How artificial intelligence is shaping religion in the 21st century

Shafi Musaddique
Key Points
  • Technology is already enhancing religious practices around the world
  • Faith leaders are increasingly concerned about morality and the ethics behind creating human-like machines
  • The idea that robots can attain a conscience is just mere anthropomorphism
Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are fashioning how people interact with everything from food to healthcare — and so, too, for religion.

From electronic scriptures to robot priests, different faiths have absorbed new ideas from the world of technology to enhance mainstream religious practices.

Muslims across the world can download apps such as Muslim Pro, replete with daily prayer timetables, notifications for both sunrise and sunset, and an electronic compass pointing the way towards Mecca. Other apps automatically adjust fasting times during the month of Ramadan, depending on the location of a device.

In fact, Muslims are one of the most plugged-in religious communities due to the high concentration of young people aged between 16 and 30 across the Middle East and Asia. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2017 showed that poorer Muslim-majority countries boast a large amount of people with smartphones. Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians own a smartphone, for example, just short of Germany's 60 percent.

Developers in Japan went a step further last year, unveiling a robot priest programmed to conduct Buddhist rituals. Peppa the humanoid robot, replete with ceremonial dress, can perform a funeral ceremony for $462, cheaper than the $2,232 charged by a human priest to carry out the same task.

The relationship between technology and religion has not always been straightforward. According to Dr Beth Singler, researcher at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, religions grapple with technology in three stages — rejection, adoption and adaption.

John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking to CNBC, she said that the initial reaction by religious institutions "can often be negative, but technology soon becomes ubiquitous and part of the mainstream."

Faith leaders are increasingly concerned about morality and the ethics behind creating human-like machines. Social media's addictive nature and the use of sexbots are just two examples of the misgivings they have.

"There is concern over what it means to be a person using artificial intelligence, whether that affects our specialness or not," said Dr Singler.

The stereotypical image of killer robots, especially in cinema, has skewed the debate on what AI really means in practice for religion.

But, for Singler, chatbots and algorithms are the real face of AI in religion.

"Algorithms are more concerning than the image of a Terminator-like robot," she said. "The effect it has on people's lives, such as determining the amount you pay for a mortgage, are small changes that accumulate to big changes."

Algorithms and bots wield a hand in not only what we see, but what information we interact with and who we choose to talk to.

Followers of Catholicism can plug into the Confession Chatbot app to interact in a life-like two-way conversation with a bot. While it could potentially remove embarrassment in confessing a person's innermost secrets and guilt, where those interactions end up remains a concern in light of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, robot priest BlessU-2 was built for the small German town of Wittenberg last year to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther's religious revolution in Europe. Local priest Stephan Krebs told The Guardian newspaper that despite BlessU-2 ability to recite bibilical verses and offer pre-composed prayers, a robot could "never substitute for pastoral care." Singler, too, believes that "robots are not the next stage of priesthood."

Professor Stephen Hawking and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have voiced concerns over the potential threat mankind faces should AI recognize its full potential, raising the question of whether robots could develop a conscience.

Singler questioned on the idea that robots could develop the human-like ability to choose their own religion one day.

"It says a lot more about us that we consider the question. In our narratives about the topic (of whether robots can be conscious beings), the idea of 'testing' is central," she said.

The desire to attach human characteristics to objects, akin to the nostalgia felt between a person and their old phone or pet, is at the heart of knowing whether robots will ever have their own conscience.

"It's our own minds filling in the gaps which ultimately lead to anthropomorphism."