This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Human fascination with lifelike machines is older than most modern religions, including Christianity. The first robot on record – a steam-powered mechanical dove – was created around 350BC by Archytas of Tarentum, a maths-obsessed disciple of Pythagoras.
Different religions also describe inanimate humanoid figures, usually made out of clay, magically brought to life by gods or men. For example, the Jewish book of the Talmud describes “Golems” – anthropomorphic clay creatures – which are thought to have been created by Rabbi Judah Loew in medieval Prague to protect the city’s Jewish community.
Today, the idea that artificially intelligent humanoids might one day protect our communities doesn’t sound so far-fetched – so much so that the world’s major religions will soon need to take a position when it comes to new technologies that fundamentally challenge our notions of spirituality. In November of 2020, Pope Francis said in a YouTube prayer that “robotics can make the world a better place if it’s for the common good”, and urged followers to pray that AI and robots “may always serve mankind”.
French sociologist and philosopher Raphaël Liogier, former director of the now-defunct Religion Observatory at the University of Provence Aix-Marseille, believes the Pope’s comments speak volumes about his beliefs on the subject. “Without realising it, he’s ascribing the capacity for thought to machines,” he said. “That’s in deep conflict with the dogma of the Church, but then again, he’s also being influenced by the spirit of our times.”
Liogier also thinks the Pope’s words revolutionise most religious understandings of the human soul. “Thinking of the soul as nothing more than a collection of mechanical parts casts doubt on its spiritual and divine nature,” Liogier said. This idea is threatening to spiritual movements, since most religions “revolve around the idea of a divine soul”.
But the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Bishop Paul Tighe, said this was a misreading of the Pope’s prayer. “This is essentially trying to ensure that the development of AI will be done in a way that is ethical,” he said over the phone, “in a way that does not lead to more inequality between people.”
Liogier said the Church is particularly worried about technologies intended to prolong our lives. Transhumanistic techniques like mind uploading – or scanning and copying our minds into computers – are already being discussed by neuroscientists, at least in theory.
“If people start hoping to become immortal through technology, they won’t have much interest in religion or hope for resurrection [on judgement day],” said Liogier. Since these technologies are likely to only become available to the rich, they might also end up widening the world’s existing inequalities in ways previously unimaginable. According to Liogier, the possibility of creating immortal AI beings would also be particularly challenging to religions like Buddhism, which support the belief that everything – including our soul’s physical manifestation – is temporary.
Monotheistic religions tie the idea of salvation to faith. Believers are not supposed to worship anything besides the one true God, and certainly not an omniscient, immortal AI potentially capable of answering all our questions.
Faouzia Charfi, a Tunisian scientist, intellectual and politician, believes AI could one day become a new form of religion. “It’s dangerous – maybe more so than existing religions, because it’ll be attached to so much bias and prejudice,” she said over the phone. “AI will be very powerful, but who will it serve? What principles will be behind it? It’s not neutral, it never will be.”
Of course, most religions have been serving privileged communities over marginalised groups for centuries, but AI could be actively programmed to be biased.
Throughout history, religions have struggled to embrace and integrate new discoveries, especially if they challenged established versions of the world. Just think of astronomer Galileo Galilei being prosecuted by the Catholic church for his heliocentric model of the solar system.
Now, it’s hard to know where those new discoveries will leave religion.