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Digital Religion(s)

Praying With Alexa

With God-like artificial intelligence and online spirituality, digital technology is changing the face of religion and faith. Religious thinking also influences how we perceive new technologies.
Roger Nickl; Translation: Gemma Brown
It can raise its metal arms and bless people in several languages: Bless-U2, the robot priest, in the Planet Digital exhibition hosted by UZH and the Museum für Gestaltung.

In the digital age, it is not only the way in which we get information and communicate with each other that’s changing, but also how and what we believe. “Religion and technology have always been deeply entangled,” says assistant professor Beth Singler, who is researching the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and religion at the University Research Priority Program (URPP) Digital Religion(s). The close link between religion and technology was already evident 500 years ago, when the invention of printing fuelled the Reformation and allowed the new religion to spread rapidly. At the time, people were still avid churchgoers and would regularly attend mass to hear the pastor preaching God’s word from the pulpit.

That has changed in the 20th and 21st centuries. For decades, churches have been steadily emptying, with ever fewer worshippers heading to mass on a Sunday. This trend appears to bear out the secularization theory advocated by religious sociologists, according to which faith and religion are increasingly losing relevance in our modern, high-tech world. Sabrina Müller, however, disagrees. The theologian and religious researcher is managing director of the URPP Digital Religion(s) and studies religious movements and innovations in the Church.

Prayer apps and spiritual podcasts

“It’s not that people believe less nowadays,” she argues, “the need for spirituality is not decreasing, it’s just becoming more pluralistic and diverse.” And it is becoming more individual. Many people put together their religious identity according to their own preferences, and increasingly they are doing so online. While the social trend towards individualization of life plans and world views was observed long before digitalization, which gathered pace towards the end of the 20th century, online media has further accelerated it. And that also affects issues of faith and how people engage with religion and spirituality.

There is now a broad range of spiritual and religious offerings online. They range from prayer apps for all religions to spiritual podcasts and websites providing all sorts of preaching besides mindfulness exercises, guided meditation and yoga. For example, the Insight Timer app is precisely such a “general store” for online spiritual content. You can also find blogs, videos and podcasts on the Reflab portal, which is a project of the canton of Zurich’s Reformed Church. “Digital media is opening up brand new ways of finding inspiration,” says Sabrina Müller. “I know lots of people who take ideas and beliefs from everywhere and who would no longer identify with one specific religion.” In the United States, where the theologian spent some time doing research, you can easily and plausibly say: “I’m a Christian-Buddhist-Muslim”.

In the digital age, faith is no longer unshakeable and set in stone, but has become fluid. “For many people it’s not about absolute truths anymore,” says Müller, “but about what is important and what benefits you in the here and now.” And that may be yoga exercises but also uplifting words and inspiring thoughts, many of which are spread online by so-called “sinnfluencers”.

Religious sinnfluencers

“Sinnfluencers (a play on words on the German ‘Sinn’ meaning sense or purpose and ‘influencer’) are influencers who promote topics of social relevance,” says Müller, who is studying the phenomenon. Through regular vlogs and posts on social media, they reach a growing and mainly young audience. For example, German pastor Josephine Teske has built up a community of over 40,000 followers on Other successful sinnfluencers are Ellen and Steffi. In their popular vlog Anders amen (“alternative amen”), the lesbian couple take an entertaining look at questions of life and faith. The pair are employed by the Evangelical Lutheran regional church as (digital) pastors.

In their videos, they talk about issues ranging from relationships, fidelity, divorce and sexuality to wealth and the World Cup in Qatar. Sometimes they’ll do gymnastics or celebrate Easter. The two pastors connect everything to their own lives in a relatable and authentic way. And they consistently address taboo issues, such as artificial insemination and queer families with children. “These formats give rise to a great deal of new theology that people listen to and that has enormous reach,” says Sabrina Müller. For example, feminist theology topics would never have gained traction in universities, but there is a great deal of discussion about them on social media.

In this way, digital media is stimulating and amplifying the debate on matters of faith and religion. While in Germany the regional churches responded relatively quickly to the social and technological developments and are already producing various online religious content, or have even set up digital parish offices, in Switzerland there are few initiatives like “Churches shouldn’t let the app market pass them by,” says Müller. Because working on new, attractive digital formats is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to reach more – and particularly younger – people.

Robot priests

The Church of England has also joined the digital bandwagon with a new offering based on smart speakers. It allows worshippers to pray using Alexa Skills, an intelligent software tailored to the church.  The smart app also provides information on all types of faith questions and on church activities and events. In this way, the AI-supported software doesn’t replace God, but in some instances might replace the priest. “Artificial intelligence is affecting most areas of life nowadays,” says Beth Singler, “faith and religion are no exception”. The British digital anthropologist is researching how the latest developments in digital technology and AI affect faith and religious practice.

In this regard, one of the most curious and controversial phenomena of recent years are robot priests, such as the prayer bot BlessU-2. It was built to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Two years ago, BlessU-2 spent some time in the parish church in Winterthur. The machine with the child-like robot face and computer display built into its metal chest can raise its arm and bless people in various languages. But the extent to which BlessU-2 is a blessing for the church was also hotly debated in Winterthur. While some visitors definitely got something out of the encounter with the robot priest (a 60% majority according to studies), others found the initiative tacky and infantile.

Religious robots like BlessU-2 are now used at various places across the world. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, the Catholic robot Santo preached and delivered blessings in Polish churches. And in Kyoto, Japan, its Buddhist counterpart Mindar still conducts religious ceremonies and there, too, it has polarized opinion. “On the one hand, we’re fascinated by animated, talking machines, but on the other, there’s also something sinister about them,” says Beth Singler. The researcher also finds it interesting that discussions about robotics and AI lead us to existential questions. “If in future we’re able to build ever smarter machines, this raises an ever more pressing question of what it means to be human, and what is and isn’t human,” says Singler.

These are issues that religions have grappled with for thousands of years. Which is why they are also needed when it comes to ethical issues around artificial intelligence. As it happens, religions are responding to the changes in society brought about by digitalization. For example, at the beginning of this year, representatives of Judaism, Islam and the Catholic Church met in Rome to sign a joint appeal for ethics in artificial intelligence, calling for fair, non-discriminatory use of digital technology. Specific criticism was levelled for example at the fact that for efficiency reasons, asylum applications are sometimes processed using AI-supported software, thereby allowing algorithms to decide people’s fates.

Blessed by the algorithm

In her research, Beth Singler has observed that people sometimes attribute almost god-like qualities to algorithms, seeing them as controllers of fate. When analyzing social media posts, she keeps coming across the words “I’m blessed by the algorithm”. It has also been uttered by gig economy workers, from Uber drivers to food delivery couriers who scrape by from job to job offered to them by online platforms. If they have a particularly successful week, they’ll attribute it to the algorithm, as if it has singled them out and blessed them.

From this, we can conclude, then, that not only does digital technology influence faith and religion, but also religious language and thought and how we perceive digital technologies. “Some people talk about artificial intelligence and digital technology as if it were like a god,” says Singler. This is above all the transhumanists – a heterogeneous philosophical movement whose advocates dream of a future where humans and technology merge, heralding a new stage in evolutionary history. Most transhumanists eschew religion. Instead, they firmly believe in the omnipotence of technology.

And so, 500 years after the Gutenberg Revolution and the advent of printing, technological innovation continues to stimulate religious thought, faith and the exchange of ideas. And digitalization is accelerating the emergence and disappearance of religious movements of all stripes, with new groups being formed every day on social media, while others vanish. It’s like bubbles in a pond that pop up and then burst again, says Singler. Considering this huge dynamism and diversity, religious education, for example in schools or in confirmation classes, is important to help people navigate the jungle of religious ideas – some of which may also be obscure – so that people are empowered to sensibly decide what they do and don’t believe, says Sabrina Müller.