We're not in the game: Religion and the data revolution

During a recent layover, I was wandering the airport bookstore and spotted Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens. “Everyone’s reading this,” I thought. “Maybe I should, too.” But then I saw his follow-up book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I had never heard of but the title of which sold me immediately.

It’s a fascinating read exploring how technology and data are replacing religion. He proposes that the combination of 1) an emerging consensus in the biological sciences that life is a collection of organic algorithms processing data, and 2) the invention of the computer and its inorganic data processing algorithms, has put us on an inevitable path to a vexing question. If humans are just data processors, and now we’re creating increasingly more efficient computer algorithms that do the same thing but better, aren’t ordinary humans likely to become obsolete? Like the horse did when we invented the car?

Harari makes some frustratingly sweeping and aggressive statements about religion that seem unnecessary to make his point. But behind them is a truth that institutions of faith need to confront: We’re becoming irrelevant because we’re not in the game. Our traditions may serve a purpose for a while - as sources of comfort in a chaotic world that we don’t really understand, where people like Harari are talking about the imminence of unfathomable things like superhumans and cyborgs. But if that’s the only purpose we’re serving, then we’ve already lost the long game.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. … religions that lose touch with with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a massive new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor?
— Yuval Noah Harari

Whatever one thinks about Harari’s assumptions and arguments, and I’m sure there’s plenty to rebut them, the point is that within most of our religious institutions, we’re not even having this conversation. The world is changing at light speed while we’re out at sea on a steamship. We must study the wisdom of our holy scriptures and traditions, but we cannot bury our heads there. We must engage in the rituals that keep our traditions alive, and we must engage in the issues of our era.

We should be at the forefront of exploring the potentially scary but also rich social and ethical questions that the times are provoking. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard doomsday predictions about religion in the wake of emerging technologies (indeed, Harari spends a lot of time discussing how humanism has already largely replaced theism). Faith in all its forms has proven its resilience over millennia. But things are changing a lot faster now, and our institutions have lost the creative edge they once had, as Harari describes here:

Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force. Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical notion that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favorite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.

In addition to social and ethical reforms, Christianity was responsible for important economic and technological innovations. The Catholic Church established medieval Europe’s most sophisticated administrative system, and pioneered the use of archives, catalogs, timetables and other techniques of data processing. The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations - the monasteries - which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centers of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.
— Yuval Noah Harari

The fact that religious institutions today play more of a reactionary role vis-à-vis the frontiers of science and society is perhaps just a reflection of shifting power dynamics in the modern world. And certainly a return to the highly problematic theocratic power structures of the past is undesirable, to put it mildly. But that creative force can take root in new ways through today’s communities and institutions of faith if we cultivate it.

At the end of the book, Harari notes that the picture he has painted of our future is not prophecy but possibility and invites his readers to pursue paths that will change the possibilities. He leaves us with three questions:

1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
2. What’s more valuable - intelligence or consciousness?
3. What will happen to society, politics, and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
— Yuval Noah Harari

Wherever today’s faith leaders are being trained, these questions should be getting asked and studied because regardless of how realistic or imminent the possibilities are, leading the faithful in this century will require an ability to engage authentically with these issues. And wherever we as people of faith are gathering, we should be talking about these things. But let us do so not from a place of fear, which tends to lead to reactionary posturing, but from a place of curiosity, of creativity, and of faith that the wisdom of our traditions can speak to the issues of the day if we let it. Let us believe that equipped with both sacred wisdom and cutting edge scientific knowledge, we can help lead society to new ideas and solutions for human flourishing.

Author: Danielle Goldstone

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash