Religion and technology.
Two words that define many aspects of our lives. And in many cases, one of these two words becomes the defining aspect of life. But which one? And why is the discussion often one of diverging paths and contradictions—not to mention heated controversies? As religion, science, and technology have taught us, expect the unexpected. The emergence of robotics, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism have placed this discussion in a new light. And this is the basis for a fascinating discussion I had with a thought-leader who has found God in technology.
Please meet the Rev. Dr. Christopher J. Benek. Dr. Benek frequently writes, speaks, and provides skilled analysis on issues of theology, technology and technological futurism—most notably in the fields of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. He is also the founding Chair of the Christian Transhumanist Association and is the first self-identified, ordained Christian Transhumanist in the world.
John Nosta: An ordained Christian Transhumanist? Let's start with a very human perspective and discuss your background and education.
Chris Benek: I grew up in a modest trailer park in NE Ohio without any church affiliation. I was the first person in my immediate family to earn a college degree. I attended Hiram College as a history and pre-law student and found faith during my junior year in college. Through the guidance of a couple of mentors I enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where the learning curve was steep for a new Christian. I received my MDIV and THM degrees at PTS and my senior year I was awarded the prize for Religion and Society. Later I became the youngest graduate of the world’s first Doctor of Ministry program focusing specifically on Theology and Science. The program was envisioned with the help of the American Association for the Advancement of Science through Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Currently, I am working on a fourth advanced degree focusing on Technology and Eschatology at Durham University in the U.K. while I serve as a pastor of a large urban Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Our city’s eclectic and cosmopolitan composition allows for a wide array of ministry opportunities ranging from serving the destitute to shepherding the affluent.
Nosta: For many, technology and faith tend to be very separate topics. Where do you find the common bond?
Benek: I find the common bond between technology and faith in people. The vast majority of the world’s population self-identifies as being religious and all humans are technological. I think that it is harmful to humanity for anyone to pretend that people of faith can somehow divorce these aspects of their identity. Beyond that, it doesn’t make sense practically. Humanity needs every person, with all of his or her gifts, working toward our collective emerging technological good.
I think that there are many ways that religious traditions can help people to work toward creating better technology. For instance, in my religious tradition, the self-sacrificial actions of the followers of Jesus have historically been a notable aid to people in need. Such positive behaviors, like seeking to serve others, exemplify much of what virtuous action can look like for humanity. By learning from the world’s rich religious traditions the benefits of interpersonal formational development—humanity can be intentional about helping to advance better people, who in turn develop better tech, that ultimately creates a better world.
Nosta: You have gained a lot of attention for your commentary on Artificial Intelligence. Can AI or even robots be religious?
Benek: This is a nuanced and complicated question. In my opinion, the word 'artificial' is a misleading and a somewhat unhelpful term. It implies that humanity is the only form of intelligence. We know this is not case. But my short answer, if we are talking about autonomous, strong AI, is yes.
Mainstream Christian theology is clear to clarify that humans are not God. This means that we are already alternative intelligence compared to God. And we know the vast majority of humanity self-identifies as religious. So the obvious answer is 'yes' because from a theological perspective, we are God’s AI.
Beyond this, many religious traditions also affirm the existence of extra-terrestrial AI, i.e. angels. So, if any of these many accounts are true, then that is another example of divinely created AI.
But what people tend to really want to know is: 'Can humanity create autonomous strong AI or robots that will choose to be religious?' Well, if humanity is already God’s AI and the vast majority of people self-affirm a religious identity—shouldn’t we logically assume that at least some form of human created AI would eventually self-identify as being religious also? I didn’t start my life as a follower of Jesus. So I don’t think that that is an illogical leap to posit that, if an autonomous, AI/robot can be created with comparable intelligence to human beings, then it is possible, if not probable, that it will have experiences that may lead it to faith as well.
Nosta: How do the implications of a 'super intelligence' based on artificial intelligence support or threaten traditional religious beliefs?
The development of a super intelligence based on AI will have a tremendous impact as to how we view ourselves as human beings. Much of humanity believes that we are special because we are the most intelligent species. A superintelligent AI, that has capabilities far beyond the average human, may radically alter this perception. But I think that this may be a good thing. From a Christian theological standpoint we are not special because we are the most intelligent species. We are special because God loves us.
Nosta: Is technology an expression of God?
Yes and no. Part of the new hermeneutic of technology that I have been advancing in Christian theology is the premise that all matter is God’s technology. In the Christian tradition humans are called (it is our designated vocation) to be the stewards of all of creation—i.e. all technology. It is also thought that God made humanity to be co-creators with God like a child creates alongside a parent. So in this way—when people choose to live into this vocational calling to co-create and steward technology for genuinely good purposes—then they are actively participating in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world—whether they are cognitive of that fact or not. Conversely, when we choose to create technology for evil purposes or fail to live into our vocation of stewardship we actively rebel against God. So, to answer your question, we have a choice—but when we choose to create and steward tech for good—then yes our technology is a reflection of God’s goodness in the world.
Nosta: How can technology be a tool to enhance (or explore) religious beliefs?
Benek: I believe that we are just in the beginning stages of understanding what it means to be human—made in the image of God. As emerging tech exponentially develops, we will be granted the opportunity to understand more and more about what it means to be a human being. Part of being is that we are fundamentally divine technology. As we grapple to understand the implications of that profundity, technology can help to illuminate our path by providing new expressions of transformative personhood.
Nosta: Can technology actually be an inflection point in human history to help codify or validate concepts of God?
Benek: As a Christian, I am not charged with having to prove the existence of God. I am only charged to testify to the experiences of God that I believe that I have encountered. Insofar as technology is used to promote good in people and good in the cosmos, then emerging tech continues to point to the redeeming work of God in the world. When we heal, feed, clothe, care for, educate, or nurture a person we have validated Christ’s presence in the world. When we steward creation’s flourishing we codify God’s action in the world through our very being.
OK. Take a deep breath. It's only the beginning. Dr. Benek is among a group of 'thinkers' who are pushing the bounds of the technology dialogue. Certainly there are are sparks of insights and controversies. But beyond the sparks is the light—divine, pragmatic, or just out of this world!