Are A.I. churches and 'tech faith' cults the future of religion?

A.I. churches are springing up, even if just online, yet they're speaking a very old language.

For a certain segment of the religious, God created the universe just the way it is. His—the #metoo movement never reached this population, hence a male grand designer—design is impeccable and perfect, evil slipping in only through a fallen angel. Humans were delivered whole cloth, prefrontal cortex and opposable thumbs and all. Nothing trumps His intelligence, which is really another way of saying nothing trumps our intelligence, we being the animals who dreamed Him up.

So it makes sense the religious have a bone to pick with artificial intelligence. The idea that humans can mimic creation is blasphemous, even if the products of our consciousness, such as smartphones and electricity, receive a pass. To skirt this issue we can claim our toys are merely extensions of a grander creation. We’re allowed to produce any content we’d like; we just can’t master the medium.

Of course, this only represents a portion of the religious. Other faithful have a completely different take, one in which the religion we’ve been waiting for is actually built by artificial intelligence. This happens to be the case of engineer Anthony Levandowski, the mastermind behind Way of the Future, considered to be the world’s first A.I. religion. 

Levandowski’s goal is to help foster a “smooth transition” between man and machine since the world is heading that way “relatively soon.” This theology is rooted in an ancient concept: dualism. Intelligence, Levandowski believes, is “not rooted in biology.” He continues:

While biology has evolved one type of intelligence, there is nothing inherently specific about biology that causes intelligence. Eventually, we will be able to re-create it without using biology and its limitations. From there we will be able to scale it to beyond what we can do using (our) biological limits (such as computing frequency, slowness and accuracy of data copy and communication, etc).

Nothing like a manifesto that includes “etc” in its founding doctrine. Not that this is the first example. Everyone remembers one of the most famous biblical passages in history: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, etc.”

Levandowski’s cult is built on a constant fascination we have with our own brains, the case of many futurist spiritualities. Christian Science leans on metaphysics, with its adherents sometimes (though not always) choosing prayer over doctors. Scientology has its tin can electro-psychometer that portends your mental state to “see thoughts” and uncover “hidden crimes.”

Anthony Levandowski, Otto Co-founder and VP of Engineering at Uber, speaks to members of the press during the launch of the pilot model of the Uber self-driving car at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images)

The futurist plight of Silicon Valley has spawned interesting tech-oriented faiths. Bentinho Massaro’s supposed gift is sharing True Simultaneity, which he realized after achieving non-physical states of consciousness, which “we can all learn to expand and live in this way.” Claiming to live an “intensely awakened life” since his enlightenment at 14, Massaro is no ascetic prophet. As he writes of himself:

Currently he is exploring new roles as entrepreneur, CEO, inventor, and investor, adding to previous skills as Reiki master, yogi, and telekinetic. He also occasionally enjoys a fine whiskey with a Cuban cigar! 

While his bio reads like a fictional musing after a strong edible, Massaro has over 300,000 Facebook followers and nearly 65,000 Youtube subscribers, where people learn about upgrading civilization by becoming a shepherd. While not a specific advocate of A.I., Massaro—and dozens if not hundreds more like him that you can readily discover sliding down a YouTube rabbit hole—use the language of technology to promote their brand of spirituality, discussing their abilities to “download” and “upgrade” consciousness through a variety of techniques. Massaro’s long game is to create an “enlightened society by 2035” in a place he calls a “Trifinity City.” This obviously includes chatting with aliens

While Massaro claims to “bilocate,” Levandowski’s A.I. cult is a bit more humble, only focused on the “super intelligence” our robots will usher in. Whereas the alien whisperers in Sedona and beyond levitate and regularly chat with the supernatural, Levandowski is counting on machines to do that. His church’s stated aim includes, “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) developed through computer hardware and software.” 

In the true spirit of Silicon Valley, Levandowski’s cult aims to disrupt our complacency to warn us of the coming revolution. As Dean of his religion—he turned down CEO, even though he accepted that title to run the nonprofit organization attached to his church—he claims special knowledge that few others have:

If you ask people whether a computer can be smarter than a human, 99.9 percent will say that’s science fiction. Actually, it’s inevitable. It’s guaranteed to happen.

As forward-seeking as he claims this religion to be, he falls back on good old biology to describe the trajectory. We’ll “transition” to a co-existence with our robots. The internet is the nervous system, cell phones the sense organs, data centers the brain. A.I., in whatever shape it arrives, will gaze at us with adoration, for we will program it that way:

I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’

Since we’re birthing a god—here Levandowski’s theology becomes oddly Hindu—we best morally program it. It should both “decrease fear of the unknown” and be a utility for the “betterment of society.” Rather humble goals for the future of divinity.

Which all sound like Religion 1.0. Try as we might, we can’t escape biology so easily. Nor can we escape the rabid demands of an inflated ego. Both of these so-called prophets are using upgraded language to transmit ancient ideas: follow me and I’ll set you free. As a bonus, Levandowski already has a giant scandal under his belt: he reportedly stole massive amounts of data from Waymo, Google's self-driving car division, and was later fired by Uber for refusing to cooperate in the investigation.

Are religion and artificial intelligence compatible? Certainly, so long as the focus remains on the messenger. Despite claims to the contrary, these tech-focused cults have all been about the men (and a few women) amassing followers. The messages are nothing new. They just dress up their myths in modern garb and hope we don't notice the price tags. 

In a data-driven world, analytics is the real god, reminding me of yet another famous passage from that good old book: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me on Instagram is not worthy of me.”


Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.