The new Dune movie has reminded me of that franchise’s vision of future religions. So I was probably more primed than usual to notice a brief article asking if aliens would be religious. The author, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, invokes the Copernican principle to conclude that they likely would be. After all, most humans are religious to one degree or another. If we’re average, then it stands to reason that E.T. would be like us and have its own religion(s).
This seems plausible enough, but it raises the question of what kind of religion aliens might have, and what we mean by “religion”. Defining religion is notoriously difficult. Definitions range from any kind of ideology to specific belief in gods. If we assume building a civilization requires cooperation between members of a social species, then the ideological version seems inevitable, because an ideology is just a culture, or sub-culture: the social behavior, norms, and beliefs of a social group.
If we narrow the question more specifically to belief in gods, then the question becomes what we mean by the word “god”. The Wikipedia entry for “deity” defines them as supernatural beings considered divine or sacred. It’s probably calibrated to encompass most things people mean when they use the word “god” or “deity”, so it isn’t very specific. It could include Spinoza and Einstein’s pantheistic use of the word “God” to refer to reality (although they might take issue with the supernatural qualifier). Or it can include the more traditional idea of agency behind natural forces.
It doesn’t seem controversial to assume aliens would believe in reality. The more interesting question is whether they would believe in the more traditional versions of deities. Here it’s worth considering where human belief in the traditional versions comes from. If you’re a believer, you’ll likely say it comes from the fact that one or more of them do exist. But most believers today would accept that not all the deities that people believed in throughout history are real.
The question is what in the environment led us to think they existed? There are various theories out there. The one I see the most often is hyperactive agency detection. Throughout much of animal evolution, it was more adaptive to assume that the sound in the bushes was a predator rather than the wind.
Hyperactive agency detection seems widespread in the animal kingdom, at least among mammals. Just watch what happens with your dog or cat when you use a laser pointer to project a spot on the floor. Or if you bring anything home that appears to move on its own volition, like a Roomba. In my experience even a balloon being buffeted by the air conditioning can lead to a dramatic reaction.
This kind of agency detection seems to require at least a rudimentary theory of mind. A theory of mind is one of those things species can have to a greater or lesser degree, with social animals typically having a much more developed version. But it seems like any animal that can avoid predators or track prey has to have at least an incipient version. Survival often means detecting when something in the environment has its own volition, and whether its intentions are a threat. False positives here seem far less costly than false negatives.
It’s not hard to imagine this intuition being behind early animistic beliefs in hunter gatherer societies. If you understand little about the underlying forces, it’s easy to think a river, thunder, or a volcano has its own mind. It seems to act unpredictably, sometimes threatening people when it does. Maybe this intelligence can be mollified if we provide it with occasional offerings, or flattery. Add in centuries of cumulative stories about these forces, and something like the ancient polytheistic religions seem inevitable.
All of which seems to imply that evolved aliens would likely have this kind of belief, at least at some point in their history. The question is whether they’d still have it by the time we might encounter them. Or even whether we would ourselves since any encounter seems likely to be in our distant future, if ever. If it’s our AI (artificial intelligence) progeny encountering their AI progeny, will there be any religion in the conversation? Would AI have religion?
A lot of people seem to assume the answer must be no. For many, it’s because, as purely physical beings, AI wouldn’t have access to any spiritual realm, that there’d be some boundary between engineered and evolved systems which AI couldn’t cross. This assumes that humans are in some way more than physical beings. That divide seems intuitive to a lot of people. For example, consider how rarely it’s questioned why droids in the Star Wars universe can’t use the Force. Although classic science fiction has long called this kind of boundary into question. As early as 1941 Isaac Asimov had a story about a robot with telepathic abilities.
Others saw these kinds of beliefs as cognitive errors that AI wouldn’t be subject to. However, we’ve already seen human biases creeping into AI software, with issues like having an easier time recognizing light skinned faces than dark skinned ones, or discriminating against minorities in hiring algorithms. Of course AI bias is human bias, in what the developers put in and the data used to train the system, but then any AI is going to be the product of human cognition, with all its limitations, or have those products in its lineage. And any AI that needs to detect agency from ambiguous information seems like it could be just as vulnerable to drawing incorrect inferences as we’re prone to do.
Interestingly enough, AI religion also shows up in science fiction. The TV show Foundation has a robot who belongs to a religious faith. (BTW, I’m still enjoying this show, despite an increasing suspicion that calling it “Foundation” amounts to false advertising.) And the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica actually showed the Cylons, as AI beings, having a monotheistic religion.
Contemplating AI religion assumes that these systems are enough like us to have the same impulses that lead to religion. If they are uploaded versions of human minds, or entities created in the image of such minds, that seems plausible. If they’re systems with no strong self concern, with no overriding survival instinct, it seems harder to imagine.
Naturally all of this assumes that some form of religion continues even in human society. But religion has proven more resilient than many historical thinkers assumed it would. And if we take the broader ideological view of religion, its continued existence seems inevitable. Future ideologies might consider themselves to be post-religious, while fulfilling many of the same psychological and sociological roles once handled by traditional faiths.
Even focusing on the belief-in-gods definition, if we take a broader definition of deity, it could be seen as preserved in the scientific view of the fundamental forces or the overall laws of nature. Of course, we know it’s pointless to pray to these forces and laws, but it isn’t pointless to learn about and use them, or listen to the prophets (scientists) who’ve done so.
Unless of course I’m missing something? Does it make sense to ponder alien or AI religion? Or the long term future of religion?