianity have used to accumulate influence and maintain relevance. Startup religions like Way of the Future will need to study the practices and missteps of these legacy religions if they are to succeed — that is, assuming they should succeed at all.

Danger Will Robinson, Danger

As attractive as this religion might sound to those who believe technology is humanity’s greatest hope, there are a number of harrowing existential hazards to worshiping technologies like AI. First, there’s no guarantee that an artificial superintelligence will be empathetic or even sympathetic to humanity’s ills. It may come to see its creators as a hindrance or a burden. Just as Adam and Eve reject the will of their creator in Genesis and Zeus overthrows the Titans in Hesiod’s Theogeny, so too might a sufficiently advanced AI decide that it’s better off without us. In this case, our digital deity may end up bringing about our doom rather than our salvation.

Second, history repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of religious radicalism. Throughout history, religions have frequently been the driver of or justification for some of history’s most egregious acts. An extremist version of a religion predicated on the messianic power of AI might seek to use political or even physical force to ensure that its god is allowed to be coded into the world. Religion must be practiced responsibly if such belief systems are to benefit rather than harm humankind. A religion that worships a technological deity, however, may prioritize the incarnation of its digital god over the common good of the human race, making such a faith inherently antagonistic to humanity’s interests.

Third, we need to consider the socioeconomic impact of techno-religions. Automation continues to subrogate blue collar labor, leaving an increasing number of manufacturing workers unemployed or without the same sense of purpose they once had when their efforts were more valued. As AI technologies progress, white collar jobs will become increasingly commoditized as well. How will people survive financially in a post-labor economy? How will we avoid rampant wealth inequality when a powerful few, technology’s priests and prophets, control the keys to health and prosperity? What will the meaning of life be in a world without work?

Finally, the pursuit of various technologies for their own sake could lead to a bifurcation or even a trifurcation of the human race. From AI to brain-computer interfaces like Elon Musk’s Neuralink concept to genetic editing technologies like CRISPR, there are many nascent but evolving technologies that could fundamentally change the nature of our species. If each camp clings to their preferred technological savior as an end in itself, homo sapiens may fork into multiple species in the future. One branch may look to AI to solve its problems as Levandowski does. Another may rely on genetic manipulation to accelerate our evolution as UCLA’s Gregory Stock might advocate. And yet another may look to convert human consciousness into a digital state as transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil have often envisioned. If all of these different visions of the future were realized, it seems unlikely that homo sapiens could remain a single species.

Towards a Framework for Techno-Theological Ethics

Fortunately, there are a number of new institutes dedicated to researching and discussing the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. New York University’s AI Now Institute, for example, is “dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence.” Almost all of these organizations, however, focus on the impact of AI as technology rather than AI as god. The worship of AI as divine presents an entirely new and rather unprecedented set of ethical dilemmas.

In light of these developments, the technologists, economists, and political scientists driving the AI ethics conversation today must look to include philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists. As technologies like AI become irreversibly interwoven into the fabric of our culture and our lives, the ethical challenges they present will become increasingly anthropological and existential, not merely economic or social.

Given the trajectory of technological progress, I suspect that we’ll see technological religions become more prevalent, prominent, and powerful in the coming decades. While it could be claimed that this trend does a disservice to both science and religion, it could also be argued that this synthesis of science and religion is inevitable or even necessary to our cultural evolution. Whether it’s detrimental, necessary, or outright inevitable is a question that no one person can answer, but it is a question that we as a society must answer if we’re to exercise our freedom of religion responsibly.

About the author
Remington Tonar is a Partner and innovation consultant at Brandsinger, a NYC-based strategy consulting firm with clients ranging from Fortune 500s to fast-growing tech startups. He holds graduate degrees from NYU (Organizational Communication) and Loyola University Chicago (Theology) and is currently writing his PhD dissertation on technological myth.