Religion, Politics, and Artificial Intelligence: A Conversation with Alex Görlach

Alex Görlach is a man of multiple interests, areas of expertise, institutional affiliations, and even multiple doctoratesone in linguistics and another in comparative religion. This diverse background has led Görlach to launch several ventures, most recently a new online magazine called ConditioHumana which explores the intersection of technology, ethics, and artificial intelligence.

Religion & Diplomacy recently posed of number of questions to Görlach via email about the future of AI and its implications for ethics, religion, and politics. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.


Religion & Diplomacy: What prompted you to launch ConditioHumana? Was there a moment or event that crystalized the need for this new magazine?

Görlach: I have been working on narratives of identity and how they play out in the crisis of democracy that we see nowadays. There is a clear link between the disentanglement of civic (political) and social (economic) rights all over the democratic world.

If you look only at GDP you’d say these countries are all super well off. But if you look at the household income, it has been stagnant for a quarter century. That’s due to the changes in the work world where we are efficient and thereby more productive yet not in a way that is not connected to human labor. The narrative of work is one of the strongest narratives we know. I feel that this it is paramount to address this fundamental change in the fabric of our societies.

I have been a media entrepreneur before, founding and running a debate magazine called The European. So, combining my interests in academia, journalism, and entrepreneurship in creating ConditioHumana seemed like the right thing to do.

R&D: What current or emerging technological advances are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about?

Alex Görlach. Photo credit: David Elmes

Görlach: I am basically an optimist. The challenges that humanity faces are due to the same reasons as always: greed, selfishness, and also utter dullness. Progress has always helped us out because it provided large-scale life improvement. A few scientists can improve the lives of million. The dawn of Humanism and the Enlightenment would not have been possible without advancements in the sciences.

But over time this progress through science produced what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.” Certainly, getting rid of superstition has freed humankind. Yet we still need to cope with the contingencies of our life. The narrative of science cannot provide any solace in that regard. It therefore is either completed by a complementary narrative (that’s what usually happens with most people that accept the narrative of science and the prevalent (religious) narrative of the culture they grew up in) or the narrative of science becomes more holistic placing the human (den Menschen) at its center.

I believe all narratives need to be empathetic. Empathy by definition combines the rational and to the human at the same time. Empathy is the form of approximation to the life and the circumstances humans find themselves placed in. So, if you ask me if I am afraid or excited about this or that advancement, the key for me is whether or not an advancement places the human (den Menschen) at its center and if this is assessed with empathy.   

R&D: What is your response to those who look at AI with apocalyptic dread as an existential threat? Is AI going to take over humanity?

Görlach: Oh boy, there is so much to unpack. Many articles on AI are accompanied by a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator. So you are right that the prevalent sentiment people have in regard to AI is fear.

But what is AI? For now AI is a gigantic duplication of our real world with the help of data, enabled by a hardware that needs tremendous server capacity and bandwidth. We can teach algorithms to recognise what a cat looks like by means of a thousand pictures of different cats. The algorithm understands the data points on those pictures, but it doesn’t “see” as we see. An algorithm has no eyes and no mind. There is only hardware, software, data and that’s it.

Certainly, there are threats from all new technologies. They tend to be a blessing and a curse. AI is a huge support to us as humans and we already use it every day in many ways and yet we have not been taken over. At the same time, we feel intimidated by this new technology.

There have already been three indignations inflicted on modern humankind by science: the first was the one by Copernicus, who placed the sun rather than the earth in the center of the solar system. The second was by Darwin who deprived men’s self-acclaimed position as “the pride of creation.” Lastly it was Sigmund Freud who taught us that we don’t even have mastery over ourselves. Now AI shows us clearly the limits of our intellectual capacities. That hurts the pride of humankind. And that’s maybe where all the Doomsday scenarios at least partially stem from.

R&D: How do our existing ethical frameworks need to adapt to offer useful reflection and guidance on the use of AI?

Görlach: The list is long, and it has started with the launch of the World Wide Web: copyright laws have been turned upside down as the new technologies have completely changed our perception of original and copy. Or one step further, platforms like Uber, AirBnB, and Amazon have completely changed the perception of retail, lodging, and transportation. You see that these new entities are under scrutiny (and I am not taking about their tax evasion here) because the old players, taxi driver unions, or the hotel industry, go crazy as their monopolies die. Mostly they are still able to win the support of lawmakers who do not have enough understanding of these new disruptive technologies.

R&D: How might the future development of AI impact the world’s religions?

Görlach: I believe that the basis of religion will no longer exist. When I say that, I do not follow Nietzsche’s or Marx’s critique of religion and certainly not that of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Because we do see that the narrative side of religion is paramount for people’s identities regardless of whether they engage in and liturgically practice of their religion.

Sociologist Elias Canetti wrote in the 1960s that Christianity in Europe cannot mobilise anymore as people lost faith in the afterlife. But there are still tons of people in the Old World—what has been called the Christian Occident—who claim in surveys that they are Christian and stick to Christian values (around 80 percent), but very few of them regularly attend church services.

So, clearly many Atheist commentators have misinterpreted the profound staying power of religion. And yet, I think in order to continue to survive, religions will need to rethink their rituals related to rites of passages–for birth, adolescence, marriage, and death–as human lives become longer and more integrated with AI.

R&D: Will the rise of AI spawn new religions, or religion-like philosophies, that center on the potential of technology? 

Görlach: For now we have Singularity and that’s like not very convincing to me. Maybe the time for the great stories that we know from the life of Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed—who are believed by their followers as divine, enlightened, or the seal of all Prophets—is over. In the future, we may only see ideologies rise and fall. I hope that whatever comes next will place the humans in the center and not technology. Technology is here to serve us and not the other way around!

R&D: You also run the website There is growing fear among Western policymakers that AI will further empower authoritarian regimes. Is AI more likely to be a tool of repression or liberation? 

Görlach: Democracy is still on the road of victory. Even though Francis Fukuyama got scolded for his idea of the “End of History,” I believe that he was not totally wrong: democracy, especially in its post WWII liberal expression, has stabilised the planet and lifted up hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. What we see now, however, is that due in part to the technological progress we have already discussed, the promise of democracy—of civic and social rights and human dignity—is not being fulfilled. This development is not necessarily the result of the rise of AI but has been accelerating by it.

I believe democracy can only fulfill its promise when states provide equal access to education and health care to all their people. On the grounds of this equality of citizenship people can choose which way they want to lead their lives. Democracy is in serious trouble in a place like America where so much people lack basic healthcare and meaningful economic opportunities. In such settings it is easy to exploit people’s resentments against one another. This exploitation can clearly be accelerated the use of new technologies—as we have seen in the last US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.