Findings & Footnotes

■  Media (and soon most likely book) coverage of the relationship between Artificial Intelligence (AI) and religion and spirituality is widespread. While little of such speculation has been based on research, the current issue of the journal American Religion (Fall 2023) moves the conversation along in that direction with several articles and a roundtable discussion on the religious implications of this technology. Beth Singler’s article is based on an online survey asking participants if they think AI will create a religion, taking a leaf from futurist Yuval Noah Harari’s idea that this technology will create a new religion to control people. She found that her respondents were unsure of the definitions of AI, limiting their responses to robots and religion; they did not agree if AI is or will be intelligent, or even if humans are intelligent. Another article suggests that just the hype and spin put on AI and its possibilities by its promoters may itself have religious overtones. Several articles coming from a progressive political angle argue that AI will perpetuate inequalities. Dheepa Sundaram looks at how Facebook follows an algorithmic process, presented as AI, that steers people to Hindu nationalistic groups. Another article looks at the harmony between Tarot and astrology and algorithm driven systems such as chatbots. Jeremy Cohen provides a thorough yet complex account of the occult dimensions of AI, finding that the esoteric nature of algorithmic codes corresponds with the conspiratorial nature of many of these groups and teachings. For more information on this issue, visit:

■  A new volume in the Cambridge Elements series, God and Astrobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2024, pb. $22), is authored by Richard Playford (Leeds Trinity University), Stephen Bullivant (St. Mary’s University and University of Notre Dame Australia), and Janet Siefert (Rice University). The implications of life on other planets for religious beliefs have long raised questions and been a topic for discussions. What makes this small volume (of less than 70 pages) interesting is its attention to those issues both in the different mainline religious traditions and also in other religious currents, from Mormonism to “alien-positive” new religious movements (e.g. Scientology, Raëlians) or the famous “Ancient Astronauts” theory popularized by Erich von Däniken. The limited length of books in this series means that the passages about new religious movements remain a short overview, with a disproportionate focus on failed prophecy in UFO religions (e.g., Heaven’s Gate), still making readers aware of a wider range of religious issues. Some space is devoted to the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis, under the fitting title of “Atheism and (Ancient) Astrobiology.”

The book not only considers the consequences of extraterrestrial life for religions, but also devotes a section to theological problems that would arise if only the Earth were home to life. “Might a mostly empty, barren universe itself undermine belief in a creative God?” For Christians, problems raised by the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrials pertain to creation, revelation, and redemption. The first category is the easiest one—since God is the creator of all things, if there are extraterrestrials, they have been created by God. The main problem is how “extraterrestrials might fit into Christian beliefs about incarnation, redemption and salvation.” The volume devotes several pages to those issues, summarizing various types of options and answers. And the section ends with an upbeat caveat: “Given that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9), it seems perfectly possible that if there are intelligent aliens out there that they will fit into God’s plan for Creation in a way we have not considered, and perhaps in a way that we cannot imagine, at least at present.”

Other traditions are explored in a more cursory manner. In the case of Judaism, for instance, the subsection is limited to two contemporary authors, one of them discussing the intriguing question of assessing if aliens could convert to Judaism. When it comes to Hinduism, “it might be better to start by examining why the possible reality of such beings poses so few problems,” since Hindu cosmology admits the existence of a vast number of universes. Maybe optimistically, the authors conclude “that none of the major world religions are threatened by the existence of ETIs,” and they show confidence in the intellectual resources of each tradition, despite very real issues for “the Abrahamic faiths, because they are tied to certain historical events, places and people.” The volume can serve as a readable and short introduction to the questions raised by astrobiology for various kinds of religious traditions.