Thinking Data & AI Ethics

Understanding AI from a Theological Perspective

In this article

What does theology have to say about AI, and vice versa? Dr Simeon Xu argues that theologians must grapple with the moral implications of AI on religious practice.

What does theology have to say about AI, and vice versa? Approaching AI from a theological standpoint, Dr Simeon Xu argues that theologians must grapple with the moral implications of AI on religious practice. Dr Xu is the Kenneth and Isabel Morrison Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Theology and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. He is currently based in the School of Divinity and is affiliated with the Centre for Technomoral Futures.

AI, moral agency, and religious practice

In Dr Xu’s ongoing monograph project, he examines the theological aspects of AI to uncover AI’s role in human morality. Dr Xu’s emphasis falls on the difference between AI and human beings, particularly contrasting artificial consciousness with human consciousness. This leads to the question of whether AI possesses any moral agency, and if so, whether it is the same kind of moral agency possessed by human beings. Dr Xu argues:

AI has a role to play in human morality, but what remains to be investigated is the meaning of this role.”

To shed light on this role, Dr Xu takes a theological perspective, focusing on the concept of the image of God. Dr Xu argues that human beings are created in the image of God, while AI is created in the image of humanity. According to Dr Xu, human researchers are inclined to have themselves in mind as model of intelligences while designing AI. As a result, AI tends to simulate human beings in terms of thinking processes. Despite this, AI and human beings remain fundamentally distinct due to their different natures, more so when we consider human biological bodies as being opposite to silicon-based systems. As such, human beings and AI do not share the same moral agency.

This means, claims Dr Xu, that AI cannot partake in liturgical activities in the same way as human beings. In light of this, we must closely examine the suitability and implications of using AI in religious practice (e.g. AI robot ministers).

Dr Xu’s investigation around AI and the image of God explores moral and religious issues surrounding the use of AI, with a specific emphasis on its application in liturgical purposes.

His research raises some important questions, such as whether the human body is important in liturgy, how consciousness is relevant to liturgical activities, and to what extent AI-powered liturgies can be received within faith communities without downplaying the particularity of human participants.

Theology in the technological age

Another issue that Dr Xu’s research touches upon is the influence of technology upon religious and theological studies. He notes that technology has already influenced religious practice, with some religious communities already using AI. For example, the Church of England uses Amazon’s Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, to help believers locate religious resources.

On the other hand, AI also raises unsettling implications for theological studies. AI challenges traditional and theological views regarding humanity. Dr Xu draws particular attention to artificial general intelligence (AGI) and artificial superintelligence (ASI), which some argue will surpass human capabilities on all levels. According to Dr Xu, theologians need to consider the implications of AGI and ASI in relation to the essence of being human.

That said, AGI and ASI currently appear only in science fiction and film and are not expected to be created in the near term. Hence, theologians should also pay close attention to moral issues related to real-life AI, for example, theological responses to moral responsibility, which proceed from the multifaceted applications of AI to human lives. In Dr Xu’s words:

Theologians should be keenly aware of both religious and moral issues raised by the application of AI to personal and communal life, and seek to offer useful theological resources to address these issues accordingly.”

In an upcoming research project, Dr Xu aims to investigate how AI impacts the theological and moral aspects of traditional Christian pastoral care, and how AI facilitates its development in the age of technology. As this field is relatively new, Dr Xu hopes to bring forward guidelines governing the use of AI systems in Christian pastoral care.

Researcher profile

Dr Ximian (Simeon) Xu came to the University of Edinburgh to study theology in 2013. Before this, he obtained a Bachelor of Engineering degree in China and a Master of International Trade and Commerce Law degree in Australia. He went on to finish his MA Divinity (First Class Honour. 2013), MA Theology (Distinction, 2016), and PhD in Systematic Theology (2020). He has published several articles on theology and AI ethics, Herman Bavinck, Karl Barth, and contextual theology. He is currently working on theological engagement with ethics of artificial intelligence. He is the founding editor of Studies in Dutch Neo-Calvinism Series (Chinese). He will be a Fellow at the Duncan Forrester Fellowship at the School of Divinity in September 2023.

Join us to challenge, create, and make change happen.