As technology advances, religion and faith transform alongside it. The digital era offers a more diverse and individual approach to spirituality, with prayer apps, spiritual podcasts, and websites catering to people’s specific beliefs. A group of researchers from Switserland, among them assistant professor Beth Singler from the University of Zurich, studies the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and religion.
Digital technology also leads to the emergence of “Sinnfluencers,” social influencers who discuss taboo topics and spark theological conversations amongst younger audiences. Controversial robot priests, such as BlessU-2, Santo, and Mindar, have been used worldwide, raising questions about humanity’s relationship with AI. Transhumanists envision a future where humans and technology merge, replacing traditional religious beliefs with faith in technology’s omnipotence. In this rapidly changing landscape, religious education is essential to help people navigate and make informed decisions about their beliefs.
From pulpits to pixels
The invention of the printing press 500 years ago revolutionised religion and accelerated the Reformation, demonstrating the powerful relationship between technology and faith. Today, with church attendance declining, the close association between religion and technology is evident once again. Theologian and religious researcher Sabrina Müller highlights that while people may not be attending traditional religious services as frequently, their need for spirituality remains.
As society moves towards individualism, many people assemble their religious identities based on personal preferences, often seeking spiritual guidance online. Digitalisation has accelerated this trend, presenting a vast array of online spiritual and religious content. Sabrina Müller believes digital media provides new ways to find inspiration and allows for a more fluid faith that focuses on what benefits the individual in the present.
Online offerings and digital debates
From prayer apps and spiritual podcasts to websites offering sermons, mindfulness exercises, and yoga, the digital age has broadened the range of religious offerings. Platforms like Insight Timer and Reflab provide a wealth of spiritual content, and social media platforms give rise to theological debates that may not have gained traction in traditional institutions.
In Germany, regional churches quickly adapted to social and technological changes, producing various online religious content and establishing digital parish offices. However, in Switzerland, such initiatives are less common. Müller emphasises that churches should not ignore the app market, as creating attractive digital formats can appeal to a wider and younger audience.
Artificial intelligence and religion
Technological advancements have transformed the way people engage with religion, with the Church of England introducing an Alexa Skills-based offering that allows worshippers to pray using smart speakers. While the AI-supported software may not replace God, it could, in some instances, replace the priest. Digital anthropologist Beth Singler is researching the impact of digital technology and AI on faith and religious practice and has observed people attributing god-like qualities to algorithms, such as controlling fate.
Religious robots, like BlessU-2, Santo, and Mindar, have been used worldwide, generating polarising opinions and sparking existential questions about what it means to be human. Religions have grappled with these issues for thousands of years, and they continue to play a crucial role in addressing the ethical concerns surrounding AI and digital technology, as demonstrated by the joint appeal for ethics in AI signed by representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the Catholic Church.
Transhumanism and digital divinity
As digital technology continues to influence religion, language, and thought, some individuals view AI and digital technology as god-like entities. Transhumanists, who dream of a future where humans and technology merge, exemplify this belief. They reject traditional religious beliefs and instead place their faith in technology’s omnipotence. This further demonstrates the dynamic relationship between religion and technological innovation.
With new religious movements constantly emerging and disappearing in the digital age, religious education is vital to help people navigate the diverse landscape of beliefs and make informed decisions about their faith. As technology continues to shape the way people engage with spirituality, it becomes increasingly important to understand and adapt to the evolving relationship between faith and digitalisation.