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The Rise of Faith ERGs and Their Influence on AI

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF) and the Tim and Steph Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America (CUA) hosted the first-ever national conference for faith-oriented Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) on February 13-14, 2020, in Washington, DC. This multi-day event—cosponsored by American Airlines and Tyson Foods—brought together ERG leaders from across corporate America to share their experiences, best practices and perspectives on the future of this accelerating trend toward faith-based ERGs at some of America’s biggest and most recognizable companies.


Faith-oriented ERGs have demonstrated a significant impact on institutional culture, employee satisfaction, and ultimately, economic growth.  Of particular interest to the chaplain community is that the ERGs often bring to the fore, a need for hands-on engagement like chaplaincy.  Workplace chaplaincy is a growing field. Tyson’s Foods has its own cadre of chaplains and other organizations such as Workplace Chaplaincy, Corporate Chaplains of America, and Market Place Chaplains provide chaplains on an as-needed basis, often interacting with the ERGs to respond to the identified needs of employees.


Anyone with an interest in the recent changes in the American religious landscape would do well to consider how religious freedom can be and is being practiced in the workplace and the kinds of initiatives RFBF is highlighting.  More than 20% of the Fortune 100 have established faith-based ERGs, according to a recent Associated Press review. “Corporate America is at a tipping point toward giving religion similar attention to that given the other major diversity categories,” says Brian Grim, RFBF’s founder and president.


Research in this area could serve to tip the scales in favor of religious freedom. Organizations like the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL) are very much engaged in both the research and the advocacy of chaplains and spiritual care providers. Ministry professionals have found themselves in the workplace to attend to individuals, regardless of what they believe or who or where they find themselves. CIL has dedicated itself to exploring the wealth of data on the profession of chaplaincy, provide practical tools, and offer educational resources to advance the important work of spiritual care providers.


With respect to Artificial Intelligence, there is no shortage of areas to consider when it comes to faith, faith expression, Faith ERGs, and their relationship both to a healthy corporate climate, and to the importance of allowing value-driven dialogue to have a place in the workplace. Prominent on AI&Faith’s homepage is a quote from Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft. Taken from his book Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, Smith asserts that, “Ultimately, a global conversation about ethical principles for artificial intelligence will require an even bigger tent. There will need to be seats at the table not only for technologists, governments, NGOs, and educators, but for philosophers and representatives of the world’s many religions.” To have a “global conversation” and to ensure “seats at the table,” however, one needs to also consider the culture that understands the value propositions present in the discussions and in the contributions around the table. If the corporate mindset is focused solely on mission, legal compliance, and revenue, but has not considered the human element of their organization, then the ethical principles will have no grounding, and any hope of impacting the global conversation will be lost.


This becomes all the more critical when it comes to the utilization of, the increasing reliance on, and the design of AI. Individuals who are on the ground floor of computer and robotic design, the ones working out the algorithms and coding the decision-matrices, are not without their own foundational moralities – beliefs that, consciously or not, wend their way into the decision-making processes central to machine learning. An organization that respects diversity of thought and religious liberty, opens itself up to the conversation that needs to take place from the onset, a conversation that engages every member of the institution and which allows ethical principles to be considered at the lowest level of design. There’s no need to wait until the world figures it out, in fact, we can’t. By that time, the programmers will have already left their moral DNA in the algorithm and the world will be using their seats at the table to determine how to put the genie back in the bottle.


The World Economic Forum recently published an article that addresses the same concern a little further up the food chain.  In her article, How Ethical AI Reflects the Views of Its Makers, Mala Aland delegates the responsibility in echelons well above the technologist. She asserts that oversight of the ethics of AI “requires engagement from the entire C-suite. Getting it right is both a critical business question and a values’ statement that requires CEO leadership.” She, too, contends for global regulation, but her concern is that “only where company values are clear and the C-suite works with IT to apply those values to the many decisions that go into creating an application,” can an organization be sure that what they do, what they represent, what the outcomes of their efforts are, is values-based.


Where do values come from? From underlying beliefs. Which brings the conversation back to RFBF. Individuals who contribute to their institutions come with a value set already determined. Organizations who acknowledge, respect, and support those belief systems are better served if they provide an environment that allows for the freedom and the dialogue essential to understanding the nuances and principles that influence decision-making at every level. RFBFs belief is that “business and religious freedom combine to form a powerful force for a better world. Through groundbreaking expert research, training programs, practical business tools and convening interfaith dialogue, RFBF helps demonstrate the critical link between respect for faith, successful enterprise and dynamic national economies” as well as an organization that is grounded in more than just ethical compliance, but virtue.


Faith ERGs are an essential part of this equation. But it’s more than showing support for inclusivity and diversity, morale and productivity. When it comes to AI, it’s a matter of creating seats at a much larger table, a table that encourages dialogue at the most basic, (and if I may) even spiritual, level. Essential to ensuring the morality and the ethics of AI technology and its uses, are the environmental conditions that allow for the free expressions of values (religious, moral, cultural) to guarantee that any effort to advance artificial intelligence, remains fixed to moral foundations.

Margaret Grun Kibben, DMin

is a combat-decorated veteran and Presbyterian minister who was the first woman to serve as the Chief of Chaplains of the United States Navy and the Chaplain of the Marine Corps. Retired as a Rear Admiral, through her consultancy, Virtue in Practice LLC, she presently speaks and writes on leadership, ethics and religious practice. Rear Admiral Kibben is a graduate of Goucher College, Princeton Seminary (Masters of Divinity and Doctorate in Ministry) and the Naval War College (Masters Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies).

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