Are we ready to mix technology and faith?

CC by Jenny Smith via Unsplash

The question of whether we humans depend too much on technology seems to be an age-old one for those of us in the Internet age.

We wonder whether fears over childhood development in relation to smartphone use are valid, or whether our technology is making us smarter or too dependent on web-based knowledge.

From robotics to apps and even just our growing reliance on our virtual personas, there seems to be a number of new concerns related to how technology is reshaping our lives and possibly our beliefs.

For instance, in late 2017 a lot of media attention was given to a former Google exec who was starting a new religion centered on AI (Artificial Intelligence). According to a WIRED magazine article published last November, former Google exec Anthony Levandowski has filed paperwork with the IRS for a new religion of artificial intelligence that is called “Way of the Future.”

The name is undoubtedly catchy, but the IRS documents say that the church’s activities will focus on “the realization, acceptance and worship of a Godhead based on AI developed through computer hardware and software.” This may be less attractive to people who already feel that technology has encroached into their lives and that of their kids enough already.

The Way of the Future church, the wildly popular dystopian satire sci-fi series Black Mirror and our daily dependence on our smart phones is perhaps giving us a glimpse into the future of religion and what is likely to impact how we worship, read scripture and interact with one another in the next decade.

As far as I know there is no convenient app to track these trends, but maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea. With a number of websites offering a growing number of online tools for rostered and lay folks, it might be the right time to ponder where we are heading.

Transparency for instance is one area that seems to be a double-edged sword online. While it is great to know what our government leaders are up to, a new website called FaithLeaks takes transparency to another level.

As the name suggests, it was inspired by the Wikileaks movement and is a non-profit media organization founded on the belief that increased transparency within religious organizations results in fewer untruths, less corruption and less abuse. The website allows whistleblowers to submit anonymously sensitive documents that may be used by professional journalists to research stories. So far it has released documents related to sexual abuse in a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation.

And if an AI God and leaked online church documents weren’t enough to force one to ponder the future of the church, the John J. Reilly Center for Science and Technology and Values lists the “Robotic Priest” as an emerging ethical technological concern for 2018. Bless U-2 and Pepper have become the first robot priest and monk, respectively, according to the Center.

But could technology ultimately weaken one’s faith or separate us from being in relationship with one another? One Baylor survey we report on this month links increased internet usage with a lack of religion, but one may argue that the number of religion-oriented websites, including this one, is on the rise and may hold the power to engage the faithful in new ways.

I see plenty of reasons to remain optimistic even though there are more technological enhancements competing for our attention and time. Technology is simply a tool that humans can use to enhance our lives, and sometimes it may be short-sighted and or short-lived (hey I don’t use AOL messenger anymore, do you?).

Worshiping an algorithm seems less inspirational than sharing a Bible passage or passing the peace on any given Sunday. We should acknowledge that in the fast-paced world we live in, relying on an app or a click to come to terms with the eternal is probably more about expediency than expectancy of something transcendent for our lives.

Whether communion apps or sermons delivered by robot are on the horizon, however, is up for debate.

Scholars seem to be gearing up in a timely way for that discussion and for more of us (pardon the pun here) to plug into the ethical implications of new technology. It is an important dialogue we shouldn’t shy away from no matter whether we feel we are up to speed with the latest and greatest Silicon Valley has to offer.

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