Does the Future of Religion Lie in Technology?

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Very little these days seems untouched by technology. Indeed, people’s lives are so saturated with it that they sometimes speak of “withdrawal symptoms” on those increasingly rare occasions when they find themselves without internet access. Some try to escape it at least some of the time, for instance, by “disconnecting” for a day or more when on holiday or on a retreat. Yet surely, one might think, religion is one area that remains largely untouched by technology. This is certainly true of the Amish or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are outright suspicious of any new technology. But it is true of mainstream religion as well. The eternal “flame” in synagogues is now often electric, churches have replaced candles on their Christmas trees with electric lights, and the muezzin’s call to prayer is often amplified by a loudspeaker. These changes, however, are trivial. Ancient religions have shown themselves able to incorporate technology into their practices, without disappearing or changing beyond recognition. It seems, then, that technology does not directly threaten religion.

Nevertheless, throughout most of the Western world, the churches are empty. Declining church attendance certainly seems to be correlated with technological advancement, but is there a causal connection? Perhaps the further factor causing both is the triumph of the scientific worldview. This laid the ground for the discoveries of biological evolution and Biblical criticism–which pulled the carpet from under religion–as well as for rapid technological advancement. What makes Western societies different from non-Western ones is that the former experienced both of these processes simultaneously. The latter, by and large, experienced only the latter. It is possible, however, that in the coming decades, the whole world will secularise as all societies move toward the scientific worldview. The question then is whether religion dies out and mankind continues without it, or whether one or many new religions are born into the vacuum that will be left.

Already there are some indications of what these religions might look like. The Way of the Future (WotF) “church” was founded in 2015 by self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski, on the “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.” Although this doctrine sounds somewhat comical and far-fetched, when one unpacks it a little, it begins to make sense. Through all the data and computing power to which it had access, Levandowski’s AI would be, for human intents and purposes, omniscient and omnipotent. We would believe in its ability to answer all our questions and solve all our problems and “worship” it by doing whatever it required of us in order to perform these tasks better, including handing over all our personal data. We would also do well to show proper respect and reverence towards this AI-godhead, so that it might in turn have mercy upon us. “There are many ways people think of God, and thousands of flavors of Christianity, Judaism, Islam,” says Levandowski, “but they’re always looking at something that’s not measurable or you can’t really see or control. This time it’s different. This time you will be able to talk to God, literally, and know that it’s listening.”

The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, distinguishes between two main types of “techno-religions”: “techno-humanism” and “data religion” (or “dataism”). Although he uses the term “religion” more broadly than most other writers would (e.g. he considers capitalism a religion), his discussion is helpful here. WotF would fit into the former category, since it posits that humans would continue to exist and to benefit from AI. “Dataism”, however, as Harari puts it, holds that “humans have completed their cosmic task, and they should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities.” (Harari, p. 285) This is more in line with what has been called the singularity, the point at which humans either merge entirely with AI or are eliminated by it – perhaps due to their inefficiency. It is of course entirely possible that techno-humanism is only a stepping stone on the way to the singularity, in which case it is indistinguishable from data religion, but Harari leaves this possibility open. Levandowski, too, dislikes the term “singularity”, preferring to speak of a profound “transition”, the end point of which is not at all clear.

A central tenet of “dataism” is that data processing is the highest good, which means that it evaluates everything in terms of its contribution to data processing. As a further corollary, anything that impedes the flow of data is evil (Harari, p. 298). With this in mind, Harari proposes Aaron Swartz as the first martyr of “dataism”. Swartz made it his life’s mission to remove all barriers to the free flow of information. To this end, he downloaded hundreds of thousands of articles from JSTOR, intending to release these so that everyone could access them free of charge. He was consequently prosecuted and when he realised that he was facing imprisonment, committed suicide. Swartz’ “martyrdom”, however, moved his goal a step closer, when JSTOR, in response to petitions and threats from his fans and “co-religionists”, apologised for its role in his death and agreed to allow free access to much of its data (Harari, p. 310).

These ideas about future techno-religions are all interesting, but they seem to miss at least one key feature of religion, namely its continuity with the past. Much of religious belief and practice is concerned with events that occurred in the past and are re-enacted through common rituals. Nicholas Wade, in his book The Faith Instinct, argues that religion has evolved gradually throughout human history (and pre-history). According to his thesis, religion “evolved for a single reason: to further the survival of human societies. Those who administer religions should not assume they cannot be altered. To the contrary, religions are Durkheimian structures, eminently adjustable to a society’s needs.” (Wade, p. 226)

He observes that every major social or economic revolution has been accompanied by a religious one. When humans were in their most primitive state, that of hunter gatherers, they were animists who believed that every physical thing had an associated spirit. Their rituals included dancing around campfires and taking hallucinogenic drugs in order to access the spirit world. With the agricultural revolution, humans developed calendars and religious feasts associated with the seasons. They came to worship a smaller number of “super-spirits”, or gods, often associated with agriculture, for example Demeter the Greek goddess of the harvest. The next phase of this revolution was increasing urbanisation, which began in the Middle East. As cities gave rise to states, and states to empires, the nature of religion changed again. It needed to be organised in a unified and centralised manner, and as the Roman emperors eventually discovered, Christianity was more conducive to these requirements than paganism (in the Far East, Buddhism, and in the Near East, Islam, fulfilled much the same function). The Protestant Reformation happened at approximately the same time as the voyages of discovery and the expansion of European empires around the world. This new form of Christianity placed greater emphasis on the individual, and so ushered in capitalist free enterprise. The Industrial Revolution then followed, which was the last major revolution until the present Information Revolution, as it might be called. Yet in the approximately 200 years since then, no new (or rather, updated) religious system has yet emerged. As Wade suggests at the end of his book.

Maybe religion needs to undergo a second transformation, similar in scope to the transition from hunter gatherer religion to that of settled societies. In this new configuration, religion would retain all its old powers of binding people together for a common purpose, whether for morality or defense. It would touch all the senses and lift the mind. It would transcend self. And it would find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another and to what has been learned of the human condition through rational inquiry. (Wade, p. 227)

One might wonder whether techno-religions would be up to the task. Notice, however, that all the previous religious transformations were gradual – so gradual, in fact, that many people who lived through them may not even have noticed them. We still see evidence of this in the many pagan traditions that were incorporated into Christianity, for example, the Christmas tree, which probably derives from the ancient Roman practice of decorating houses with evergreen plants during the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia. Ancient temples devoted to pagan gods became churches. See for example, the Temple of Demeter pictured below, first built in 530 BCE and later rebuilt as a church in the 6th century CE. When Islam arrived on the scene in the 7th century, it did not claim to be a new religion. On the contrary, it held that the first man, Adam, was a Muslim and that everyone had subsequently strayed from the true religion, to which Muhammad would return them. It retrospectively retold all the Biblical stories in order to fit this narrative. Hagar, for instance, is a mere concubine of Abraham in the Bible, but according to Muslim tradition, she was his wife. This is important because she was the mother of Ishmael, who is considered the father of the Arabs and the ancestor of Muhammad.

The Temple of Demeter (rebuilt as a church), Naxos, Greece

The problem with techno-religions, as currently construed, is that instead of building on all this prior religious heritage, they propose to throw it out and start again de novo. But human nature is not like that, at least not until we have succeeded in substantially altering it through gene editing or other technology! Human beings crave a connection with the past in order to give their lives meaning. Since religion is mainly in the business of giving meaning to human lives (setting aside the question of whether there is any objective basis to this perceived meaning), a techno-religion that tells us to forget our collective past and put our faith in data or AI is surely one of the least inspiring belief systems we have ever been offered. If, however, we could imagine techno-religions that built on our existing religious heritage, and found some way of preserving those human values and traditions that have proven timeless, perhaps by baking them into the AI or data flow in some way, these religions might be on a firmer footing.

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