Church and the fourth industrial revolution

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As a young boy who was raised in the Lutheran Church, one of the things I had to contend with was the determination of my parents to assimilate me into the Christian religion. When I was 13 years old, I was supposed to be confirmed. As with many other forms of Christianity, confirmation is the coming of age for all Lutherans. Being the reluctant Lutheran that I was, I delayed the rite to passage into Lutheranism until I was 15 years old. When I was supposed to recite the catechism, I mumbled after the more confident Mpho Nkhumeleni, who was chosen as my reciting partner.

My mother, Vho-Khathutshelo, was very shocked at what she regarded as my dissidence and thought it was an omen that I was going straight to hell. The catechism is a Socratic dialogue between two people, which is intended to help people learn and in this context about Christianity and Reformation. I never became the enthusiastic Lutheran my mother wanted me to be. This was because I could not grasp the logic of organised religion.

To understand the logic of organised religion, I read the book The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. In this book, Paine challenges the legitimacy of the Bible by using logic. He identifies aspects of the Bible that are contradictory to infer about the accuracy of the Bible. I learned long ago that matters of faith defy human logic and are above human understanding. Paine was instrumental in the formulation of ideas about the separation of Church and State. This was because the Church, especially the Catholic Church, was very much involved in the State’s matter. Paine was a British thinker who was an important figure in the era of Enlightenment. Before the American Declaration of Independence, he migrated to what would later be called the United States of America and was very much involved in the war for independence.

One of the books he wrote in support of the French Revolution is The Rights of Men. In this book, he puts forward the fact that revolutions are justified if the government is not acting on behalf of the people. He later went to France during the French Revolution, where he became a National Assembly member. During the Reign of Terror, he was arrested and sentenced to death by the Guillotine during the Girondins’ fall.  He escaped death because of the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, the architect of the reign of terror. Despite all these developments, The French Revolution, The Scientific Revolution, The Reign of Terror, and the attempt to discredit religion as an irrelevant aspect of human beings, the evidence showed that people still needed spirituality. Paine thought religion was irrelevant on matters of ethics as they could be attained from pure reason and logic.   

The use of logic to understand spirituality has evaded even the most prominent scientists. One such scientist is Nobel Prize Winner Max Planck, who once said, “It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls.” The intersection between science and religion evades reason and logic. In trying to connect the relationship between science and religion, the American astrophysicist, Carl Sagan said, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” Another scientist who battled with this relationship between science and religion is Nobel Prize Winner William H. Bragg who said, “From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hands are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.”.

Matters of religion are about faith rather than logic. As we enter a new era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), can we turn to religion to answer some pressing questions? Can religion answer the ancient admonition about who we are if our brains can be augmented? Can it answer if we still have free will, if technology can nudge us to act in a particular manner? Can religion answer why we are here if machines can do much of the tasks that we are destined to perform? Do we need to convene religious leaders of all faiths to answer these questions, or should we rely on just science to answer these questions?

Some religious formations are starting to tackle these questions. For example, in February this year, the Roman Catholic Church joined with Microsoft and IBM to develop artificial intelligence (AI) ethics. This is an example of science and religion working together to tackle challenging problems confronting our society. Despite dogma that often says otherwise, religion and progress have long been intertwined, and as long as we have people who still follow religion, they should work together. For example, during the first industrial revolution, while many struggled with their belief systems and reconciled theological understandings with the fundamental shifts in society, there were what is referred to as “Great Awakenings,” throughout Europe and North America characterised by personal religious experience to make sense of rational secularism that was changing society.

The era of the 4IR is no different. As science and technology advances, people will continue to look at religion to make sense of the world. In fact, the data backs the link between religion, science, and technology as the Pew Research Centre has found that the world is becoming more religious as it becomes more interconnected.

This is unsurprising when we consider that the relationships between our value systems and principles as well as digital transformation and greater interconnectedness are increasingly becoming complex. This increasing complexity requires us to develop an ethical framework for technologies such as AI and biotechnology. Much of our people’s values are obtained from religions and are taught in places of worship. It thus becomes necessary to align technologies such as AI and gene editing to existing human values such as fairness, inclusiveness, reliability and safety, transparency, privacy, security, and accountability.

The technology already interacts closely with religion. In the last few months, we have witnessed the global pandemic and the national lockdown that ensued, the shift to digital ways of living, working, and worship. As religious services switched online, we certainly did not see a wavering in faith. People continued to attend services and often drew on religious teachings as comfort during uncertain times. This close interaction between religion and technology necessarily means that we have to convene religious and technological leaders to make sense of technological advancements and their impact on the faiths.

Perhaps, the greatest worry around the 4IR is not that it will challenge our belief systems or spell the end of religion but will make humans irrelevant. The concern is that the mass job losses with another industrial revolution will be difficult to curb. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), each of the four industrial revolutions has resulted in dire predictions of massive job losses, increasing each time. Instead, the number of jobs has increased in each new revolution, along with improved living standards and other social indicators. The WEF acknowledges that some jobs may disappear, but it also predicts that the 4IR will pave the way for new occupations. In these times of significant changes in the labour market, spiritual leaders’ role will become paramount at the least as counsellors who help people make sense of the world. At the University of Johannesburg, for instance, I have tasked Professor Farid Esack to convene religious leaders of all faiths to come together and make sense of the 4IR. As technology invades our social, political, and economic spaces, let us mobilise all role players, including religious leaders, to chart the future that brings more happiness to people.

  • This article is an extract of a speech delivered at The Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @txm1971.