A few weeks ago, while I was scrolling endlessly through YouTube, I ended up on a video titled Bethany and David Engagement Story posted by Girl Defined, a channel created by Bethany Baird and Kristen Clark. “Just two sisters striving to be God-defined girls in a culture-defined world,” states their about page. Also present on Instagram, the duo has more than 50,000 followers.
As I started looking at similar Christian accounts, I noticed that many of them had an impressive following and how different types of religious posts could be separated into categories. From Bible journaling to preaching to non-believers, Jesus lovers have become a new type of influencers on Instagram, YouTube and even TikTok. But what exactly characterises them, and is there anything wrong with influencers promoting a specific religion?
Although I am not religious myself, and should have probably steered clear of Netflix’s The Keepers, my aim is not to pull religions apart. Religious beliefs should always be respected. That being said, some religious people can occasionally go to extremes. Catholicism, more specifically, is not all good or bad, and that’s exactly the image Christian influencers seem to display on social media. Some of them want to share the word of God, while others think being religious gives them the right to dictate other people’s lives. It’s a fine line.
Let’s go back to the Bethany and David Engagement Story video I mentioned. In it, viewers can notice how uncomfortable David Beal seemed—almost unable to touch his wife for more than a few seconds. This pushed me to search for more information online on Baird and her husband. Apparently, before this video was posted, Baird had openly shared with her followers how she sent Beal to “conversion therapy” twice, which is an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
After the couple allegedly opened up about Beal attending conversion therapy twice in a previous video, it was reportedly deleted. Since, both have chosen not to address the video regarding the therapy. On its website, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has shared numbers collected by the UCLA Williams Institute which states that in the US, 698,000 LGBTQ adults aged 18 to 59 have undergone conversion therapy, and 57,000 aged 13 to 17 years old will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.
This kind of therapy presents great risks and can sometimes lead to depression, anxiety and suicide. And, just like conversion therapy, religion can also reinforce self-hatred experienced by people who feel like they don’t belong in society. While this has sadly been proved in many cases, spirituality and religion can also impact someone’s well-being through social and emotional support. For example, I found many Christian influencers promoting healthy and uplifting messages on Instagram.
Christian blogger Meg Flower, mostly known as @Radiating_Jesus on Instagram, is one of the many US-based Christians using the social media platform as a way to share selfies, religious motivational quotes and over-edited pictures of her Bible journaling skills to her 16,700 followers. All in all, her account is pretty much harmless, apart from a few posts that shame ‘sinners’ or others that stipulate a good Christian can’t love God and the world they live in at the same time—apparently, Flower asks for absolute devotion from her followers.
But although I could spend a while looking for small things to pick at, Flower’s account also preaches messages that everyone should get behind. Flower suffers from depression and anxiety and previously had an eating disorder. On @Radiating_Jesus, she openly discusses mental health and often offers her followers some advice on the topic. From medication and praying to speaking to friends and family, Flower has tried it all when it comes to dealing with mental health problems.
Unlike Baird, Flower never expressed any homophobic views or mentioned conversion therapy, at least not online. And she’s not the only relatively digestible Christian account for people like myself, @SimpleBible and @TrueandLovelyCo are also part of a similar group of Instagram influencers.
Of course, generalisations shouldn’t and can’t be made about all Christian influencers. Many are only sharing positive messages and preaching their religion in inoffensive ways. But it is the few of them that go too far who not only risk negatively influencing young Instagram users and their mental health, but also distorting what religion is about in the first place.
Acceptance and bringing a sense of community to people who might need it should both be celebrated in religion as well as on social media platforms, and yet they seem to be the last things people preach and practice in life outside of social media.
Whether you believe in god, in something or even in nothing at all, maybe it’s time we all start worrying about the principles that we (knowingly or unknowingly) stand up for through our social media presence.
In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.
At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.
Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.
When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”
Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.
The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.