Evangelicals unveil statement on artificial intelligence, say the Church needs to engage

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence. |

WASHINGTON — Evangelicals have issued a statement of principles on artificial intelligence as the subject presents existential and theological questions posed by emergent technology.

The statement, "Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles," which was released Thursday by the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, contains 12 articles touching on data and privacy, sexuality, the relationship between AI and humanity, and the future of AI and public policy. The document frames the subject in light of the Gospel.

"Christians must not fear the future or any technological development because we know that God is, above all, sovereign over history, and that nothing will ever supplant the image of God in which human beings are created. We recognize that AI will allow us to achieve unprecedented possibilities, while acknowledging the potential risks posed by AI if used without wisdom and care," the preamble to the statement reads.

"We desire to equip the church to proactively engage the field of AI, rather than responding to these issues after they have already affected our communities."

Already the statement has received signatures from evangelical Christian thought leaders, leaders of Christian universities, seminaries, influential churches and advocacy groups. Among the signatories are Erick Erickson, editor of the Resurgent; Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas; and Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University.

In remarks before dozens gathered, ERLC Creative Director Jason Thacker noted that artificial intelligence can aid in human flourishing but can also be among the gravest of threats to human dignity.

"Nowhere in Scripture do you see the tool [of technology, AI] itself being condemned for being evil or bad," Thacker, who is writing a book on artificial intelligence, said. "It is human beings that are evil and sinful and broken."

Developing AI technology can be good provided that it is utilized to glorify God and love one's neighbor, grounded in the understanding that every single human person bears God's image, he emphasized.

"What we need are Scripture-formed Christians who are actually engaged on these issues," Russell Moore, ERLC president, said in an interview with The Christian Post after a panel discussion and presentation of the statement Thursday.

"If Christians aren't engaged on these issues there is a void that is going to be filled by someone else with some other worldview."

Asked specifically about the tendency some have to conflate artificial intelligence with transhumanism and the challenges that arise from an overtly anti-human ideology, Moore explained that he welcomes the questions that often come up about the meaning of life.

"I think often we have people in the tech industry in local communities where churches are not able to talk to them or able to disciple them. Christians in the tech industry will talk to me about loneliness, not just personally but also just in terms of forming a conscience to think through some of the projects they are working on because they don't have a point of connection with other Christians."

"When we see some of the frightening sorts of proposals that may be made in some areas, that ought to be an incentive to be more engaged.

The first article in the AI statement says partly, "We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency."

The fundamental premise of transhumanism, that consciousness itself can be replicated by machines, is flawed, Moore noted.

"That doesn't worry me. What worries me are a whole variety of other technologies: augmented reality, sex robotics, and those sorts of questions that aren't addressed."

Twelve years ago, Moore, as a professor, gave a final exam in which he asked seminary students to explore how they would approach sharing the Gospel with a person who identified as transgender.

"Most of the students in the room thought this was a wild, hypothetical gotcha question," Moore said.

"And I said, 'no, every one of you will be grappling with this issue.'" 

Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor and founder of CoCreatorsTech, commended the ERLC for its efforts, particularly since few denominations attempt to address these issues.

"My own denomination for instance, the PCUSA, radically defeated a proposed amendment to simply study issues of AI and automation at our General Assembly in St. Louis last summer. So I am happy to see evangelical churches stepping up to the plate where many progressive ones have not," Benek noted in an email to CP Monday.

However, he believes the document is an "early iteration" of what is needed at the moment, that it lacks input from technologists, and is short-sighted on several themes.

"For instance, with regard to automation, the best report in the world on this issue, by the McKinsey Global Institute, posits that by 2030 there will be 11-22% unemployment in the United States due to automation. To give some perspective, unemployment was at 25% during the Great Depression. With 57% of all U.S. churches being under 100 members and many of those struggling to afford pastors presently — even an 11% decrease in giving could reduce the total number of American churches by half in just a decade," Benek said.

"If the ERLC and the church universal don’t see that as an immediate problem then we are missing the robotically driven boat so-to-speak. The questions that remain prominent are these: When society needs the church most in the coming future, will we be prepared to help? Or will we still be theologically posturing for the scraps of ecclesiastical power?"

He concluded: "My prayer is that, together, we will have prepared to help others as Christ instructed."

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