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Salvation by algorithm: God, technology and the new 21st-century religions

With its world-changing inventiveness, technology has become the force religion once was.

More than a century after Nietz­sche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is probably a mirage. Despite all the talk of Islamic fundamentalism and Christian revival, God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body.

Nowadays, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not Syria or the Bible Belt, but Silicon ­Valley. That is where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us amazing new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology. They promise all the old prizes – happiness, peace, justice and eternal life in paradise – but here on Earth with the help of technology, rather than ­after death and with the help of supernatural beings. (Of course, this does not mean that these techno-religions will fulfil all their extravagant promises. Religions spread themselves more by making promises than by keeping them.)

Godless religions are nothing new. Thousands of years ago Buddhism put its trust in the natural laws of karma and paiccasamuppāda (dependent origination) rather than almighty deities. In recent centuries creeds such as communism and Nazism have also upheld a system of norms and values based on allegedly natural laws rather than on the commandments of some supernatural being. These modern creeds prefer to call themselves “ideologies” rather than “religions” but, seen from a long-term perspective, they play a role analogous to that of traditional faiths such as Christianity and Hinduism. Both Christianity and communism were created by human beings rather than by gods, and are defined by their social functions rather than by the existence of deities. In essence, religion is anything that legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.

The assertion that religion is a tool for organising human societies may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, religion and spirituality are very different things. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. “God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you will burn in hell.” The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The search often begins with some big question, such as: who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit. Often enough, one of the most important obligations for spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. In Zen Buddhism it is said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Which means that if, while walking on the spiritual path, you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutional Buddhism, you must free yourself from them, too.

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, because it is a lonely path, fit only for individuals rather than entire societies. Human co-operation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who rage against stultified religious structures often end up forging new ones in their place. It happened to Martin Luther, who – after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church – found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to the Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth, they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of conventional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.

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Because they are human creations that seek to cater to human fears and hopes, religions always dance a delicate tango with the technology of the day. Religion and technology push one another, depend on one another, and cannot stray too far from one another. Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some priest or prophet to make the crucial choices and point towards the required destination. Thus, in the 19th century, engineers invented locomotives, radios and the internal combustion engine. But as the 20th century proved, you can use these same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships or liberal democracies. Without religious or ideological convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go.

On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious vision, like a waiter who demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. For instance, in ancient agricultural societies many religions had surprisingly little interest in metaphysical questions and the afterlife. Instead, they focused on the very mundane task of increasing agricultural output. The Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death. Rather, he tells the people of Israel:

 

“And if you will diligently obey my commandments that I am commanding you [. . .] I will also give rain for your land at its appointed time [. . .] and you will gather your grain and your new wine and your oil. And I will provide vegetation in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful not to let your heart be enticed to go astray and worship other gods and bow down to them. Otherwise, Jehovah’s anger will blaze against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will not give its produce and you will quickly perish from the good land that Jehovah is giving you.”

Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

 

Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations the ancient farmers had of their gods. And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain – the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all of their drinking water from the sea. Consequently, present-day Judaism has almost lost interest in rain and agricultural output and has become a very different religion from its biblical progenitor.

The faithful may believe that their religion is eternal and unchanging, but in truth even when they keep their names intact, religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have no fixed essence. They have survived for centuries and millennia not by clinging to some eternal values, but by repeatedly pouring heady new wine into very old skins. For all the heated debate about the supposed nature of Islam – whether it is in essence a religion of peace or a religion of war – the truth is that it is neither. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it, and over the centuries they have made of it remarkably different things.

 

 

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New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that “Islam is the answer”, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms people in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a vast new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn 80 into the new 50? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor and between the remaining productive class and the new useless class?

You will not find the answers to any of these urgent questions in the Quran or sharia law, nor in the Bible and the Confucian Analects, because nobody in the medieval Middle East nor anyone in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor.

True, hundreds of millions may go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, but numbers alone don’t count for much in history. Ten thousand years ago most human beings were hunter-gatherers and only a few myriad pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers. In 1850, more than 90 per cent of humanity lived as peasants, and in the small villages along the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze nobody knew anything about steam engines, trains or telegraph. Yet the fate of these peasants and villages had already been sealed in Manchester and Birmingham by the handful of engineers, politicians, financiers and visionaries who spearheaded the Industrial Revolution.

Even when the Industrial Revolution spread around the world and penetrated up the Ganges, Nile and Yangtze, most people continued to believe in the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran more than in the steam engine. As of today, so too in the 19th century there was no shortage of priests, mystics and gurus who argued that they alone hold the solution to all of humanity’s problems. In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed bin Abdalla declared that he was the Mahdi (the Messiah), sent to establish the law of God on Earth. His supporters defeated an Anglo-Egyptian army and beheaded its commander – General Charles Gordon – in a gesture that shocked Victorian Britain. They then established in Sudan an Islamic theocracy governed by the sharia.

In Europe, Pope Pius IX led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma. Among other initiatives, he established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the pope can never err in matters of faith. In China a failed scholar called Hong Xiuquan had a religious vision, in which God revealed that Hong was none other than the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent to establish the “Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven” on Earth. Instead of proceeding to establish a kingdom of peace, Hong led his followers into the Taiping Rebellion – the deadliest war of the 19th century. In 14 years of warfare (1850-64), at least 20 million people lost their lives, far more than in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War. Meanwhile, in India, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati led a Hindu revival movement whose main principle was that the Vedas are never wrong.

Hundreds of millions clung to such religious dogmas even as factories, railroads and steamships filled the world. Yet most of us don’t think about the 1800s as the age of faith. When we think of 19th-century visionaries, we are far more likely to recall Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin than the Mahdi, Pius IX or Hong Xiuquan. And rightly so. Although in 1850 socialism was just a small fringe movement, it soon gathered momentum and turned the world upside down. If you count on national health services, pension funds and free education, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than the Mahdi and Hong Xiuquan.

Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where the Mahdi and Hong failed? Because Marx and Lenin were relevant to their time. They studied new technologies and novel economic structures instead of perusing ancient texts. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems as well as unprecedented opportunities. The needs, hopes and fears of the new urban proletarian class were simply too different from those of biblical peasants. To answer these needs, hopes and fears, Marx and Lenin studied how a steam engine functions, how a coal mine operates, how railroads shape the economy, and how electricity influences politics.

Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. “Communism?” he answered. “Communism is power to the soviets [workers’ councils] plus electrifi­cation of the whole country.” There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. Marx and his followers understood the new technological and economic realities, and so they had relevant answers to the new problems of industrialised society, as well as original ideas about how to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities.

The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history and changing the foundations of human discourse. Up until then, the great religious debates revolved around gods, souls and the afterlife. Naturally, there were differences between the economic ideas of Sunnis, Shias, Catholics and Protestants. Yet these were side issues. People defined and categorised themselves according to their views about God, not production methods. After Marx, however, questions of technology and economic production became far more divisive and important than questions about the soul and the afterlife.

In the second half of the 20th century, humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods. Even the harshest critics of Marx and Lenin adopted both men’s basic attitude towards history and society, and began thinking about technology and production much more carefully than about God.

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In the 19th century few people were as perceptive as Marx, and only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening and therefore missed the train of progress. Dayanand’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the past few years has India managed to close the geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still lagging far behind.

In the early 21st century the train of progress is once more pulling out of the station. And this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. Whereas during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century human beings learned to produce vehicles, weapons, textiles and food, in the new industrial revolution of the 21st century human beings are learning to produce themselves. The main products of the coming decades will be bodies, brains and minds. The gap between those who will know how to produce bodies and brains and those who will not know will be far bigger than the gap between Charles Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan.

Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology of the late 20th century. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his supporters to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the internet. Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has yet to come to terms with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. No wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

In the past, Christianity and Islam were a creative force. For instance, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was responsible for numerous social and ethical reforms as well as important economic and technological innovations. The Church founded many of the first European universities; its monasteries experimented with novel economic methods; it led the way in techniques of data-processing (by creating archives and catalogues, for instance). Any king or prince who wanted an efficient administration turned to priests and monks to provide him with data-processing skills. The Vatican was the closest thing 12th-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.

Yet in the late-modern era Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet – and rabbis argue about whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call on women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the 20th century?” This is difficult to answer, because it is hard to choose from among a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of religions such as Islam and Christianity in the 20th century?” This, too, is difficult, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and mullahs discover in the 20th century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, whence do you think the big changes of the 21st century will emerge: from Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, Isis knows how to upload video clips to YouTube. Wow. But, leaving aside the industry of torture, what new inventions have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

This does not mean that religion is a spent force. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam, so in the coming decades new techno-religions are likely to take over the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. In the 21st century we will create more powerful myths and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds and to create entire virtual worlds, complete with hells and heavens.

If you want to meet the prophets who will remake the 21st century, don’t bother going to the Arabian Desert or the Jordan Valley – go to Silicon Valley.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” and most recently of “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow”, newly published by Harvill Secker

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers