Future Tense

How Southern Baptists Are Grappling With Artificial Intelligence

A new statement from the Southern Baptist Convention looks at A.I.’s ramifications for bias, the workplace, sex, and God.

Photo collage of Mary holding a baby robot Jesus.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Painting by Gerard David/National Gallery of Art/Wikipedia. Photos by Zinkevych/iStock / Getty Images Plus and sarah5/iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Contemporary Christianity does not have a reputation as a vanguard of technological sophistication, or even enthusiasm. Sure, many churches have embraced smartphones’ abilities to spread their messages, for example. But Christian institutions are not often leading the big conversations about technology and culture. Traditional theist religions have “turned from a creative into a reactive force,” as historian Yuval Noah Harari put it in his 2016 book, Homo Deus. “They now mostly agonize over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements.”

That reputation makes a statement on artificial intelligence released Thursday by the Southern Baptist Convention all the more intriguing. The SBC’s public-policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spent nine months researching and writing “Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles,” and it has been signed by 68 prominent evangelical thinkers. The brief document is intended to respond to the “existential questions” raised by A.I. technology. It takes a strikingly optimistic tone in doing so. “This was created not out of fear, but out of an understanding that [A.I.] is a tool that God has given us,” said Jason Thacker, who headed the project at the ERLC. “Our hope is that for the first time in a really long time, the church can be proactively engaging in issues affecting society, rather than always responding and reacting.”

The document opens on a note of hope, describing technology in general as a tool that can aid in the Christian mandate “to engage the world around us with the unchanging gospel message of hope and reconciliation.” In most areas, the document acknowledges both the promise and pitfalls of A.I. A section on bias, for example, states that A.I. is “inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion.” Other articles—there are 12 total—address A.I. in arenas including medicine and war. (“Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ human oversight or review.”) Each article ends with a list of Bible verses backing up its claims. (The first verse listed after the section on privacy is Exodus 20:15: “Thou shalt not steal.”) The document avoids referencing specific technologies because the drafting committee intends it to have a long shelf life as a guide and conversation starter within Christian institutions and beyond. “This is a statement of principles,” Thacker said, “not a statement of applications.”

The document does draw some firm lines. Article 1 declares that technology ought not to “be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency”—robots are not, and will never be, human. And unsurprisingly, Article 6 states that A.I. should not be used to pursue sexual pleasure and “should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife”: It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and HAL. Albert Antosca, a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College who has written about religion and technology for Slate, said the document would likely have to be adapted as technology advances. But overall, he said, “they’re making a lot of urgent and sophisticated points here. This doesn’t seem like a reactionary document.”

The document’s signatories are a who’s who of mainstream conservative evangelicalism. They include the president of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly; the editor in chief of Christianity Today, Mark Galli; the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Gabriel Salguero; theologians Richard Mouw and Wayne Grudem; and many current and former Southern Baptist leaders and pastors. One signatory is a senior manager of technical program management at Amazon, but few others have obvious technological backgrounds; Thacker said that some signers have backgrounds or affiliations in the tech world, but opted to list other credentials. (Another notable imbalance: Just a handful of women signed.)

American evangelicals are not the only faith group pondering the intersection of A.I. and religion. The Southern Baptist document appears just a few months after Pope Francis met with the president of Microsoft to discuss the ethical use of A.I., a topic he has raised publicly several times. The Vatican and Microsoft are co-sponsoring a prize for the best doctoral dissertation this year on the topic “artificial intelligence at the service of human life.”

Antosca pointed out that the Baptist document has a deeply humanist perspective, emphasizing the distinctness of human life and the definitiveness of death. Elements of that perspective may put it somewhat at odds with organizations like the Christian Transhumanist Association, which ponders the possibility of “transcending” traditional humanity by extending life indefinitely, for example. Russell Moore, the head of the ERLC, has been critical of transhumanism, because of the theological belief that humans can only be fully “perfected” by faith in Jesus. He told a reporter in response to the first-ever Christian Transhumanism Conference in 2018 that “there could no more be a Christian transhumanist society than a carnivorous vegan society. The two are completely contradictory.” But Moore also said Christians shouldn’t be afraid of technology and that they should take such challenges seriously long before they’re a reality. That’s exactly what the new document aims to do.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.