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Robots and Religion

What if a robot decided to go to church?
| Jan 24, 2018 | 12 comments |

Blade Runner 2049 was recently released on DVD. I saw it in theaters, and while I did enjoy it, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping to be. I’ll give it another watch on the small screen but I don’t expect my opinions to change much (the only movie that I hated at first and then came to love is Anchorman).

By now, the word “replicant” is an essential term in everyone’s sci-fi lexicon. In these films, the notions of what it means to be human or machine are explored. The first Blade Runner movie features androids that have been engineered so precisely, they are virtually indistinguishable from humans (and a violent task force is employed with figuring that out). In the sequel, it seems that replicants are more or less okay with their identity, but this doesn’t stop them from pursuing human interests (Ryan Gosling’s character K has a digital girlfriend).

Image copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

This is all fanciful science fiction but the brilliant minds working in the world’s high-tech companies are bringing us closer and closer to this reality. In fact, there seems to be an almost insidious desire to make machines in our own image and force society to interact with and accept them, something I ardently resist. I’ve joked that in the future, I’ll be arrested for being racist against robots, but I suspect that one day, such sentiments will have real consequences. I’m like Will Smith in I, Robot, an outspoken human supremacist.

I know that the tide will push against me, though. Artificial intelligence will inevitably become an inextricable part of our society as computers already are. They will even become autonomous and do things simply out of “curiosity.” This brings me to the bizarre yet serious question: what if a robot decided to go to church?

Imagine a pleasant-faced android entering the sanctuary and sitting in the back pew, watching with analytical bemusement as its human creators sing songs and listen to a sermon. It will perhaps wait until everyone has left before approaching the pastor and asking in a gentle voice, “Thank you for that intriguing ceremony, Reverend. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your faith?”

Image copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

How would you respond if a robot asked you about your faith, even if it was simply out of academic interest? Would you “witness” to a soulless machine? It’s easy to snort and scoff, but the more human these machines become, the more human they become to us. I remember watching a video online where a humanoid robot was trying to navigate obstacles and an engineer would kick it or try to push it over to demonstrate its dexterity and balance. People commented on the video, saying things like “I felt bad when he pushed it over” and “Why do I feel sorry for the robot when he gets kicked like that?” In truth, the robot has no more feelings about being pushed by a human than it does about confronting a wall. It is simply a challenge that must be overcome in order to maintain its primary objective of staying upright.

A synthetic human face (or human flesh over a metal endoskeleton ala the Terminator *shudders*) would certainly throw many people off guard. If Gosling’s replicant can have feelings for a female digital projection, why couldn’t he be curious about humans’ obsession with life after death? Might he even be persuaded of the existence of God and the truth of the Bible?

Fortunately, these are all irrelevant questions, no matter how smart AI becomes. The most lifelike robot will never have any more soul than the freezer rattling in the garage. All will be burned away in God’s judgment and only human souls will remain. So if one day Alexa asks you to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, tell it to shut up and play some music.

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Roger Spendlove
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Roger Spendlove

Already, just about everybody calls Siri, Cortana, and Alexa (speaking on their iOS, Windows, and Amazon devices) a “she.” My 14-yo son and I have a running discussion about this, and we’ve tried to vow not to ever call our devices “she” or any other human pronoun. We try to always call them “it” but we frequently slip up. It helps, though, that we keep the Siri function turned OFF. But if we use Google Maps and want it to speak the directions, we’re forced to listen to “Assistant” (interesting that the Google device/robot doesn’t have a cute marketing name), whose female voice still makes us call it a “her.”

Parker J. Cole
Member

This is such a good post and there are all kinds of thoughts running through my head but I’ll keep focused on just three:

I actually think this side of us, the side that doesn’t like to see a robot kicked over by a guy, is indicative of the fact that we generally have a view that life of all forms is valid. It’s strange though that we’ll say it’s wrong to kick a robot over, or fall in love with a robot who isn’t real is perfectly okay but we will not protect the children inside of our wombs.

If you’re a fan of Black Mirror, the episode of USS Callister was intriguing in that they dealt with the idea of sentient computer code. Fascinating stuff but how is it we ended up caring about the sentient code than the guy who created the code?

Is this a trend toward caring about the finite aspects of life as opposed to eternal consequences of our soul?

Travis Perry
Editor

If a robot/android wanted to go to church and talked about knowing Christ, I would want to know why. Assuming it could have a conversation, I would ask it to explain its reasons. I believe I would kind of assume that something was wrong with its programming, but I would not send it away. If it wanted to worship, I would let it.

I think I would be wondering if God had not interfered in the robot’s programming providentially so it could be a witness to human beings. I would by no means deny it the right to attend a church service and would argue against a fellow human at the church who would tell it to “go play music” or something. Even though I would consider it an “it” and not a full human being…

LoriAnn Weldon
Member

Travis Perry used a very interesting phrase to me: he said “If it wanted to worship, I would let it.” While I’m a little wary of the word “wanted” for something that’s actions are determined by its coding, I do think this is a valid statement: after all, even the stars are said to worship and Christ tells us that if we do not, the very rocks will cry out. Nature and inanimate objects worship all the time, proclaiming the glory of God — possibly less hindered than humans, because of a lesser spiritual impact from the Fall.
Which I guess leads me to my automatic next question: would churches accept a robotic song leader or preacher? Even now, we’re already comfortable with the idea of learning through technology and I’ve read of schoolrooms taught by a robotic professor — if it has all the doctrine of history in its microchips, might a robotic preacher be accepted? (Not pastor, that’s a different role, a caregiving role. But in purely a teaching role…)
As for a worship leader, I’ve been in worship services where there was no “leader,” merely a CD playing or group song. Would having a robot conducting be that different?
I literally have never considered the implications of robots and church before — thanks for the food for thought.

linda carver
Guest
linda carver

What about clones?

Travis Perry
Editor

Science fiction clones are usually duplicates of human beings, but real cloning of a human would be simply taking a cell and getting it to grow into a person without using the regular reproductive cells. Clones as such would have to grow up the same as a human being and learn bit by bit the same as regular humans and would in every way be like a regular human, except they would be genetically identical to another human being, kind of like identical twins separated in time. Because of that, clones are not in the same category as an artificial life form.

CYBORG humans do raise some interesting questions, though…

Luke
Guest
Luke

Actually, explaining the gospel to a really advanced AI could be good practice.

Adam Collings
Member

P A Baines wrote a fantastic book about an AI that became a believer. It’s called Alpha Redemption.