Victoria Mellott

Professor Julia Keefer

Mind, Body, Media

Final Paper

August 1, 2001


It seems as though organized religion, specifically Christianity, has always reacted with hostility towards scientific advancements. Examples of the church’s animosity towards scientific discoveries that threatened their power, influence, and credibility plague the history books. During the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution many scientists were ostracized from the church for their theories and discoveries. For example, Giordono Bruno, a follower of the Hermetic tradition and an outspoken supporter of the Copernican theory, was summoned by the church to appear before an Inquisition whereby he was found guilty of blasphemy and condemned to death. He was burned at the stake in 1600 (Perry, 70). Galilei Galileo and Johannes Kepler suffered less severe punishments in that they were only excommunicated from the church. Presently, research and scientific discovery are more collective and tend to be funded by corporations thus making it more difficult to pinpoint individual offenses, but the church continues to criticize and condemn science in areas such as cloning and stem cell research, to name but a few.

Before examing the topic of A.I. and religion, it is important to understand why the chasm between the two institutions exists. I will briefly analyze the church’s position on the subject of the Internet, which clarifies their stance on A.I. Many scholars, historians, and church leaders are skeptical about the possibility of a harmonious relationship developing between the church and science. Because the church and its doctrines are based upon ethereal claims and science is rooted in empiricism and veritable evidence, notions of truth are the points at which their differences seem to culminate and their dialogue collapses. However, some believe that the growing rift between the church and science can be lessened. In this paper I will explain how science, specifically Artificial Intelligence, and the church have a future together. I will explore the social and political implications of each institution and establish their commonalties thereby illustrating that in their purest forms, A.I. and religion are not only compatible with each other, but also might prove to be meaningful, possibly even instrumental, in each other’s development.

Science and religious faith seem irreconcilable because they are both attempting to uncover the ultimate question of humanity, ‘What is the meaning of existence?’ Each establishment has confronted this task using very different methods and, thus far, both have yielded very different answers. Some, however, see the two disciplines as complimentary. For instance,

"John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and the director of the university’s center for the Study of Science and Religion says, "It’s a position that says, ‘Yes, it’s true science and religion are logically distinct and play by different rules, but that we simply can’t think about God the same way, after Darwin and Einstein and the big bang, as we did before. We don’t derive our sense of God through science, but we realize that science places constraints on what we can plausibly say about God." (Russell 12)

He goes on to describe how religious followers can enhance their understanding of the Creator by using what science tells them about the universe.

"When you combine evolutionary theory with big-bang cosmology – the two most important scientific concepts we have – when you synthesize those, you still get a picture of a universe created. But what it implies is that each moment, every day, the universe is reaching that much further out from nothingness, and that everything we do is new. We live in and age of ongoing creation. For many of us, that’s very exciting religiously." (Russell 13)

The Internet, because it is directly related to computers which are primitive thinking machines, is in some ways the precursor to A.I., thus making it an important topic of study in understanding the impact A.I. will have on religion and vice versa. A.I. and the Internet are similar in that they both bring into question the issue of community, consciousness, and immortality. These three aspects of life are also important to the church and must be analyzed in order to understand how all of them work together.

Judeo-Christianity in its purest form is organistic and not atomistic in nature. Because of the great power and massive wealth that organized religion acquired, capitalism and individualism were adopted as the "unofficial," yet prevailing economic and social doctrines of the church and it followers. They became the prevailing and popular convictions of the church in order to perpetuate and sustain its wealth and power. These economic and social schools of thought are usually affiliated with "Christian right," but an analysis of Biblical Scripture illustrates that Jesus and his idea of religious faith had more in common with modern socialists than what we normally associate Christianity with. Scholar Sidney Hook points out that Marx’s discontent with Christianity,

"Is that the way Christianity had been used through the centuries as a tool to keep class lines distinct and impenetrable. The church, acting in accordance with her priests and sometimes at the aristocrats’ orders, taught those aspects of the Scriptures which supported the power structure as it existed throughout the ages." (Hook 121)

Scholar Benjamin Page points out in his book, "Marxism and Spirituality" the distinct similarities between Christianity and Marxism. He states,

"Jesus, through His own example, was teaching a power structure that was directly opposed to the dominant structure in both those times and modern day life. Jesus taught that the ideal life was one of community, one of sharing and having all needs being met. One of Jesus’ first miracles consisted of the collective feeding of 5,000 hungry men, women, and children. All had their needs met through a sharing of food and drink. This same scene is repeated on many stages throughout the world; many are hungry, few have food. Jesus’ answer was to those with food; share and divide, that all may be fed. This fits very neatly with Marx’s quote: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Let each individually do what he can, and all collectively will have their needs met." (Page 54)

These examples are all pertinent to the discussion of A.I. and the Internet because both give way to a contemporary sense of community. Although the Internet is limiting in that there is a lack of physical presence, never before have so many different people from every race, class, and religion been connected. Through the Internet people, are not only communicating faster and easier, but they are also are aware of each other’s needs more than ever before.

The Internet occupies an immaterial space, which is not unlike the space in which God is supposed to inhabit. In my interview with Dr. Gregory S. Cootsona, the associate pastor of The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York, he stated that,

"The Internet is a tool that a lot of people have compared to the Guttenberg Press. A parallel one can draw is that it is the new dissemination of information. Some have also written about cyberspace and how it relates to heaven, sort of a non-spatial location that somehow offers the idea of a place that isn’t a place. On the other hand, I think that the Internet can get in the way of this idea of what one might call a physical co-presence or the idea of community and people being together, which are extremely important aspects of the Christian faith. It begins to act as a wedge between direct human interaction. So, instead of going to a store and buying a book, especially at a local bookstore where I might know the person, I go to and I’ve lost, then, this person – it becomes a complete transaction. It becomes pure information and it is no longer a relationship. We need to be present with one another. There’s something very powerful about the presence of a person. God is present in the sacrament of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and if you’re a Catholic in five other ways of sacramental presence." (July, 25, 2001)

I also asked Dr. Cootsona if he thought the Internet, because of the wealth of information about other religions, was aiding in the breakdown of the traditional church and spurring on the formation of bouillabaisse or personalized religions. Dr. Cootsona said that,

"This question would be parallel to the sociological study that Robert Bella and his colleague did called "Habits of the Heart." It’s religion and community that have been a countervailing force to individualism and a very positive one at that. Its great to be individualistic, but you want it always to be balanced with community. Similarly with religion, I think one of the things that an organized religion does, as much as it also has problems, is that it creates something that we agree on together. In this book, "Habits of the Heart" this woman named Sheila said, ‘I sort of just worship whatever I decide and I call it Sheilaism.’ The book goes on to say that we might, then, have 250 million religions. One of the things that common set of beliefs, not necessarily dogmatically or coercively maintained, gives you is a tradition in which you have a common good. I think one of the things we do as church that help people is to draw them into a community. So, if we are in a community, we help people not just to be focused on themselves and their own decisions about what they think is God. As much as everybody needs to individualize faith I think it also needs to be this relationship with the community, with a community of belief, I think to the degree that the Internet allows for that to happen more quickly and with wider sense of receiving information. I think it could accelerate a process that is already going on. We have been given by God these powers which are God-like. The ability to create life and to affect life really radically. There is a way in which I think God has given us just about everything God can so that we can bless one another." (July 25, 2001)

It is evident from Dr. Cootsona’s responses that the church is willing and ready to adapt to technological advancements. However, because of the basic premise of religious faith, there will always be aspects of it that are at odds with science and that may be seen as threatening to the church’s foundation. A.I. differs from the discussion of the Internet, in that it calls into question the "souls" of humans and artificial beings. Even though a person might exist in cyberspace (a present day parallel dimension), in a chat room, on a message board, or in a MUDD or a MOO, their soul, according to the church, still exists, because somewhere at the end of a computer sits a human being. Artificial beings, however, if technology is able to advance them to the stage of sentient beings, are only simulations and thus do not have souls. Dr. Cootsona explained that what makes a human being and artificial being different is the ability to relate to God. A.I. is still in its infancy so it is difficult to predict outcomes. Scientists speculate, project, and postulate how A.I. will impact our society economically, socially, politically, and globally, but it is impossible to know whether their expectations will be met, surpassed, or disappointed.

Because so many unanswered questions lay idle, waiting to be asked, it was important to explore at least one aspect, that being, how A.I. and religion might fare in the future. If the goals and intents of A.I. and religion are examined in their most basic and true forms, it is possible, then, to understand how they might develop a symbiotic relationship. The desire to create A.I. goes beyond the scientists’ hunger to conquer nature – A.I. was most likely thought of as a solution to abate the human component from the unfulfilling work found in menial factory jobs, household chores, and manual or unskilled labor. If we use early science fiction films and television programs as historical guides and indicators as to how humans believed artificial life would first be utilized we might find that they were overwhelming used as aides to people – not beings unto themselves. In essence, A.I. was probably seen as the creation of a new class – an underclass that was needed to take on the dull work of our service-oriented economy. If humans breathed life into these beings and they were not naturally granted inalienable rights, then their second class citizenship would not be contested.

If A.I. were to assume the role of unrepressed underclass, humanity might be one step closer to a utopian socialist society in which there would be more emphasis on the community, which coincidentally happens to be a common theme in Christianity. An organistic society, like Marx and Jesus had envisioned (although in completely different contexts and with completely different foundations of knowledge), might be possible with the freedom from labor that A.I. introduces. If people, especially the working class, are elevated to a point where they are no longer beholden to their jobs, where they are no longer seen as a commodity, where their physical and mental being is recognizably different than that of the machine they are assembling, where they are no longer alienated from their family, their community, and their spirituality – then, A.I. will have served humanity. If this is what A.I. can offer society then I think that the words of Dr. Cootsona are profound, "We have been given by God these powers which are God-like. The ability to create life and to affect life really radically. There is a way in which I think God has given us just about everything God can so that we can bless one another." For all of the contention and conflict that has surrounded the church and A.I. debate, this creation may ironically be a blessing in disguise for humanity.

The number of jobs that artificial life could potentially occupy are endless. This freedom from labor would allow families more time to spend with one another, it would foster a trend toward more rest and relaxation, which the church commonly refers to as the Sabbath, and it would allow men and women to revert back to being craftsmanship, not just cogs in a machine. From an economic standpoint this last point is crucial, for although mass-produced goods would still be churned out, people would have the opportunity to make one-of-a-kind goods. These unique goods would be the outlet for individualism that would be fostered and permitted by the collective force of A.I. Because people would have more leisure time, a surge in spiritual reflection might occur.

A.I. needs religion, however, as much as religion needs the freedom that A.I. promises. Science by itself is an inert and worthless body of knowledge; it is only human application of that knowledge that assigns values and judgements to that information. As Dr. Cootsona commented, "One of the things that common set of beliefs, not necessarily dogmatically or coercively maintained, gives you is a tradition in which you have a common good." Ethical and moral dilemmas arise when ideas about what I human is called into question. Although it has been appropriated by humanists and claimed as their own the law that you cannot kill another person stems from the Ten Commandments, a Judeo-Christian doctrine, stating "Thou shalt not kill."

Science needs a common set of beliefs, which religion can provide, in order to maintain order in society. When a society lacks an agreed upon set of rules, chaos ensues. Because A.I. is being constructed in the likeness of humans, these artificial life forms will also be predisposed to the flaws and faults of humanity. Thus, it is imperative that artificial beings, if they become sentient, understand the difference between right and wrong (so they don’t go around killing people and thinking everything is all right). Over the centuries organized religion has been twisted to serve the interests of selfish people, but at its root it provides a clear set guidelines that make living with each other generally safe and when executed correctly, harmonious.

There are many questions that have not been answered in this treatise and many wishful outcomes that depend on certain circumstances in order to be fulfilled, however, if A.I., religion, and society were to embrace each other and allow the nature of each discipline and being to flourish, then I believe that finally, there will be a compatible working relationship formed between science and religion.


Works Cited

Cootsona, Gregory S. Questions Regarding A.I., The Internet, and The Church. New York. 25 Jul. 2001.

Hook, Sidney. Marx and the Marxists. Van Nostrand Punblishing Company, 1955.

Page, Benjamin B. Marxism and Spirituality. Bergin and Garvey, 1993.

Russell, Keith. "Believing in God and Science." Insight on the News 20 (1998) : 12-13.