Finding Faith in the Age of AI
In the Age of AI, what makes us human?
In today’s emerging, exciting, and (at times) anxiety-inducing era of AI, we are increasingly being forced to ask the ultimate existential question: What makes us human? With 61% of Americans already believing that AI threatens humanity’s future, the question has come to the forefront of the consumer conversation at an unprecedented pace. While definitionally, humans have been characterized by our bipedalism, language, and cognitive processing abilities, when we begin to parse through the key disparities between human beings themselves and the AI-powered entities that are rapidly racing to replace us, it comes down in large part to our self-awareness, creativity, morality, and spiritual curiosity – what many theologians, scientists, and philosophers alike have referred to as a “soul.”
Spiritual Support & Secular Shifts
Despite slightly varying definitions, the significance of and emphasis on the soul has actually served as a unifying pillar across religions for millennia. While different schools of practice vary in their beliefs surrounding immortality and immutability, they share their emphasis on justice, judgment, introspection, and emotional experience as defining facets of humanity. These grounding principals have stood the test of time – and, interestingly, younger generations today are increasingly leaning on the belief in a higher power as a means of reconciling the increasing instability and loss around them.
Yet, with rapidly declining traditional church attendance and as many as 30% of American congregations projected to close in the next 20 years, there will likely be substantial consolidation and shifts in where and how individuals seek – and define – spiritual guidance, meaning, and support.
As we seek to preserve this sense of soul in our new AI-anointed era, it just might be worth leaning into more traditional prophet-laid paths as sources of inspiration for what can and should form the foundations for the future of digitally-directed community, connection, and intention.
While one cannot condense thousands of years of scripture and history into a simple market map (though ChatGPT might attempt to prove me wrong!), the chart below attempts to encapsulate some of the greatest overarching themes that have historically extended across religions. This is an ongoing exploration that I began several years back with my first post on this topic, and one that is never far from my mind, given its profound presence in the lives of billions worldwide. As AI edges us closer and closer towards a world where technology threatens to usurp theology as our source of truth, it is worth exploring how we can build consciously and creatively in ways that not only “move humanity forward” but also preserve the true essence of humanity itself.
Buddhism has long taught meditation as a technique aimed at creating a state of “bare attention” in order to achieve enlightenment, while other faiths have encouraged followers to direct their focus to the moment, in order to drive similar mindfulness and awareness of the present. Over the past several years, we’ve seen everyday consumers more purposely pursue rhythm and peace in their daily lives, be it through the app-ification of meditation or the growing interest in psychedelic interventions. Yet, loyalty and retention for many earlier entrants has been a struggle as we’ve crawled out of the health and wellness obsessed days of the early pandemic and returned to a more normalized (read: hectic and bandwidth-constrained) operating environment. While today’s consumer yearns for (and likely needs) this mindfulness support as a means of escaping our increasingly overwhelming digital world, their competing cravings have steered them towards avenues of entertainment with greater ethos, interest, and identity alignment. Looking ahead, might the mindfulness platforms of tomorrow, in an effort to re-engage distracted disciples, look and feel more like games or hypnotic experiences, mirroring the trend that we’ve seen across consumer apps broadly? And might data and AI-enabled personalization facilitate the creation of more immersive interactions that speak to individuals’ evolving needs, proclivities, and levels of sophistication?
For thousands of years, Hindus have pointed to Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth) and Karma (action, intent, and consequences) as two of the core truths defining life itself. At a higher level, religion’s explanation of the unexplainable has historically provided context to both people and to world events. Yet, in a constantly connected world, our instant gratification-oriented society has left us with deeper cravings for answers at all times. And this infatuation has created an expert-obsessed society. From the therapy boom of the past 5 years that’s been driven in outsized proportions by young adults and women to the revival of psychic mediums where a surprising 41% of US adults now identify as believers, Americans are seeking spiritual and psychological shamans to make sense of the mayhem around them. So, as millennials and Gen Zs look for increasing “relatability” — voices that speak their language, advisors who understand their lived experiences, and degrees of personalization that defy traditional academically-oriented approaches — might the guides of tomorrow look more like friends than PhDs? And with technology bringing down both affordability and accessibility barriers, might ongoing engagement efforts look more like daily workouts than annual checkups?
As a faith, Judaism embodies fellowship as Jewish people come together not only weekly for local Shabbat dinners and services but also as larger groups for organized Birthright trips to Israel, which breed lasting friendships. This sense of community, belonging, and support is, for many, religion’s most overarching impact on the experience of life. Today, as people move further away from family and retreat from traditional in-person institutions like the office, they find themselves lonelier than ever with a distressing 60% of Americans reporting feelings of loneliness on a regular basis. Yet, with the internet serving as the new metaphorical Town Square, it comes as little surprise that younger generations are relying on the web for the majority of their new relationships – a trend we expect to continue as more and more of our lives are spent connected. Moving forward, as the Town Square of today gets noisier and noisier, will we see the most intimate and authentic interactions move away from mass consumption platforms and towards smaller vertical or demographic-specific applications? And will bids for connection continue to be met predominantly by other humans or is there a growing role for AI-enabled agents to play in the cultivation of community and social support?
IV. Inspirational Engagement
Each Sunday, hundreds of millions of Christians make their way to church to gather under the guidance of a pastor for a formal service. Similar weekly gatherings across faiths typically include a sermon or lecture addressing a theological or moral topic with the goal of outlining whom one should aspire to be – a North Star of sorts. However, a rolling wave of scandals, misinformation, and misconduct across a broad range of historically respected institutions over the past several years has left younger generations with a sense of distaste and distrust as well as a greater desire to turn to new sources of inspiration and instruction that genuinely reflect their values and beliefs. Social applications are their sanctuaries, while creators are their clergy. Moving forward, as AI enables an unprecedented explosion of content, what role will platforms themselves need to play in managing authenticity and accountability? And might newer engagement formats within the social platforms of tomorrow influence the sorts of cultural luminaries that rise to the top?
If you ever have the honor of visiting a Benedictine abbey, I suspect you too will be awed by the nuns’ dedication to the traditions of their order, from their commitment to manual labor to their frequent Latin chants that fill the convent’s chapel. Complementing the sacred nature of religion itself, many faiths incorporate a sense of ritual and tradition into elements of their practice, creating a unifying connection to the past, future, and broader mission. With the pandemic dramatically disrupting so many of the practices that defined our prior day-to-day, we now find ourselves rebuilding our routines – and, hopefully, with a renewed sense of intentionality. So, despite society’s expanding infatuation with originality, might there still be a place for purposeful predictability as a rebalancing force to the rollercoaster around us? And as AI automates away so many of our typical tasks, will we easily let go of the processes of the past or continue to seek solace in more familiar workflows and formats, albeit with enhanced functionality?
In Hinduism, Dharma reveals practices that are in accordance with natural order, and include rights, duties, conduct, laws, and virtues that outline how devotees should live their lives. Over the course of time, religious organizations have taught young minds a more generalized Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, in a world defined by increasing polarization and weaker community ties, commitment to this universal standard has degraded – particularly among adults where rates of individualism continue to rise. While we remain in an evolving era of uncertainty when it comes to overall willingness to prioritize the collective over oneself, one of the greatest sources of hope comes from Gen Z's commitment to mobilizing around the causes they care about and leaving the world around them in a better place than they found it. As arguably the most giving of any recent generation, they just might save us all. In the future, could we see some forms of social scoring emerge, as younger generations marry their obsession with learning, playing, and living in public with their deep commitment to ethics and desire to improve their environments? And as we imagine a world where technology expands its reach beyond our screens and into every corner of our physical worlds, will this connectivity and sense of incessant supervision drive greater accountability and intentional altruism in our actions?
Universally, Muslims are encouraged to donate a fixed portion of their income to community members in need as their fulfillment of Zakat, the third of The Five Pillars of Islam. Religious organizations across denominations have similar community giving practices that support the less fortunate within their faith and far beyond. Yet, while inflation has weighed on spending power and donations directed towards the largest religious organizations have fallen in recent quarters, overall charitable giving rates are promisingly up for a 6th straight year, while donations towards international and environmental causes have increased by outsized amounts. Interestingly, among the most active givers on an Average Gross Income (AGI) basis were those earning the least, underscoring the broad base of interest when it comes to giving back. With growing charitable interest, is there a role that technology can play in transforming our toolkits for charitable giving – be it through connecting capital or streamlining service? And as consumer sentiment surrounding individual causes evolves, will we see a wave of new organizations and charitable leaders that more effectively speak the language of younger generations?
In the words of one of Gen Z’s leading ladies, Greta Thunburg, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Thus, as we enter a new era of consumer and digital platform-directed community, connection, and intention, could our collective pursuit of happiness lead us not only up, up, and away but actually back to rebuilding our philosophical foundations?
While I have little doubt that the unprecedented proliferation of AI will dramatically transform our experiences of our environments, our social circles, and ourselves, I encourage you to double click on the Why and the How, as the ways that these AI-enabled applications evolve have the ability to make or break humanity as we know it.
If you’re as passionate about this pursuit of purpose as I am, I’d love to dig in deeper with you. Subscribe to my Substack for more or find me on Twitter (@itsmeeraclark).