Dan Brown’s “Origin” and the Art(ifcial) of Religion

In this series, “Sensations of Religion,” students from Dr. Richard Newton introductory religion class explore the difference people make with “stuff” in discourses pertaining to religion.  The first piece in our series questions author Dan Brown’s claim that artificial intelligence may supersede religion’s facility for connecting individuals. Elizabethtown College student E. Rider Brandau suggests that the place of art in the ongoing history of religion is more dynamic than Brown presumes.  

 

The human experience is one which has, speaking even if only in terms of practical matter of fact, been profoundly impacted by the activities of religions and the development of art across geopolitical and cultural units. Religion and art have also obviously impacted each other, and aesthetic productivity in the arts has long been representative of confessional religious belief and useful for the critical, scholarly study thereof (Plate 2009, 68-78). This is, among other reasons, why the events surrounding the release of author Dan Brown’s novel Origin are utterly terrifying.

In an interview with CBS11DFW and at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Brown explained the premise of his book and their intersection with his personal beliefs. God, he says, and religion will soon be rendered invalid by “artificial intelligence.” He goes on to explain that “Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all share a gospel, loosely, and it’s important that we all realize that … we will start to find our spiritual experiences through our interconnections with each other.

What Brown is missing, however, is an understanding of what exactly religion and art do, and as an artist, he should know much better. Art is inherently a sensory experience, one that is most commonly expressed through sound, vision, and taste. While artificial intelligence could in theory develop (or be developed to have) senses and perception and has been shown to capably produce “art,” the implication that religion is somehow not doing enough to promote “interconnections with each other” through aesthetic sensibilities vastly understates the power of religion as a social experience. This has been shown throughout the history of social movements, which have often used religion as inspiration, and religion itself, which likewise has demonstrably incorporated elements of social and scientific development to its practice. Brown’s experience with religion is mostly limited to the Abrahamic traditions, as well, which unjustly limits his argument. With respect to “religion” more broadly, a more complete analysis is possible.

The song “Daddy’s Car,” generated by Sony’s “Flowmachines” system, is evidence enough to suggest that music and art produced by artificial intelligence can be a tool for the promotion of these kinds of interconnections, as can the myriad other examples of artificial intelligence production in this vein. The advancements that Brown speaks of are already finished, and without needing to get rid of religion in the abstract or in practice. The question posed as a result of this evidence seems obvious. What exactly is the point of dismantling religion itself?

Certainly it is not artistic development, art being the root of much of the extant “interconnections” that Brown idealizes. And it is not controversial that people bond over secular art; otherwise authors like Brown would have no fanbase and hold no clout from which to make these kinds of claims. So, what of religion’s direct impact on “interconnection” through art? Simply standing out of the way is not enough to quantify productivity.

There is, again, little question in the established tradition. Religion is already promoting the sort of social cohesion, through art, that Brown seems unwilling to determine as either inevitable or ideal. Not only is it not impeding the rise of interconnection, or even the ability of artificial intelligence to improve it, it is actively promoting it.

The Hindu American Religious Institute in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as do most Hindu temples, house often elaborate, carefully constructed statues (murti) which are at base artistic and aesthetic representations of forces generally deemed incorporeal. The tradition of parikrama– the circumambulation of these intricate murti– is considered by many to be a central aspect of worship generally, and especially group or public worship (as most people are simply not going to have circumbulatory pathways constructed into their homes) (Mitchell 1988, 66). In this, there is a kind of interconnection surrounding the religious and the religion; without words, there is a mutual experience gleaned from the physical and visual perceptions of walking around the images and seeing others do the same.

In Abrahamic traditions, food has played a vital role in social and intellectual interconnectedness. The tradition of communion in Christianity is arguably – or rather, has become – more of a visual artistic experience and ritual than an individually important one; the intricate design of the chalice, the uniform consistency of the bread, the taste and smell of the wine, and the artistic dimensions and value of the setting and vestiges of the clergy are what separates the experience from simply eating regular wine and bread (The Eucharist: In Communion with Me 2002)The ceremony is not an expression of subjugating, unthinking ritual because it is not technological, as Brown seems to imply, but is instead an experience for cohesion of the social organ. Replace the name “Jesus” with any other and the substance of the experience even without the theology behind it is still quite meaningful.

In short, there is no reason why artificial intelligence can not contribute to the growing social cohesion and interconnection that is already rapidly becoming inevitable. Religion does not stand in the way of this. It is in fact a central element of religious aesthetic sensibility and production, through art, to promote this kind of development. Unless Brown would like to extend his argument to a thrashing of religious means used to the same ends as technological and scientific ones (as opposed to the two working parallel to one another, as is already happening), there is no basis for his input. Art is a central element of religious aesthetic traditions, and that art can help – not hinder – toward the ultimate goal all feeling and being more human, even those with no religion at all.

References

Plate, S. Brent. 2009. “An Aesthetic Approach to Religion,” 68-78. In Introduction to Religious Studies. Edited by Paul O. Myhre. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, Christian Brothers Publications.

Mitchell, George. 1988. The Hindu Temple. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

The Eucharist: In Communion with Me. 2002. Produced by Michael Willesee. Trans Media.

 

0WTHboUw_400x400E. Rider Brandau ’19 is a Religious Studies major at Elizabethtown College with a specialty in the religions of Asia. He also has authored a history thesis on “The King and Them: Thai and Japanese Relations During World War II.”

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