The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
It is heartening to see Christians take a robust, positive and directive stance on artificial intelligence.
In April, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention released a new evangelical statement of principles on—you guessed it—artificial intelligence.
If you’ve read any of our output lately, you’ll also notice that we’ve recently published a new report: Artificially Intelligent: grappling with the myths, present realities and future trajectories of AI. So, why are Christian groups proposing frameworks for new technology like artificial intelligence? And are they any good?
In recent decades the perceived relationship between technology and Christianity has been antagonistic, fuelled by the narrative of a science-faith split—with technology firmly on the science side. It’s led thinkers like Yuval Harari to argue that ‘traditional religions’ are losing relevance:
‘…because they have been transformed from a creative force into a reactive force. Whereas in the past they pioneered changes in economics, politics and technology, now they mostly agonize over the ideas and technologies propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet and rabbis argue whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it.’
Harari’s caricature of the cautious, quibbling religious authority may well be an exaggeration, but there’s something in the image that captures the spirit of a reactive Christian response to new technologies. That’s why it’s so heartening to see Christians take a robust, positive and directive stance on artificial intelligence.
Slate Magazine has commented with some surprise on the ‘strikingly optimistic tone’ of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of principles. Meanwhile, Pope Francis recently announced that the Vatican is working with Microsoft to offer a €6,000 prize for a doctoral thesis on ethical issues in AI, with the broad aim of discussing AI in the service of the common good.
I would argue that approaches like these are far more effective at speaking into the public sphere than any single warning a Christian group could give on a specific application of AI. The statement from the Southern Baptist Convention touches on many areas of concern that have already been campaigned on, from use of AI in warfare, to the deployment of AI for simulated sex robots. And whilst it’s right to be watchful and provide critique, framing the whole enchilada in terms of single-issue concerns positions Christians as reactive and not creative. Single-issue focus also (simultaneously) discourages Christians working in AI.
If committed Christians in AI only ever see the church decrying the applications of their professional field, then it would suggest that the Bible has no positive vision to offer in their area of work. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
TECHNOLOY AND THE CREATION MANDATE
The real success of documents like the Evangelical Statement of Principles is that they re-frame the debate around AI, not as some technological idol to be worshipped or condemned, but as a tool used to build human societies. Technology is a key gift from God to develop the social world and shape natural resources—it’s part of our fundamental human purpose (see Genesis 1:28, the ‘Creation Mandate’). In the words of Nancy Pearcey:
‘In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music.’
Grayson Pope draws out the technological implications of Pearcey’s statement, writing: ‘Genesis 2 expands that job description, stating, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15)… God created man and woman to make something of the earth… [and this] implies the use of tools (or technology).’
Reframing technology in this context, from a biblical perspective, allows Christians to advocate for its development and deployment. It has a key role to play in human beings fulfilling God’s purposes, taking human communities on a journey from a garden (Eden) to a city (New Jerusalem). It suggests to all Christians working in, with and using AI that it can serve to foster a flourishing human society.
At the same time, the Bible also offers realistic warnings and examples about the dangers of wrongly applied technology. It speaks honestly about the dangers of pursuing technology without God (Babel) and the ways that technology will be used to consolidate power (1 Sam 13:19, where the Philistines prevent the Israelites from using iron because of the advantages it gives in warfare). The Bible offers both a good purpose and realistic warning for all technologists.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR
This more holistic, biblical approach informs some of the excellent positive statements about AI that are currently being made. But, if AI can contribute to building human society, the question naturally arises: what makes a good society? As Calum Samuelson writes:
‘If AI systems are essentially tools that extend or amplify the reach of humans, careful thought should be given to what it actually means to be human—and even to what society should look like as whole… Although AI researchers acknowledge the importance of such human dynamics behind AI, there is currently little consensus about what exactly constitutes human flourishing—much less how it should be facilitated vis-à-vis AI.’
That’s where the finer details of the Southern Baptist Convention’s document come in, with suggested principles for work, medicine, bias, data & privacy and war, which we can take, examine and debate. They aim to work from a biblical vision of human flourishing. And that’s what Christians have to offer. Perhaps, then, the best starting point for any question about use of technology, is to reframe it as something that (at its best) should be used for love of neighbour. As Article 2 explains: ‘We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor.’
Ultimately, AI will exacerbate our current issues as it continues to be developed along the lines of certain philosophies or worldviews. It has the potential to serve unrestrained capitalism, or invade privacy for profit or state control. It will serve the values and ends we determine. Christians should be sharp and diligent in watching for these applications and developments, with a realistic expectation of human sin. But there’s a positive vision too. How can we use technology to build and innovate, towards the end of forming a good (even relational) society?
Charlee New, Communications and Marketing Officer at the Jubilee Centre.
This article first appeared on the Jubilee Centre website and was republished with permission. Jubilee Centre’s most recent report, Artificially Intelligent: grappling with the myths, present realities and future trajectories of AI is available to read online.
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p.47.
 Calum Samuelson, Artificially Intelligent: Grappling with the myths, present realities and future trajectories of AI (Jubilee Centre, 2019), p.17.