Column
Comment
4 min read

There’s more than one way to lose our humanity

How we treat immigrants and how AI might treat humans weighs on the mind of George Pitcher.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A grey multi-story accommodation barge floats beside a dock.
The Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge in Portland Harbour.
shley Smith, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

“The greatness of humanity,” said Mahatma Gandhi, “is not in being human, but in being humane.” At first glance, this is something of a truism. But actually Gandhi neatly elides the two meanings of humanity in this tight little phrase. 

Humanity means both the created order that we know as the human race and its capacity for self-sacrificial love and compassion. In the Christian tradition, we celebrate at Christmas what we call the incarnation – the divine sharing of the human experience in the birth of the Christ child.  

Our God shares our humanity and in doing so, shows his humanity in the form of a universal and unconditional love for his people. So, it’s an act both for humanity and of humanity. 

This Christmas, there are two very public issues in which humanity has gone missing in both senses. And it’s as well to acknowledge them as we approach the feast. That’s in part a confessional act; where we identify a loss of humanity, in both its definitions, we can resolve to do something about it. Christmas is a good time to do that. 

The first is our loss of humanity in the framing of legislation to end illegal immigration to the UK. The second is the absence of humanity in the development of artificial intelligence. The former is about political acts that are inhumane and the latter goes to the nature of what it is to be human. 

We have literally lost a human to our inhumanity, hanged in a floating communal bathroom. It’s enough to make us look away from the crib, shamed rather than affirmed in our humanity. 

There is a cynical political line that the principal intention of the government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, voted through the House of Commons this week, is humane, in that it’s aimed at stopping the loss of life among migrants exploited by criminal gangs. But it commodifies human beings, turning them into cargo to be exported elsewhere. That may not be a crime – the law has yet to be tested – but it is at least an offence against humanity. 

Where humanity, meaning what it is to be human, is sapped, hope withers into despair. When a human being is treated as so much freight, its value not only diminishes objectively but so does its self-worth. The suicide of an asylum seeker on the detention barge Bibby Stockholm in Portland Harbour is a consequence of depreciated humanity. Not that we can expect to hear any official contrition for that. 

To paraphrase Gandhi, when we cease to be humane we lose our humanity. And we have literally lost a human to our inhumanity, hanged in a floating communal bathroom. It’s enough to make us look away from the crib, shamed rather than affirmed in our humanity. 

That’s inhumanity in the sense of being inhumane. Turning now to humanity in the sense of what it means to be human, we’re faced with the prospect of artificial intelligence which not only replicates but replaces human thought and function.  

To be truly God-like, AI would need to allow itself to suffer and to die on humanity’s part. 

The rumoured cause of the ousting of CEO Sam Altman last month from OpenAI (before his hasty reinstatement just five days later) was his involvement in a shadowy project called Q-star, GPT-5 technology that is said to push dangerously into the territory of human intelligence. 

But AI’s central liability is that it lacks humanity. It is literally inhuman, rather than inhumane. We should take no comfort in that because that’s exactly where its peril lies. Consciousness is a defining factor of humanity. AI doesn’t have it and that’s what makes it so dangerous. 

 To “think” infinitely quicker across unlimited data and imitate the best of human creativity, all without knowing that it’s doing so, is a daunting technology. It begins to look like a future in which humanity becomes subservient to its technology – and that’s indeed dystopian. 

But we risk missing a point when our technology meets our theology. It’s often said that AI has the potential to take on God-like qualities. This relates to the prospect of its supposed omniscience. Another way of putting that is that it has the potential to be all-powerful. 

The trouble with that argument is that it takes no account of the divine quality of being all-loving too, which in its inhumanity AI cannot hope to replicate. In the Christmastide incarnation, God (as Emmanuel, or “God with us”) comes to serve, not to be served. If you’ll excuse the pun, you won’t find that mission on a computer server. 

Furthermore, to be truly God-like, AI would need to allow itself to suffer and to die on humanity’s part, albeit to defeat its death in a salvific way. Sorry, but that isn’t going to happen. We must be careful with AI precisely because it’s inhuman, not because it’s too human. 

Part of what we celebrate at Christmas is our humanity and, in doing so, we may re-locate it. We need to do that if we are to treat refugees with humanity and to re-affirm that humanity’s intelligence is anything but artificial. Merry Christmas. 

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.