Reporting on AI and Faith: Can New Tech Be a Blessing or a Curse?
September 12, 2023
by Ken Chitwood
The e-mails can be alarming.
Over the last several months — especially with the launch of OpenAI products like ChatGPT — the number of messages I’ve received from colleagues in religious studies and religion news about the promise and pitfalls of artificial intelligence (AI) has steadily increased.
Some of them read like dystopian novels, full of prophetic warnings and puzzled worry about how these technologies spell the inevitable doom for everything from college essays to news copy, commentary features to podcasting. Others percolate with positivity, promising increased productivity, better bibliographies or more robust conversations around technology and ethics.
Whether welcomed or spurned, the general opinion is that AI’s transformation of our work, relationships, and religions is inevitable.
As President of the Religion News Association, Editor of ReligionLink, and a scholar of religion, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the technologies that could shape our spiritual futures and the expected effects of AI on religion reporting.
Questions I’ve wrestled with lately include: What, if anything, might AI reveal to us about the act of reporting, the nature of religion news and journalists’ role in the public sphere? Is there anything distinctive about religious traditions and the ways they will creatively encounter AI and its impact on humanity? What issues arise as AI becomes less distinguishable from human intelligence? How might religious notions of humanity evolve to address AI?
The persistent adaptability of religion
While it is widely assumed that as technological capacity increases, religion recedes into the background, the reality is a lot more complex. Whether contemplating how elevators fit into the vision of the Jewish Sabbath or considering whether lightning rods might be an impediment to divine providence, religious traditions have displayed incredible pliability as different tech has come and gone.
In their book Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, Wesley J. Wildman, and Kate J. Stockly argue that religious people have always used technology and tools — from mantras to mandalas, prayer beads to palm reading — to enhance spiritual experience or innovate ways to attain enlightenment.
In the end, there is no single relationship between religion and technology. Instead, there are numerous ways religious traditions, institutions and individuals have adapted to new tech over time. Hindus, for example, might see religion and tech as mutually-enforcing, overlapping spheres of life. Buddhists, on the other hand, might see them as separate and distinct, remaining ethically ambivalent about whether things like AI are good, bad, or in-between. As travel technologies have changed, so too has religious peoples’ pilgrimage practices. When revolutionary communication technologies like the printing press or the internet came along, they transformed the way religious perspectives were shared. They didn’t obliterate the message; they changed the way it was designed and distributed.
Even religious traditions viewed as antithetical to scientific progress have complicated perspectives on whether new tech is a blessing or curse. In his book, Ministers of a New Medium, Kirk D. Farney takes readers back to a time when radio was a disruptive technology and cultural commentators thought religion was waning in influence. As Farney argued, popular preachers like Fulton J. Sheen (Roman Catholic) and Walter A. Maier (Lutheran), proved them wrong, adapting the “ethereal medium” to broadcast their messages to the masses.
With the complicated relationship between religion and technology in mind, the best way for journalists to deal with AI’s potentially disruptive development is to cover it well. As AI algorithms and related technologies continue to impact society and culture – and whether they are reliable, legal and/or ethical — we should investigate, report on, and talk to the people developing, coding, and testing them.
At the same time, we should raise awareness of how AI plays a role in everyday religious lives, changing the way people pray, worship, or interact with their fellow faithful and the religious “Other.”
The stories almost write themselves (not to be too cute). Take Rafa Oliveira’s short series “Talking to Tech,” in which he talked to “weak AI” like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa to gauge their religious “liter-AI-cy” for Religion Unplugged. Across the pond, the Associated Press’s Kirsten Grieshaber reported on the first sermon delivered by a chatbot at a gathering of underwhelmed German Protestants. Then, there are “GitaGPTs” dispensing spiritual insight and acting as “AI-powered spiritual companions” to mixed results based on the texts of the Bhagavad Gita in India. Keen reporters would be wise to cover these innovations and trace how AI is disrupting and advancing, diminishing, and altering religion’s why, what, and how.
Reporters will find there are numerous researchers already plumbing the depths of what AI might mean for religion, all of whom can be excellent expert sources for your next story. There is Andrew Davidson at the University of Cambridge, who uses medieval philosophy to help us think about what we mean when we attribute humanlike capacities to machine learning programs. Reporters can also reach out to authors Kate Stockly (mentioned above) or Robert Geraci, who wrote Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. Then there is AI and Faith, a cross-spectrum of faith communities and academics bringing the values of the world’s religions to bear on the emerging debate on the ethical development of AI and related technologies.
And if you are still looking for an angle to cover or a source to speak to, you might check out resources like this article on whether AI will transform religion or a full Source Guide from ReligionLink on “God in the Machine: Artificial Intelligence and Religion.”
Keep calm and tell stories
It can be scary when a media organization posts a job looking for an “AI editor” expects “output of 200 to 250 articles per week.” Yikes.
But amidst the fearmongering, handwringing, and alarmist e-mails, it’s important to remember that resources for reporting on the intersections between AI and religion are numerous. So too are the potential opportunities that AI itself can provide to journalists — including streamlining editorial processes in the newsroom, aiding with data journalism or saving workaday reporters time and money and focus on what they do best: tell stories.
Whether you are a religious practitioner or a journalist covering faith communities, we cannot pretend to have AI all figured out. Its ability to balance innovation and enlightenment is still being written and the brave new world of transcendent tech should give both pious pioneers and defenders of traditional religion something to consider as they imagine the future of spirituality in the 21st-century and beyond.
The good news is that religion nerds will be there to cover these developments every step of the way.