Religious Intelligence: Why we should not fear robot priests

Robot hand open toward viewer

 

It is hard to find balanced articles on AI now-a-days. Thankfully, Sigal Samuel’s piece on Robot Priests is a refreshing exception. Avoiding sensational claims and click-bait titles, Sigal provides a well balanced report on how robots are becoming part of different religious rites and ceremonies. The author provides reliable sources, cites sensible examples and asks the right questions. The article is both informative and through provocative without being pedantic. 

With that said, I would like to expand on one particular statement from the article:

Even as our theology shapes the AI we create and embrace, AI will also shape our theology. It’s a two-way street.”

I not only affirm this idea but go further to say: We should not fear but welcome AI’s impact in our theology and here is why.

First, we must go beyond the “technology vs us” framework as if technology was an independent entity outside of humanity. The fact that AI can shape our theology should not be a source of fear. AI is nothing more than an extension of human intelligence. Hence, to do theology in a world where AI is a reality is simply to do theology with intelligence. That is, we need to move away from separating artificial from natural intelligence. It is all intelligence even if accomplished through different means. Whether it is neurons or silicon, the outcome is the same.

Second, I believe God created the world through intelligence. No, I am not advocating for Intelligent design. Intelligence and evolution are not exclusive of each other. Yet, even while accepting scientific claims of evolution, we can affirm God’s action in nature through purpose and direction. By following this argument, the extension of intelligence beyond human bodies is not a break from God’s creation but the continuation of it. This is not something to be afraid of but to celebrate. Just as God used intelligence to create humanity, humanity now uses intelligence to create robots and digital assistants. 

Third, for intelligence to meet its full potential we must define it theologically. That is, a technical understanding of technology that is not directed towards the flourishing of all life on this earth will always fall short of its purpose. In religious terms, it will be sinful – missing the mark. Developing AI for AI’s sake or to maximize profits is not acceptable. That is why it must be a two-way street. Theology must inform the development of AI. That is why we also need more priest-technologists and pastor-scientists. It is in an integrated holistic view that we have the best chance to create AI for human flourishing.

In this path, robot priests are what I call a good start. We should not see them as a replacement to human priests but instead an augmentation of them. As the article describes, they can fulfill duties when humans are not available or enhance existing ceremonies fulfilled by human priests.

Let me end with Dr. Delio’s quote from the article:

“We tend to think in an either/or framework: It’s either us or the robots. But this is about partnership, not replacement. It can be a symbiotic relationship — if we approach it that way.”

I second her view here. Fostering a symbiotic relationship is the way forward. Anything below that would be second best. I can understand concerns that technological developments like AI are hampering instead of enhancing human relationships. I do not deny the dangers in it. Just like any human development, it is fraught with trial and error and never free from malice. Yet, my hope is that the Christian community can move from paralyzing fear to hopeful engagement.

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