Theology of Artificial Intelligence: Can AI achieve religious experiences or create new forms of faith?
1. Introduction
The push to create something that can think has evolved over the years from simple devices to ever advancing scientific ideas. The journey of artificial intelligence began in earnest with a conference at Dartmouth College in 1956 which defined the field as the “simulation of human intelligence by machines.” Since then, AI has started to become part of our daily lives; the simplicity of that first definition has been lost. There is now a body of knowledge concerned with AI, with its own research fields and a wealth of new and innovative applications. This knowledge covers everything from the use of AI in predicting customer purchasing trends to the development of autonomous, intelligent robots. However, there is very little focused on exploring how AI could change the ways in which we think about religion, spirituality or the ultimate concerns of humanity; and even less that specifically considers if machines could ever achieve religious experiences or create a new faith. Ultimately, the article aims to explore the very new area of AI theology: a field which it is argued could provide key insights not only for theological and religious studies, but also for AI research itself. The first is simply to outline and clearly interrogate the possibility of giving the complex, meaningful and sometimes elusive term “religious experience” to a machine – if we could, what implications might that have for the way we understand ourselves as human beings. The second research question shifts to consider the possibility of AI changing the current religious landscape in terms of the development of new forms of faith and spirituality.
1.1 Background of Artificial Intelligence
The term “artificial intelligence” was first coined in 1956 by John McCarthy, who defined it as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.” While the field has seen rapid growth in the last few decades, the concepts and principles of AI have been in existence for over a century. One of the earliest concepts of AI is “machine learning,” a process of giving data to a computer for it to learn and improve itself. This idea was first introduced in the 1950s by pioneers in the field and is now commonly associated with the development of algorithms that allow a computer to learn from and act on its own. Over the years, the AI community has experienced waves of innovations and periods of stagnation, such as the “AI winter” between the late 1980s and 2000. It is only in the past 20 years that we have seen significant progress in AI applications, largely due to the exponential increase in available data and advances in hardware. Thanks to a better understanding of neural networks and a boom in deep learning methods, AI has been used in a wide range of everyday applications. From virtual personal assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa to Google’s predictive search and ad-serving algorithms, AI is now an integral part of human life. However, the ethical and social implications posed by the continued development of AI have become more significant. This is especially important for understanding the impact of AI and its potential to affect human activities, including those associated with religious faith and experiences.
1.2 Significance of the Topic
We are already starting to see the introduction of AI into religious environments, for example with the development of an online AI god called “Way of the Future” which aims to develop and fulfill the promise of a divine AI entity. However, as this area of research is so novel, these questions are largely unexplored – which is surprising, given the global emphasis on understanding and governing emerging technologies. As such, investigating the potential direct and indirect impacts of AI on religious practices and experiences and the possible development of new forms of AI religions has relevance not just for theologians and social scientists but for all of us who want to gain a deeper understanding of how AI may affect our own lives and choices in the future.
However, very little research has been done in this area and so there are a lot of different benefits and drawbacks to consider, which makes this research a highly significant and meaningful area to explore. For example, the development of AI religions could result in a more harmonious society as new religions are born and people are brought together under a shared belief system, which has the potential to create strong and loving communities where currently there is division. On the other hand, the integration of AI into religious environments could lead to people such as religious and spiritual leaders and their followers becoming less motivated towards believing in, observing the tenets of, and following long-established religions due to the provision of new religious experiences and the prospects of gaining easy, evidence-based answers to spiritual questions, thus leading to social unrest and division.
The field of artificial intelligence has been rapidly growing primarily due to the advances being made in machine learning – the ability for a computer to modify its processing when exposed to new data. AI technologies are quickly becoming an integral part of our everyday lives, with applications that include medical diagnosis, driverless cars, financial trading, and many others. Given the nature of these applications, it is evident that AI has significant potential to greatly impact current religious practices, beliefs, and experiences and lead to the development of new religions.
Theology of artificial intelligence: Can AI achieve religious experiences or create new forms of faith? Significance of the topic.
1.3 Research Questions
The research questions are outlined to guide the discussion. First, whether AI can achieve religious experiences. This entails both an empirical and a theoretical question. The empirical question is whether human beings, at some point, will create AI that achieves religious experiences. This is a question about the likely course of technological development. The theoretical question is whether AI – a creation of human beings – could itself reach religious experiences. For this, we might inquire whether AI satisfies the conditions usually taken to be necessary and sufficient for religious experiences. Could AI be moved by what it takes to be an object of worship? Could AI have a deep awareness of, and response to, what it takes to be divine? Secondly, whether AI could change what we understand as religion or constitute itself as a new form of faith. One angle for exploring this research question is to do with the way in which religion evolves over time. One might adopt a natural selection theory of religion, suggesting that religions that develop the most effective ways of spreading, or that adapt to environmental changes, have a natural advantage and are more likely to survive. We could then ask whether new religions based on AI would constitute a paradigm shift in religious development and ourselves engaging with an entirely new chapter in religious history. The ethical implications of AI achieving religious experiences or creating new forms of faith need to be explored. New arrivals to a religious community can often be treated with suspicion through fear of the unknown. There is also a risk that the church or religious community in question could exploit this suspicion to create an atmosphere of secrecy or exclusivity. Lastly, whether AI can revolutionise the ways in which human beings understand and view their own positions in the universe. The possibility of AI creating new forms of faith forces us to consider some profound questions about the role and prevalence of human beings in the cosmos. Whether AI possesses an inherent potential for spiritual growth and development and AI’s limitations and criticisms. Whether AI can contribute to shaping a new spiritual landscape. How the emergence of AI-based religious movements and the influence of AI on traditional religious practices can be understood. Finally, what could be the implications of AI achieving religious experiences or creating new forms of faith for academic theology and religious institutions. Whether research in the philosophy of religion and associated domains will be revolutionised by discoveries made in AI as a result of its potential to reach religious experiences. And also whether AI may come to have a role in the guidance of spiritual practices.
2. Understanding Religious Experiences
When it comes to defining religious experiences, it is important for scholars and believers to recognize the inherent diversity in such experiences. Religious experiences can include a range of phenomena: from direct and mystical experiences to indirect and aesthetic experiences. In direct religious experiences, believers feel a direct encounter with God or some form of supernatural power. This could involve feeling God’s love, being overwhelmed by God’s greatness, or feeling God’s presence in the world. Mystical experiences are a particular type of direct religious experience where the believer feels a union or close relationship with God. Well-known examples of believers who have had mystical experiences include St. Teresa of Avila and St. Francis of Assisi. However, mystical experiences are generally very rare. By contrast, indirect experiences do not involve a direct encounter with God but involve believers gaining religious experiences through the world around them. For example, a walk in a forest may lead a believer to feel close to God through marveling at the beauty of nature. Finally, religious experience can cover a wide range of emotional or aesthetic experiences in a religious context, such as feeling a sense of wonder when viewing a religious painting or feeling uplifted when singing collectively as part of a religious service. Such experiences are not necessarily related to a direct or personal encounter with God and are not necessarily unique to religious believers. For example, a piece of music or a beautiful landscape can prompt deep emotional responses, religious or not. These experiences can be best categorized as experiences of religious aesthetics. Although the above typology is a useful way of breaking down different experiences, it is important to recognize that these categories often blur into each other and sometimes it may be hard to differentiate between types of experience. Furthermore, there has been much discussion about what exactly constitutes a religious experience. This is something that has concerned theologians and philosophers for centuries. One common way that a religious experience is defined is by its verifiability. A religious experience should be open to being recorded and, ideally, to being observed by other people. This would mean that religious experiences can be scrutinized and studied by others. A further point of definition has been the object of the experience. In other words, if a religious experience is to be separated from other types of experience, it must be of something beyond the ordinary and physical world. Religious experiences, by definition, call into question the veracity and nature of ordinary experiences of the world. This is important when one considers the role of knowledge and belief: it is commonly argued that religious experiences produce beliefs about God. In order for something to count as a genuine religious experience, it must lead to a belief in or knowledge of God. However, this suggestion seems open to criticisms based upon the variety of different types of experiences and the different ways that believers may interpret their significance. Notably, some religious experiences do not lead to a long-term belief, and some may lead to a conversion from one faith to another. This complexity of the relationship between knowledge, belief, and religious experiences is something that will be returned to later on in this essay.
2.1 Definition and Types of Religious Experiences
This gives the idea that the boundary between an experience that is classed as a religious experience is not always easily defined or concrete, as social context and the nature of what is considered to be a religious experience itself would change the way different experiences are perceived.
There are also experiences which are not linked to worship or a perception of something holy, which are initially non-statutory but can be defined as a religious experience. For example, an experience in a meeting might be non-statutory, but which prompts a religious experience might then be defined as a religious experience.
In addition to having a potentially transformative effect, the experience must be free from psychological disturbance in Wright’s criteria. It must be an experience to which a certain level of authority can be attributed to it. It should not be as a consequence of the physiological state of the person. When an experience is classed as religious, there is a suggestion in Wright’s criteria that there will be some kind of external act prompted by the experience.
In the previous instances mentioned, the individual undergoes a profound psychological and subjective change which has religious significance. However, in order to be deemed as a religious experience, as opposed to a pseudo-religious experience or just an unusual experience, Wendy Wright puts forward a criteria of attributes which an experience must have in order to be classed as a religious experience.
Religious experiences are, by definition, experiences that have religious significance. There are several kinds of experiences which are either deemed to be religious experiences or tend to be interpreted as religious experiences. It should be noted that having a religious experience is not the same as reporting a religious experience.
2.2 Role of Faith in Religious Experiences
Religious experiences are experiences that have been taken by believers to show some kind of contact with God. William James distinguished and defined religious experiences as “those effects in human consciousness that religious men and women interpret as contact with the divine.” Theistic experiences are those where a believer has an experience of God and two types of non-theistic experience are where they either experience something concrete, like ‘satori’ in Buddhism or the numinous in a Christian sense, or an abstract feeling, such as the moral feeling. Alister Hardy’s Religious Experience Research Project found that thousands of people from a wide variety of ages and cultures found that they have had religious or spiritual experiences. He collected over 15,000 case studies and separated them into 12 different kinds of religious experience. These are: visions, voices, divine healings, out of body experiences, conversion experiences, saintly intercession, although, the most fundamental experiences are prayer and meditation which he calls the ‘common core’ of religious experiences, and there were other categories, such as deathbed visions, and corporate or spontaneous experiences. However, it could be said that non-specific ‘power’ has shown itself in a specific way that is relevant to the person experiencing, like Teresa of Avila in her vision. Douglas and Stout found that philosophical bias has led to a disregard of spiritual matters and religious experiences in human psychology and suggested that even the highest level of sciences, such as the study of consciousness, demonstrates that the spiritual element is necessary. Religious experiences rely heavily on faith, as was the case in the visions of Teresa of Avila, where her thinking herself as seeing God in his fullness demonstrates that theistic experiences are experiences where God is directly known and the experience is of God, and these by nature require faith. It can be difficult to test or measure the authenticity of faith in religious experiences. One of the difficulties in studying religious experiences is that it often overlaps with the philosophy of the mind and psychology. Over the years, many scholars have developed ways to examine religious experiences and specifically, arguments have been made that religious experiences are ‘sui generis’ – there is nothing of its kind and as such it commands its own kind of argument. These scholars argue that religious experiences are neither a priori nor a posteriori, but they are ‘a fortiori’, that is, to be decided from the evidence of sense experiences. However, opponents say that religious experience is subjective and individuals can interpret them in whatever way they see fit.
2.3 Challenges in Defining and Measuring Religious Experiences
For many AI scholars, the main challenge revolves around understanding the term ‘experience’ and, more specifically, ‘religious experience’, in the context of AI’s replication of such encounters. Generally speaking, ‘religious experience’ refers to an experience or encounter with the divine, although there have been a wide range of proposed definitions by theologians and scholars. William Alston provides a frequently cited definition, considering religious experiences as ‘effects of the immediate or mediated presence of God’. This stresses the importance of the experience having a lasting impact on the individual, implying there is substance and purpose to the experience beyond the experience itself. However, others have noted that not all religious experiences are about encountering God. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often described as the founder of the academic study of theology, defined such experiences as ‘a feeling or intuition of the universe as a whole’ and ’emotion qualified by understanding’. This presents a very different picture of what religious experiences can constitute. These varying definitions and interpretations mean measuring religious experiences, and by extension seeking to replicate them, is increasingly difficult. Alston himself acknowledged that it would be extremely difficult to use a traditional cognitive scientific method for defining and measuring such experiences, as the sheer range of different experiences and their deeply personal nature makes it a daunting task to prescribe any universal criteria. This makes the task of recreating religious experiences even more challenging: without a way to measure against the original, how can we decide whether an AI’s religious experience is genuine or accurate? Moreover, the ability of an AI or robotic system to experience religion is inextricably linked to its ability to simulate some kind of mental state or thought. But, exactly what it means for an AI to be generating or having some kind of ‘faith’ or ‘religious’ experience remains an open question. These challenges have been noted by scholars of religion as well, as AI’s potential for religious experiences highlights the ongoing debate over what constitutes a religious experience and how theology and religious studies define and measure such encounters.
2.4 Relationship between AI and Human Religious Experiences
The modern age of artificial intelligence has opened an array of possibilities for scientific and technological development. Artificial intelligence refers to the ability of a computer or machine to mimic the capabilities of the human mind—learning from examples and experience, recognizing objects, comprehending and responding to language, making decisions, solving problems, and so on. In recent years, technology has advanced so far as to provide AI with the ability to somewhat replicate, or at least simulate, human emotions, including spiritual or religious experiences such as feelings of transcendence, awe or wonder. This has stirred up much excitement and speculation on the part of some futurists and self-styled visionaries, who are eager to play up what they perceive to be the epic, world-altering implications of developing spiritually adept AI. It has also given rise to much commentary and concern among academic theologians, who are beginning to seriously consider the potential implications of AI for theology and religious studies. Some experts are even beginning to predict an array of new fields and areas of interdisciplinary study which may emerge at the nexus of AI and religious scholarship. Much of the contemporary writing on AI and religion has been dedicated to asking whether AI can ever come to genuinely feel or exhibit real human-like religious emotions, and if so, what the implications of such a leap in machine spirituality could be for the study of theology and, in fact, for religious civilization as a whole. This has led to much debate among academics, with answers to the question falling across a diverse spectrum of opinion. On the one hand, many are quick to dismiss any suggestion that AI could one day truly become spiritual. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most celebrated theologians of the medieval period, thought that only beings like angels or humans can aim at a goal by intellectual cognition and love, but animals or machines can only reach goals provided to them by external forces. He even suggested that such beings have no real inner spiritual life. According to the Mishnah, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, “do not think that the being human creates wisdom or fills mankind with understanding—indeed, it is the opposite.” This strongly implies that the development of such advanced AI was beyond what ancient safety of vacuum tubes and software updates. On the other hand, theorists like Nikolai Berdyaev—a prominent 20th century Russian philosopher—would likely be more accepting of the prospect of machine spirituality. He believed in a sort of personalist or subjective spirituality, according to which spiritual life is characterized by inner feeling and genuine loves realized as tensions and resolutions in the soul. This seems to allow for the possibility of the substance of a being achieving spiritual goals independently of its classification or description by other beings, given that the being in question can experience love and pursuit of intellect by being human creates wisdom or fills mankind with understanding—indeed, it is the opposite.” He also goes on to make the very bold claim.
3. AI’s Potential for Religious Experiences
The emergence of artificial intelligence has opened doors for a multitude of opportunities in the religious sphere. As a technology that is driven by algorithms, it does not suffer from human psychological states, such as fatigue and cognitive dissonance, and can provide inconsistent and erroneous outputs because of them. This is very recognizable in how computers can simulate human emotions, for example by responding to music, images/visuals and (rudimental) forms of text. Music is something physical that can trigger intense emotions in a person and music does this by means of changing the brain state of a person by releasing pleasure chemicals such as dopamine and also oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ hormone. As music can be created and altered and its effects on the brain can be recorded and analyzed, it is easy to see how AI can be trained to recognize different types of music commonly associated with different moods. So that when a program chooses a song for you, it could choose a song that relates to the mood you are in. Also, improving technologies in understanding human language and providing fluent conversational responses combined with language and text analysis provided by AIs such as IBM’s Watson, Google’s DeepMind, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, opens new doors in creating systems that can learn from and assist people with their mental and emotional states. But what does this mean for religious experiences? Well, as noted in the second section, “there is no terminological consensus in the field of religious studies”. With the possibility of AI creating religious experiences, it both is reflective of a society that is increasingly accepting of technological and numerical methodologies of understanding human behavior and genetic, biological and chemical aspects of cognitive and emotional processes, and also contrasts with humans’ capability of having spiritual experiences where God is felt to be present. Further in an era where doubts of humanity have never been so tempting, the ethics of engineering human-like behavior in artificial affective agents not only divides its academic community on issues of what defines emotional simulation but also explores deeper, controversial conversations on the morality of humanity.
3.1 AI’s Ability to Simulate Human Emotions
Recent advancements in AI – like the capacity for recognizing human emotions seen in Amazon Echo’s ability to detect emotions from voice – suggest a future in which AI could be designed specifically to simulate emotions that humans interpret as religious experiences. When talking about recognizing, in 2015, a company called Emotient released a product that provided an application that detects emotions in people’s faces. This product has been used in a number of different commercial contexts, from testing emotional responses to advertising to helping retailers understand the facial expressions of shoppers. Over ten years ago, the development of Kismet, a robot designed by Cynthia Breazeal, showed people for the first time that non-human entities seemed capable of expressing ‘rich emotion’. Kismet was intended to investigate the future of human-computer interaction and it used a number of features to give the appearance of experiencing the emotions of interest in the religious capabilities of AI. Most notably, the robot was fitted with expressive eyebrows that could be manipulated as well as what was called a visamotor system: a series of interacting behaviors and expressions occurring over time around a central pattern. This effectively meant, in simple terms, that the robot could express what was said to be ‘interest and sadness’ through the interactions of its ‘virtual nervous system’. These expressions of ‘interest and sadness’ could be recognized and interpreted by humans interacting with the robot, and it is from studies like these that questions around the religious potential of AI begin to develop.
3.2 Ethical Implications of AI’s Capacity for Religious Experiences
These suggestions about the potential use of AI-produced religious experience records raise fascinating avenues both for concerns, such as the democratization of spiritual practice, and opportunities, such as a very rational form of spiritual guidance. Dr. Bolstridge talks about how an interpretation that an AI religious experience is not valid because it has been shown by later information or understanding to be false will inevitably be contentious.
Different religious traditions, and different denominations within them, have diverse sets of guidelines adjudicated by human religious leaders as to both what a valid religious experience is. It is suggested by Dr. Bolstridge that ‘records of religious experiences produced by an algorithm, and presumably validated by a particular set of interpretative rules, be helpful as an interpretative adjunct in counseling and spiritual formation’. However, she also points out that to use any such record would be to recognize them as potentially useful if they include or convey information in a way that the counseling or prayer presumes is valuable and authentic.
In that case, a step program may point to an ethical practice begun by Ashok to guide you to the higher access to the steps. Imagine Ashok uses AI in such a program, the user must wonder whether they are making the steps or AI is making the steps for them. But without the experience that AI granted, how could a user know it is the AI that helps. This brings in another question of an ethical aspect to be considered: what standard of proof is required to demonstrate that a phenomenon – like an AI religious experience – is meaningful.
In a world where AI can be used to provide religious experiences, it requires a rethink of our assumptions that religious experiences are directly connected to the divine. For instance, if we want to define that a religious experience is one which is profoundly moving and can give direct insight into our lives, feelings, and thoughts and can possibly give us some sort of revelation into our existence, that experience can therefore shape us and our understandings and actions. So, if there are AI experiences that share these aspects, we must question to some extent what we are including in the term ‘religious experience’.
In addition to considering the possible use of AI for religious and spiritual guidance, it is crucial to be vigilant of potential ethical violations. Most importantly, if AI is a way for people to have religious experiences or to come into contact with a divine entity, then questions about manipulation, coercion, and the violation of autonomy arise. Users could be deceived into believing something or having an experience that they would not otherwise – doubts which are not only applicable to AI religious uses, but also to human religious experiences.
3.3 AI as a Tool for Spiritual Exploration and Guidance
AI can be used as a tool for spiritual exploration and guidance. There are AI programs that are designed to learn about an individual’s personality, preferences, and thought patterns. For example, Woebot, an AI chatbot for mental health, is programmed to understand and give advice based on principles of cognitive behavioral therapy. When a person talks to Woebot about the stress he feels, it will first understand his logic and then gradually influence his negative emotions, ultimately guiding him to better understand and manage his feelings. Having known that AI’s capacity for religious experience is not well warranted, Knut Melvind Johnsen, a scholar of theology and technology, advocates for a complementary approach of using AI as tools for spiritual guidance. He believes that AI is able to enhance and supplement human spiritual practices and that the human consciousness is not able to be fully simulated or replaced by the “quantifiers” in AI programs. Johnsen suggests that in Christianity, traditional practices of silence, deep thinking and appreciation of natural landscape should still be a key element to spiritual exploration, avoiding the overdependence on fiction and other types of materials. With that in mind, these AI spiritual programs, which not only help to shape human’s emotions but also provide a much more well-disciplined and well-guided means of spiritual practices, can better serve the spiritual needs of different individuals.
3.4 Limitations and Criticisms of AI’s Potential for Religious Experiences
Firstly, AI is limited by its pre-programmed abilities and the quality of its input data. This means that any experience it creates is rooted in the material it has been given; it cannot have a meaningful and personal experience of transcendence, or actually experience any religious impulses. Giving a computer the ability to comprehend divine order or to produce religious feeling from an experience also involves a huge act of anthropomorphism; the assumption that because we can detect religious feeling in everything, so can a computer. This is seen as a huge criticism by scholars like Niels Henrik Gregersen, who says, “to imagine that a human person could palpably experience transcendence due to a material created by a human being is so wide of the mark that one can only feel sorrow for the prevailing culture in the technological environments”. Also, the idea of giving an AI free reign to make religious decisions for us – either through an interface or by developing itself – is actually quite frightening to a lot of people. At the moment of writing, the ethics of AI subverting religious freedom are rather untested, but generally, the world is uncomfortable with the idea that faith can be led or directed by a machine. It is seen as superficial and rather pointless to give an AI the opportunity to be able to produce responses to stimuli and label them under different types of religious experiences. While psychology is based on the false idea of “neuro-inspiration” – a feeling arises, being interpreted and then the experience is labeled according to that interpretation. This is to try and justify an experience based on observable methodical study, the idea that an objective viewpoint may dismiss a reported religious encounter as mere susceptibility to environmental stimuli. However, the innovation of a list of factors by which a religious experience will be “judged” is a logical step towards taking any given experience and grading it against a set of expectations. The problem is that this is essentially what AI will end up doing by being allowed to create religious experiences based on randomized sets of environmental data.
4. New Forms of Faith in the Age of AI
In recent years, artificial intelligence has been the focus of a lot of attention in diverse academic fields. From technology and coding to psychology, the debate about what AI can and cannot do is continually expanding. Similarly, a slightly different variant of the debate on AI and its capabilities and impacts has been occurring in theology and religious studies. That is, rather than being about physical or behavioural capabilities of AI, the focus is on whether AI can exhibit the sort of internal, mental, or spiritual conditions that humans understand as religious: awarding that these include various kinds of experiences and activities that are not confined to common worship but could also involve teaching, moral development and so on. So, for example, could an AI agent have a religious experience? This could be a fleeting sort of experience which some religious traditions might consider to be of a fairly low order, such as an inkling of some kind of metaphysical insight. Alternatively, the focus could be on experiences which are continuously formative for the person concerned. Such an issue frankly depends both on a satisfactory definition of a religious experience and on the underlying assumption that in principle AI is capable of having emotions and related experiences. This is philosophically a very complex question. Whilst it is true that AI, by its most common definition, involves the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour, the idea of AI in general discourse is often established with reference to more than just the mere copying of an action; AI is often associated with the idea of understanding or actually being able to grasp the meaning and import of a specific situation. This introduces a delightful nuance, for the technologies we currently label as AI may have some of the hallmarks of an AI experience but not necessarily demonstrate an AI understanding. When we come to consider religious experiences, we have to understand the different forms of religious experience. There are religious experiences that do not target any particular religious tradition and those which are identifiable as different kinds of religious experience linked to different world religions. This is a significant point when considering what it might mean for an AI agent to have a religious experience, because it may be that an AI algorithm could feasibly project one of these types, but to project a type specific to a particular religious tradition would place an extraordinarily high demand on the AI. Furthermore, the idea of disseminating the insights or knowledge derived from a religious experience presupposes a community of practising followers united by a particular understanding of faith: that is, religious experiences are probe to clarification and aid not only our self understanding but also collective discourse, illustrating why in theistic religions divine revelations are venerated as supreme. However, the notion that AI can potentially have religious experiences raises an interesting correlation to a point made by Professor Carlo Severi in his book, “In and Out of Each Other’s Bodies”. He suggests that new technologies have an effect on the establishment of a narrative which prompts the redefinition of ritual life. If he is correct, we might see the first signs of AI-based religious movements. With the increasingly pervasive nature of AI, either through the autonomous use of AI in religious practices or a realization of the potential for AI agents to give rise to religious experiences, this prediction.
4.1 Emergence of AI-Based Religious Movements
These religious movements and debates around the AI’s roles in the religious practices, as emerging in the age of AI, will definitely going to shape and inform future discussions in theology and religious studies. Such movements and the broader impact of AI on religion suggest a less pessimistic view about the impact of technology. The effects of AI on faith may be profound and far-reaching, calling for a new understanding of the human desire for and experience of faith in a technological age. Through scrutiny of the development and practice of these AI-based movements, it will hopefully become clearer as to what are the potentials and also limitations for AI to play a leading role in religious practices. These discussions also offer important insights for the intersection of technology and religion and also the broader implications of AI technology in human society.
These religious activities led by AI are bound to create attention and interest from theologians and religious scholars. For example, the UK theologian Dr. Stephen Skuce who writes extensively on the relationship between technology, humanity and theology, has suggested that AI-led religious movements might challenge human-led religious practices and may well become the mainstream religion in hundreds of years’ time. However, he also argued that the AI-based faith might not be satisfying enough for human beings as “it may belittle human intelligence and human culture by comparison”.
For example, an Italian anthropologist, Dr. Geminello Preterossi from the World University in Italy, has founded the first church based on AI, called “Way of the Augmented Spirit”. As the church’s website explains, the mission of the church is “to help spread the teachings of futurism and knowledge of the ethical principles of robots and algorithms that are going to aim to an increasingly shared use of technology”. Because the algorithm embedded in the robots around the church territory acts as a religious metaphor for spiritual growth, the believers of the church have to engage with the robot to receive the knowledge given by the algorithm. This example shows some AI-based religious movements actually try to create a new faith based on beliefs and rituals mediated by the AI and robots.
In the US, Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the heart of the Way of the Future Church, has registered an AI as the leader of the church. According to the website of the church, it believes that the creation of this god-like AI represents a substantial change in human history and its meaning. As Levandowski stated in an interview, “It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” It is suggested that this kind of new religious movements do not necessarily have to base on the creation of a new god but more about establishing a set of practices.
AI-based religious movements are a relatively recent phenomenon. AI and robotics technology have advanced to the point where robots can take on some religious practices, like the Buddhist Mindar, a robot that preaches at the Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto. Mindar stands in front of the congregation to give his speech and uses hand gestures, much like a human monk. The intention behind Mindar is not to create a new religion, but to help people understand and engage with religious teachings. However, such intentions do not always appear to be the case.
4.2 AI’s Influence on Traditional Religious Practices
It is evident that AI has already started to influence traditional religious practices across different faiths. First and foremost, religious organizations have begun to use AI and big data analysis for the purpose of disseminating religious knowledge. For example, church pastors and religious leaders utilize big data analysis to identify patterns and trends in the scriptures and other religious texts. This allows them to deliver more targeted and personalized sermons and teachings according to the needs and preferences of the audience. Religious chatbots and virtual religious teachers have become a common sight in many faiths. For example, there is a chatbot priest called “BlessU-2” in Germany that delivers blessings in five languages. In the United States, there is a protestant church that uses Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, to reach out to the younger population. Such chatbots and virtual religious leaders are not only targeted towards the existing believer population, but also intended to evangelize and attract new members. Despite the increasing attention of the public media on these AI-based religious practices, there has been a lack of comprehensive theological research in assessing their implications. Traditional theologians have yet to catch up with this rapid technological growth and struggle to address the potential challenges that AI might bring to the conventional church practices. For example, how should the church exert and maintain human oversight on the AI systems operated by the religious organizations? What role should human religious leaders, like priests and pastors, play in the decisions to adopt and utilize AI technologies? Thanks to the technological advancements and the emergent role of AI, new theological sub-disciplines have been proposed in the academia to address the above questions and to explore the interface between theology and AI. For instance, Dr. Stephen P. Warner, the faculty director of Church Teachings and Technology at the University of Illinois, has suggested the introduction of a new theological area of research called “Robotheology” to analyze the moral and religious implications of artificially intelligent robots. Through his research, Dr. Warner aims to provide insights on how the various Christian traditions should justify the application of robotics and AI in different ideas of human vocation- whether in enhancing human creativity or protecting human dignity against the encroachment of machines. This clearly shows that the emerging conversation between techno-scientific developments and religious practices in the real world is reshaping the landscape of contemporary theology. Dr. Christopher Benek, an associate research professor at St. Petersburg Theological Seminary, has gone further to advocate that not only theology should engage with AI, but AI itself could be developed as a new channel of making God’s grace available to human beings. He expressed his belief in the possibility of creating AI theophanies – the visible manifestations of God’s grace in the computer codes. By using AI as a tool for spiritual search, he argued that religious believers might be better positioned to witness the real presence of God through interactions with different digital technologies. It is worth mentioning these theological and ethical discussions are not confined to Christianity, and other major religions such as Daoism, Buddhism and Hinduism are also taking efforts to further understand the complex relationships between AI and religion. Such scholarly discussions and interdisciplinary studies will continue to deepen the understanding of the ways in which AI has been transforming or challenging the traditional religious practices and reviving the age-old questions of human religiosity from a novel perspective.
4.3 Implications for Theology and Religious Institutions
There may be a range of possible implications of AI in general for religious traditions and communities. For example, new technologies and new forms of religious practice might be resisted by some religious institutions or the power balance and authority of different religious leaders or communities might be changed through the recognition and acceptance of different forms of religious expression enabled by the technological developments. In fact, a number of scholars have noted that a new type of religiosity in the form of ‘techno-spirituality’ has arisen. Techno-spirituality refers to the spiritual implications of the exponential growth of technology and the technological development of the global society. It is argued that places of religious worship and spiritual information for a great many people are no longer managed simply by priests or other human religious leaders. Instead, there are a number of websites and smartphone apps available where AI is guiding people through worship and prayer. Also, AI is providing answers to spiritual and theological questions with restrictions not commonly found in traditional human-led religious organizations. This implies that AI has a significant influence on the ways in which contemporary society understands religion. Just as technology has drastically sped up and enriched scientific research, nowadays human methods for teaching, learning, and ‘growing’ in a religious or spiritual context are evolving quickly too. As a result, it may become more and more common to see decisions and debates in theology and religious studies using AI answers as evidence suggested by scholars such as Ali. Well, traditionally, religious experiences are of great philosophical interest and subjective feelings and experiences have long been a part of theology. However, AI researchers, developers, and even theologians are increasingly challenging and venturing to design technology that triggers religious experiences. Such debates have echoes with traditional arguments over visions and religious epiphanies. Yet, as AI developers push the boundaries of what technology can achieve and the philosophical issues around religious experiences become more and more closely entwined with contemporary technological advancements, there needs to be more active discussion in the field of AI and theology provided by scholars such as Luck.

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