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It has been just over a year now since ChatGPT’s release, and the shock waves from that seismic event keep rippling through society at large. One means of measuring its impact on our collective imagination is by the number of notifications my faculty inbox has received for professional articles and workshops on generative AI, or artificial intelligence, in higher education. Last semester I benefitted from a multi-session training effort at one of the institutions for which I teach, Indiana Wesleyan University, while simultaneously vetting an AI usage policy at another of my institutional homes, Oklahoma Wesleyan University. As CSR editor-in-chief Perry Glanzer has announced in his January newsletter, the top two posts and four of the top seven posts on CSR’s blog in 2023 were about ChatGPT.1 In this post, though, I adopt an alternative Richter scale. The rise of ChatGPT has coincided with a number of noteworthy new science-fiction television shows or movies about AI. Even more germane to this blog’s readership is that each of these offerings also presents a different role for religion vis-à-vis AI. Together, they present a palette of possible perspectives on AI and religion. Let’s consider each in turn. (Caveat lector: here be spoilers!)

On April 20, 2023, exactly two weeks after Maundy Thursday, NBC’s Peacock subsidiary began airing the eight-episode comedy drama Mrs. Davis. The titular character is an AI app that rewards its users for completing real-world tasks that it assigns them. So popular and advanced does Mrs. Davis become that it gains godlike attributes—virtual omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence—and dominates the lives of the majority of humanity. One resister of Mrs. Davis’s influence is Sister Simone, a nun with an intimate personal connection to Jesus who feels divinely commissioned to shut Mrs. Davis down for good. She succeeds, but at the cost of losing Jesus forever. The series hints that both AI and Christianity may function as paternalistic, manipulative forces and that we are better off free from both.

July saw the box office debut of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Like Mrs. Davis, the movie portrays a godlike rogue AI (“the Entity”) poised to take over the world. But unlike Mrs. Davis, the Entity is more Machiavellian than maternal. Its nemesis is no nun but superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team. Yet Christian themes recur throughout: the Entity’s human mouthpiece is named Gabriel; the Entity itself can only be restrained using a cross-shaped key; and a character called Grace converts from self-interested criminal to self-sacrificial teammate of Ethan. The upshot is that the whole film can be read as a parable of the clash between Christ and Antichrist.

The following month Netflix streamed its own AI-spy actioner: Heart of Stone, starring Gal Gadot as Agent Stone. The AI here is a supercomputer codenamed The Heart and employed by Stone’s secret agency to save lives by predicting the movements of terrorists, international criminals, and other bad actors. Heart of Stone stands out from 2023’s other offerings in two ways. First, its AI has zero personality, whether simulated or genuine. It is a purely amoral data processor, a tool that humans may use prudently or abuse. Second, the film is ninety-nine percent irreligious. Aside from a single passing nod to the notion of an afterlife, its world is wholly secular.

The end of September brought The Creator to cinemas. The film imagines a late-twenty-first-century Asia in which humans and sentient AI robots live in harmony. These robots have their own religion that blends Buddhist trappings with worship of their human inventor, as well as hope in an artificially intelligent child savior designated “Alpha Omega.” This utopia falls under siege by a paranoid America and its Western allies, who wish to rid the earth of AI. (The film recycles tropes from US wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan from a stance sympathetic to the insurgents.) The protagonist is an American soldier named Joshua. Like his biblical namesake who destroys the city of Ai (Josh. 7–8), he aims to destroy AI in Asia by hunting down its creator. As the plot progresses, however, he switches sides and works with the child savior to thwart Western aggression. By the end, Joshua expresses confidence that his volte face has landed him a spot in heaven.

Winter was to have heralded the advent of Dune Part Two, ironically now postponed until spring 2024 due to the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes over (among other things) AI’s encroachment on their livelihoods. Religion saturates the far-future universe of Dune, cohabiting successfully with advanced technology—but with the exclusion of AI, for the great commandment enjoined by all Dune’s faiths is a ban on making any machine in the image of the human mind. Dune’s civilization instead relies on eugenics, neuroenhancement drugs, and specialized training to engineer humans who can memorize, analyze, calculate, and predict as well as any computer.

These works of fiction logically exhaust the possibilities for AI and religion: a world with neither (Mrs. Davis); with AI but not religion (Heart of Stone); with religion but not AI (Dune and, more subtly, Mission: Impossible); and with both AI and religion (The Creator). Although the lattermost scenario seems the most likely for the foreseeable future, The Creator’s blissful expectations of AI’s sentience and benevolence could do with nuance supplied by the other offerings. Taken together, they also caution Christians against high-tech versions of the ancient temptation to idolatry. Whether we deify our machines or they deify us, the error is the same: substituting a finite and fallible creature for the infinitely perfect Creator and Savior, who alone deserves worship. Lastly, these films and TV episodes should remind viewers that AI merely expresses and enhances what we already possess as humans, whether the capacities to create, communicate, and care that are ours by divine grace or the proclivities to domineer, deceive, and destroy that mar us due to original sin.

Applying these faith-informed perspectives on AI to our educational policies and practices, as previous CSR bloggers have already begun to do here, here, and here, for instance, can make for better balance and realism to steady us amid our world’s technological tectonic shift.2

Footnotes

  1. Perry Glanzer, “What’s New in CSR?,” CSR Monthly Newsletter, email received Jan. 2, 2024.
  2. For another instance, Calvin University’s currently-running January term professional development course on applying the doctrine of sin to higher education presents a perfect opportunity to reflect on AI in education in light of that doctrine. See https://reflecting.faith/course/sin-learning-in-a-fractured-world/.

Jerome Van Kuiken

Jerome Van Kuiken, Ph.D., is Professor of Christian Thought at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and an adjunct instructor in theology for Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

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