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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, February 23, 2024

Anita’s Angle: Why algorithms aren’t the new religion


“I’m spiritual, but not religious” -- it’s a trendy mantra these days. Much to the disdain of our parents, young people are rejecting institutionalized religion.Although the phenomenon is much more prevalent in North America and other predominantly Christian nations, it still applies worldwide, with 41 of 106 countries reporting that young adults are less likely to identify with a religion than previous generations.The number of Americans, in particular, with no religious affiliation is rising, but a lack of faith in Judeo-Christian tradition does not mean that these nonbelievers are entirely atheist. The term “politically homeless” has been used to describe those who do not feel they have a distinct place in the two-party electoral system. Our generation may be increasingly realizing that we are religiously homeless, as well.

In his book, "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow," historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that the doctrine of humanism has replaced religion as the guiding force behind much of our decision-making.Harari defines humanism as a form of religion that worships humanity instead of a god.We regard science, rationality and logic as our ultimate deities.Where humans may err, data and algorithms can provide us with a clear path forward.The humanist paradigm has defined the development of society from the Middle Ages to now. The limitation, though, lies in the fact that we still need normative assumptions to tell us how we should act. If we let algorithms determine right and wrong, we might not like the answers. We see the pitfalls of worshipping algorithms in the real-life example of facial recognition systems' misidentifying nonwhite faces. Such errors ostensibly reflect the biases, conscious or unconscious, of those who first wrote the algorithms.

That’s where religion, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call it, matters.And while atheists may like to believe they are purely scientific, retired philosophy professor John Gray explains that “a truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope.” Most atheists and agnostics are not utilitarian hedonists and agree that acts like killing, lying and stealing are wrong. Atheists are still united by these shared values even if they do not stem from literal belief in a monotheistic god.

Prevailing criticism of religion today not only fails to account for the similarities between religion and humanism, but it also overweights the importance of Western religion. Hinduism and Buddhism, practiced by 1.6 billion people around the world, do not require their followers to believe in God or to observe the rituals and doctrines established by any single institution.The fundamental tenets of Eastern religion differ greatly from the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is not to say that any doctrine is superior to another, but before we are so quick to eschew religion on face, we should understand the breadth and depth of the philosophies being discounted.

Carl Jung put it best when he addressed the Society for Psychical Research in England in 1919, saying “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.” Those of us who are atheist, agnostic and religiously homeless should be careful not to fall prey to the fashionable stupidity of dismissing religion altogether.