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Ilia Delio, Re-Enchanting the Earth: Why AI Needs Religion, 2020

Can religion still play a relevant part in the hyper-connected, hyper-technologized society of the third millennium? This is the question that Ilia Delio, Roman-Catholic theologian, Franciscan sister, and author, deals with in her newest book. The simple answer is a resounding yes, but in order to demonstrate it, Delio takes an impressive tour de force through a wide array of disciplines, from evolutionary biology to critical posthumanism, and from the history of technology to philosophy and theology. The thesis of the book is “that religion is the linchpin to the future of AI-mediated cosmic intelligent life and that an AI world, oriented by new religious sensibilities, can bring about an ecological re-enchantment of the earth” (xvi). This idea is highly provocative, because AI and religion are usually perceived as being at odds with each other. But Delio convincingly argues that this is because our idea of religion is itself outdated, because it was forged in what is called the “Axial” age.     

The notion of the Axial period was first introduced by Karl Jaspers and refers to the simultaneous birth of a new type of mentality in several separate human cultures – Greece, Israel, China, India, Iran. While pre-Axial consciousness was centered around community, ritual, myth, and the unity of the world, the Axial mentality focuses on the individual and on a radical distinction between transcendent and immanent (39). While the Axial type of thinking was instrumental in bringing about the great world religions, the scientific revolution, and the kind of societies we live in nowadays, it is currently being gradually abandoned. The new scientific paradigm promotes an understanding of nature that emphasizes relational holism and interconnectedness, as exemplified by quantum physics, the complex biology of living systems, or the dynamic relationship between matter and mind (26). Society too is catching up on these insights, through its movement toward a new, critical posthumanist, understanding of the human person as a hybrid with blurred boundaries, and of the remapping of human relationships and culture by technology. The posthuman cannot be characterized in terms of biological essentialism or binary categories, as was the individual of the first Axial period (131). A new, second, Axial period is thus about to begin, marked by a new level of consciousness that is collective, communal, ecological, and spiritually immanent (111). But while science and culture are already very much on their way toward this new world, religion is still mostly stuck in first-Axial mentality, practises and institutions. Traditional religions have emerged in the age of the individual, so they are incapable of meeting the needs of people who live their lives in this hyper-relational new world.

To address this problem, Delio calls for “a new religion of the earth,” one that is better adapted to the new challenges that lie ahead. Both religion and technology are in a way inevitable and they badly need each other. Religion represents our tethering to the wholeness of reality. Technology is nothing new, it is a primary way through which we engage with reality and enhance our presence in the world since the dawn of our species. Technology is part of our natural evolution, so Delio even questions whether we should even call it “artificial” (85). But the inadequacy of first-Axial religion creates a void of meaning in our modern technological society. Without religion, we are prone to be drawn to aberrations like transhumanism, which are as much indebted to first-Axial thinking as traditional religions. We need a good religion to provide us with a sense of connectedness and noble purposes that can guide our technological efforts in the right direction. A re-enchantment of the world is necessary for human flourishing in the new age. Delio’s suggestion for where we might start our reconstruction of religion is the theology of paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom she calls nothing less than a Steve Jobs of religion (xvii)! In science- &-religion discussions, Teilhard is often brought into focus because of his theological engagement with evolutionary theory. The kind of collective mind (noosphere) envisaged by him seems very appropriate for the global consciousness that humanity seems to be evolving in the current, second Axial period. Teilhard’s particular appeal comes from his ability to integrate this new electronic stage in human evolution with religion: religion is a necessary dimension of electronically-mediated hyper-connected life. Furthermore, by speaking of the “ultrahuman,” he anticipates the new type of hyper-social and boundary-fluid personhood that is currently emerging. Post-human life in the new millennium should therefore be reconsidered from the perspective of the relation that technology h as with mysticism, the sacredness of the world, and a shared planetary faith.

There is a lot of merit in bringing all these threads together, and Delio does manage to paint a coherent picture. The book is convincing when it rings the alarm bells about the increasing inadequacy of some aspects of traditional religion, such as patriarchy, biblical literalism, or ancient metaphysical principles. It is also on point in correctly sketching the big lines around which these aspects need to be rethought: a fruitful dialogue with science and an honest engagement with society as it is, and not as some religious institutions might want it to be. The proposed solution, however, is likely to raise some eyebrows. What is the likelihood that a new religion can become global in a world that is still severely divided? The deep fractures of our world seem to be largely absent from Delio’sdescription of the second Axial age. How can we speak of shared consciousness and a global mind when we are still so divided along political, economic, or religious lines? Perhaps the author would respond that these are just temporary frictions, which will gradually settle down as we advance into the new age, but this wouldn’t be very different from the futurist visions naively assuming that technology will simply solve all our current problems. This brings us to a second, related, criticism: are we really entering a second Axial age? Most of us would likely attest that we feel some new type of consciousness to be currently emerging. We are more united than ever in our global fight against climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this solidarity to new levels. We are more aware than ever of racial injustice, as the global echo of the Black Lives Matter movement is showing. But is this transformation radical enough to be qualified as marking the beginning of a new Axial period? Furthermore, the theory of Axial ages serves well to convey the argument in the book, but it is rather controversial and far from universally accepted as a good description of human history. To a certain extent, the same can be said of the theology of Teillhard de Chardin. His intuitions are remarkable and insightful, but few would follow him wholeheartedly in the more controversial claims that he makes, especially when it comes to his understanding of God in evolution or the process of the so-called theogenesis.

The proposed new planetary religion sounds appealing, but some might find it a little bit too New-Agey. While it is true that religion should respond well to the needs of the posthuman person, it seems somewhat problematic for this to be its primary driver. In other words, Delio’s proposed new religion of the earth seems a tad too custom-made, like a very well-designed product. Christians might be dissatisfied with the quasi-total absence of Christ from this new religion, except for the references to Teilhard’s Omega point and deep incarnation. Moreover, besides its light resemblance to pantheism, the proposed global religion also has a vague and somewhat problematic declared teleology: "we need a new type of religion that can enkindle a new type of organism emerging in evolution whose destiny is to realize new possibilities for evolving life on this planet" (206). Finally, this review has suspiciously avoided speaking of artificial intelligence (AI). This is, nevertheless, a reflection of the text. One would expect more engagement with AI from a book that has it in its title, but that is disappointingly not the case. While AI is mentioned several times, it is seldom used with its primary meaning, namely, the project of building artificial minds. Instead, Delio employs AI as a big umbrella that includes human enhancement, the internet, and technology in general, especially the kind of technology that connects us and creates a new type of hyper-personal consciousness. This is somewhat unsatisfactory for two reasons. Firstly, current AI is not a monolithic concept. There are different types of AI, various groups aiming to do various things with this technology, and each of these brings with it its own ethical, societal and philosophical challenges. Secondly, by equating AI with just a new, technological, phase of human evolution, Delio leaves aside the much more intriguing possibility of machines themselves becoming persons in a posthuman world. What if AI should evolve to be a Someone, a new type of being that we will have to live with, instead of a mere upgrade to human nature? Would such a being also need religion? This is precisely the question hinted at in the book’s subtitle, “Why AI needs religion.” Unfortunately, it never gets to be asked in the text. 


Marius Dorobantu Vrije 

Universiteit Amsterdam

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 31:1 (March 2021), pp. 18-21