Remedial reading: AI and faith.

My dad, the statistician, used to lecture my brother and me on the importance of population size. He would say “in a town of 800 people, serious crime is a rare thing, almost unheard of. But in a population of 800,000, serious crime is commonplace, daily, inevitable.”

Today we’re going to talk in that same spirit about eight billion people – the world’s population. That’s a very big number. To see this, consider a subject or an issue that only one person in a million might explore.

That means some 8,000 people are thinking about it, obsessing about it, studying/writing about it, taking a suite of actions.

Eight thousand. Wow. Look at this in dollar terms. Suppose that they’re each being paid an average of $60,000 annually to work on it; that means society as a whole is plunking down almost 0.5 billion dollars on the topic each year. Of course “huge” number of dollars is the merest hiccup compared with the world’s $85 trillion GDP.

This background partially explains today’s discovery. I was idly wondering how opinions and concerns, hopes and fears about artificial intelligence might break depending on a person’s faith or spirituality. I googled something to along the lines of “faith and artificial intelligence.” I thought (naively; my dad notwithstanding; I never seem to learn!) that I wouldn’t find much. Within half a second, was confronted with myriad posts, articles, commentaries on the subject, the tip of an iceberg of 200 million (!) “results.” (A lot of these, of course, are duplicates, but 200 million?)[1] Everything is in there, ranging from “Can religion and AI work together?” to “Is AI a threat to Christianity,” to “Is AI a new religion,” to “Use AI responsibly and ethically.” And that’s before getting to the cringeworthy titles like “AI will be the political left’s ‘single greatest weapon’ against religious faith and truth,” to “I convinced ChatGPT that God exists.”

The noise is deafening. But among the myriad links, I came across this one: “Thinking about God increases acceptance of artificial intelligence in decision-making.”


The language of the title is a bit tame for internetspeak, suggesting something scholarly – evidence based. Sure enough, the source was Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper was published August 7 of last year; the authors are Mustafa Karatas (Nazarbayev University, Graduate School of Business, Astana, Kazakhstan) and Keisha M. Cutright (Duke University, Fuqua School of Business).

There’s a case to be made for reading the article in its entirety. ICYMI (like me, along with nearly eight billion others, to emphasize my earlier point), here are a few excerpts, to give the flavor and perhaps whet your appetite for a deeper dive.

The authors first argue the topic’s significance:

As AI recommendations become increasingly prevalent and the world grapples with its benefits and costs, it is important to understand the factors that shape whether people accept or reject AI-based recommendations. We focus on one factor that is prevalent across nearly every society: religion. Research has not yet systematically examined how religion affects decision-making in light of emerging AI technologies, which inherently raise questions on the role and value of humans. In introducing this discussion, we find that God salience heightens AI acceptance.

 The abstract that follows contains material like this:

Thinking about God promotes greater acceptance of Artificial intelligence (AI)-based recommendations. Eight preregistered experiments (n = 2,462) reveal that when God is salient, people are more willing to consider AI-based recommendations than when God is not salient. Studies 1 and 2a to 2d demonstrate across a wide variety of contexts, from choosing entertainment and food to mutual funds and dental procedures, that God salience reduces reliance on human recommenders and heightens willingness to consider AI recommendations. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that the reduced reliance on humans is driven by a heightened feeling of smallness when God is salient, followed by a recognition of human fallibility. Study 5 addresses the similarity in mysteriousness between God and AI as an alternative, but unsupported, explanation. Finally, study 6 (n = 53,563) corroborates the experimental results with data from 21 countries on the usage of robo-advisors in financial decision-making

Despite AI’s ability to outperform humans in many contexts, people often exhibit a biased preference for human recommendations, a phenomenon known as algorithm aversion…

… Having permeated the existence of nearly every known society, religion has been a persistent and powerful influence in people’s lives throughout history and continues to shape the lives of billions of people around the world…

… it affects decision-making in important ways, particularly in social and moral domains…

Importantly, a relatively nascent body of research shows that religion also influences how humans behave and make decisions in more mundane aspects of everyday life. For instance, there is growing evidence that religious reminders lower interest in self-improvement products (30), lessen reliance on brand name products (31), and decrease impulse grocery spending (32). These findings suggest that the impact of religion on human behavior is broad and that more research is needed to understand how religion influences decision-making, especially in light of massive advances in technology that have become integral to modern decision-contexts. The question of how religion affects decision-making in the face of AI is particularly interesting when considering that such technologies evoke fundamental questions about the value and role of humans (33); religion has faced such questions since its beginnings (3435).

To begin addressing the intersection of religion and AI, we investigate how the salience of God affects people’s propensity to rely on AI. We theorize that God salience—the extent to which individuals are actively thinking about God—is one important factor that may attenuate AI aversion. In broaching a relationship between religion and AI, we focus specifically on the salience of God for two main reasons. First, the centrality of God(s) or other supernatural deities is what is common across all large-scale religions (2036), as opposed to any specific set of beliefs or practices. Indeed, among all words that relate to religion, “God” is the most commonly used in the English language (37). Second, people are frequently exposed to reminders of God in their daily lives, even if they are not religious, suggesting that an effect of mere God salience may be relevant to more of the world’s population than a narrower focus on specific religious beliefs or activities.

We predict that God salience will dampen AI aversion in decision-making. That is, individuals will be less reliant on humans and more open to recommendations from AI systems when God is salient. This is because when God is salient, people feel smaller and are thus more likely to recognize themselves, and mankind more generally, as limited and fallible.

And that is what the authors find. Here’s an excerpt from their concluding discussion:

AI is now a ubiquitous part of everyday life for much of the world—perhaps even akin to the pervasiveness of God. Given the diminished role of humans when viewed in relation to God and within AI operations, might there be a relationship between how thoughts of God affect people’s reactions to AI? Across several studies, our research demonstrates that thinking about God leads people to be more willing to accept recommendations from AI systems than they otherwise would. The results hold across a variety of recommendation contexts (financial, health, entertainment decisions), religious beliefs, and research methodologies (field and lab experiments, global survey). Thoughts of God lead individuals to feel smaller, rendering them more likely to recognize the fallibility of humans. They therefore find it less essential to rely on humans when making decisions and are more accepting of AI-based recommendations.

Importantly, these results extend prior research on the rol e of religion in decision-making. Prior research has largely focused on how religion affects social and moral decision-making (5455). The present findings suggest that religion has important implications for a wide swath of decisions, particularly as it relates to how decisions are made in the face of new technologies that mimic the traditional role of humans. [Emphasis added.] By drawing a connection between how people view humans in relation to God (i.e., as smaller and flawed) and the decreased role that humans embody in AI, our work has broad implications for understanding the acceptance of AI as a decision-making tool. We also acknowledge the counterintuitiveness of the findings at first glance. Based on popular assumptions, one might assume that God salience leads to greater conservatism, less openness to new experiences, and decreased risk-taking, suggesting that people might be less open to the novel technology that drives AI when God is salient. However, empirical evidence provides a more complex picture. For example, prior research suggests that God salience may not necessarily lead to greater conservatism. While religious identification is positively associated with conservatism, spiritual identification is negatively associated with conservatism (56). Moreover, research suggests that there is no conclusive evidence that thoughts of God lead people to be more close-minded (57). Finally, God salience often leads to greater risk-taking, as long as one’s morals are not implicated (5455).

(Note that the authors are careful to speak in terms of God salience and spiritual identification in contrast to religion.)

Food for thought! Worth a more thorough, complete read – and some further reflection.

[1]In case you’re interested, my narrower search of Hindu faith and AI yielded a mere 13 million results.  

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