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AI as Refashioned Religion

How AI fits into the transhumanist utopian dream, and where that dream might have come from

You can see it in the discourse surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) over the last year: AI is going to change everything. Some think it’s going to do this for the better. Others think it’s a technological handmaiden for world destruction if its programming goes awry — or worse: AI becomes self-determining and sentient.

An insightful article at Vox by Sigal Samuel considers this doomsday/salvific kind of rhetoric and points out that AI developers sound a whole lot like religious priests, prophesying doom, promising salvation, warning the populace to heed the coming armageddon. He writes,

These technologists propose cheating death by uploading our minds to the cloud, where we can live digitally for all eternity. They talk about AI as a decision-making agent that can judge with mathematical certainty what’s optimal and what’s not. And they envision artificial general intelligence (AGI) — a hypothetical system that can match human problem-solving abilities across many domains — as an endeavor that guarantees human salvation if it goes well, even as it spells doom if it goes badly.

-Sigal Samuel, Why Silicon Valley AI prophecies just feel like repackaged religion – Vox

Samuel argues that Christianity, particularly medieval Catholicism, saw technological innovation as a good that should be pursued in keeping with man’s reflection of the Divine as a “maker.” In addition, when Darwin came along preaching his theory of evolution via natural selection, not all religious believers cried foul. In fact, some embraced the theory and incorporated it into a broader notion of “cosmic evolution.” Such people included Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit who

believed that human evolution, nudged along with tech, was actually the vehicle for bringing about the kingdom of God, and that the melding of humans and machines would lead to an explosion of intelligence, which he dubbed the omega point. Our consciousness would become “a state of super-consciousness” where we merge with the divine and become a new species.

Enter Transhumanism

Such radical utopian hopes for the human species sound equivalent to today’s transhumanists, who purport that AI will aid us in entering into a post-human future. Samuel’s point, which he argues compellingly, is that such ideas have so-called “religious” roots. I put religious in quotations marks, since orthodox Christian teaching would hold transhumanism in distrust. For instance, Wesley J. Smith, frequent contributor here at Mind Matters, wrote in First Things last year that Christianity and transhumanism shouldn’t be melded. They are contradicting worldviews. Smith writes,

First principles matter, and those of transhumanism and Christianity could not be more contradictory. Transhumanism is materialistic. Christianity is theistic. Transhumanism is utopian. Christianity sees the fallen world realistically. Transhumanism perceives immortality as something that can be achieved by men. Christianity identifies eternal salvation as the mercy of a loving God. Its eschatology focuses on God’s promises, not upon advanced scientific applications. 

-Wesley J. Smith, The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism | Wesley J. Smith | First Things

As we’ve noted here many times, AI’s greatest threat may not be its sophistication, but our own over-reliance on it. As a technology, it has its uses and benefits. As a religion, it fails.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

AI as Refashioned Religion