Russell Brand, Gaza Protests & Super AI: The Search for Transcendence

By: Akos Balogh

Whether secular or religious, every human being is wired for worship.

We’re designed by God to worship Him. But since the fall, we don’t worship Him: instead, we’re repelled by Him. But we still worship – albeit other things. As the apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 1 of 1st-century pagan worship:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:21)

Or as the ever-pithy G.K. Chesterton wrote:

‘When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’

Author Megan Gafford puts an ‘X files’ spin on the need for worship:

Researchers have found that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs. “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular—but the religious mind remains active,” writes psychology professor Clay Routledge, in The New York Times. He notes that belief in aliens and UFOs appears to be associated with a need to find meaning. [1]

We’re all drawn to transcendence – to worshipping someone or something bigger than ourselves. For earlier generations, God (or nation) filled that primal human need. But now other things are filling it.

There are many examples of our irrepressible need to worship, but these three have caught my eye over the last few weeks:

1) Turning to activism: the Gaza student protests

Our world is seeing increasing levels of activism, especially from younger generations.

This generation is the least churched in Western history. While they don’t identify as Atheists (my Gen Z daughter tells me Atheism is looked down upon by many of her peers), their knowledge and experience of Christianity is limited, or for many, non-existent.

And so, they look for transcendence in other ways, especially political and environmental activism. As former Prime Minister Scott Morrison points out in his new book:

The passion we see for many political causes on the left and right speaks to an energized secular morality where political activism is replacing traditional religion as the source of meaning and purpose. Climate action, social justice, gender and race politics, cancel culture, and the denunciation of capitalism are now fuelling the passions and moral purpose of younger citizens in Western democracies. Such political fervour is not confined to the political left. [2]

Instead of finding transcendence worshipping the true God, many secular activists look for transcendence and deeper meaning from their activism. Of course, you can be activist and be a Christian, satisfying your thirst for transcendence from God Himself. But it’s worth noting that as the West becomes less Christian, activism has increased, and has only grown more zealous.

When it comes to Silicon Valley, many AI researchers are looking for transcendence in a surprising place.

2) AI researchers and the rush toward Artificial General Intelligence

One of the most surprising developments in AI over the past few years has been the open push by many tech companies for Artificial General Intelligence: think ‘Skynet’ level Artificial Intelligence.

Many AI researchers are doing this because of the perceived benefits of such technology (in helping humanity solve our big problems), while others are doing this because of the digital gold rush: AI is big money, and super AI could unlock trillions of dollars in profits.

But surprisingly – or unsurprisingly, considering we’re worshipping beings –  there is a subset of AI researchers doing this for openly religious reasons.

In a recent podcast, tech ethicist Tristan Harris discusses an email sent to him by a friend:

[My friend went]  behind the scenes and talked to a lot of the major players at the AI [companies]. And he wrote me an email about the conversations that he’s been having, summarizing why everyone at the end of the day is building [AGI]…[He said]  “these AI leaders have an emotional desire to meet and speak to the most intelligent entity they’ve ever met. And they have some ego-religious intuition that they’ll somehow be a part of it. It’s thrilling to start an exciting fire. They feel they will die either way, so they prefer to light it and see what happens.” [3]

Let that sink in: ‘These AI leaders desire to meet and speak to the most intelligent entity they’ve ever met.’

And in their case, they’re looking to AI to satisfy that need. This is a classic case of people looking for transcendence and worship not in the true God, but in a ‘god’ of their own making. Also known in the Bible as idolatry – but in this case, an idol that does speak back.

It doesn’t surprise me, but it does sadden me.

I can’t help but think that God has already turned up on our doorstep in the person of Jesus. A ‘super-intelligence’ who dwarfs any work of our hands. A being who we can commune with – who wants to commune with us – so much so that he gave his life for us. And yet, these AI researchers have turned their back on the real God and are turning to a digital god to satisfy their thirst for transcendence.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:21)

But in the cry of transcendence, some are looking for the true God of the Bible:

3) Turning back to the true God: the Russell Brand factor

The world was shocked to hear that comedian and actor Russell Brand now professes to be Christian and was baptised.

Despite coming from a non-Christian – and in many ways anti-Christian – background, Brand has (as far as we can tell) turned back to God. His need for transcendence has been satisfied at the well of Christian worship. And let’s pray for Brand, that despite his background and the pressures he faces as a celebrity, he would keep trusting in Jesus.

Of the above 3 groups,  I pray that many more people will be like Russell Brand – satisfying their deep need for transcendence not at the well of activism or AGI, but in the living water of Jesus himself:

‘I have come that they might have life, and life to the full. (John 10:10).


Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

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