Science in Christian Perspective



Computers, Robotics, and The Church
Larry F. Hodges
Department of Computer Science
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina 27650

From: JASA 35 September 1983):

The history of mankind and the history of mankind's machines cannot be separated. From the Roman machines of war to the manufacturing machines of the Industrial Revolution the attitudes and possibilities of each succeeding age have been closely tied to the proliferation and dissemination of increasingly more sophisticated machinery. Today we are confronted by machines that not only replace the need for human or animal muscle but can do many tasks that once called for human intelligence. The result has been a worldwide technological revolution that is radically altering the workplace as well as what we do with our leisure time, how we learn, and possibly even how we define what it is to be human. The microprocessor technology that has precipitated the current flood of games, small computers, and robotics is creating sweeping changes in the way we live, think, and do business. The clear challenge to the Church is to minister to those who are displaced by this revolution, to effectively use this technology in the work of the Church, and to serve as prophet as humankind separates what ought to be done from what can be done.

In this paper I point out several ways in which computers and robotics have become relevant to the work of the Church. Four areas are examined. First we discuss the use of computers in biblical study and research. Next we survey ways in which computers can be used to improve the efficiency of local church administration. We then look at the changes in industrial society created by the use of computers and robotics and the challenge these changes present for ministry. Finally the philosophical and ethical questions that are being raised by the massive information storage capabilities of modern computers and by ongoing research in artificial intelligence are explored.

Computers As A Tool In Biblical Study

In the last few years several articles have appeared in both popular magazines and academic journals on the use of computers for biblical study. The ability of computers to process vast amounts of data quickly and exhaustively has opened exciting possibilities for biblical researchers. In an article entitled "Content Analysis, Computers, and the Scientific Method in Biblical Studies," J. Arthur Baird states:

When one edits the Biblical text to include the critical information desired and then puts all of this on computer cards and eventually magnetic tape, the computer becomes a living data bank where instant, accurate, and massive recall enables the researcher to ask the computer questions which could not be answered in a lifetime of unaided human research.2

Baird goes on to say that one of the most fruitful uses of the computer has been in the production of concordances and describes three "levels" of concordances that are now available. The first level consists of the familiar listings of every word in a text for reference purposes. The other two levels have been made feasible only through computer assistance and are used to help identify patterns that are important in both higher and lower critical analysis of Scripture.

Another recent use of a computer in biblical research was the Genesis project at Israel's Technion Institute.4 In this study two computer experts and a biblical scholar programmed a computer to do an exhaustive linguistic analysis of the book of Genesis in the original Hebrew. The question under consideration was whether this book was the work of one man (conservative Christians and Jews have traditionally attributed the authorship of the first five books of the Bible to Moses) or a variety of writers whose narratives were interwoven to produce the book that we now have.

Two narrative strains that scholars have long considered distinct bemuse they employed different words for God turned out to be linguistically indistinguishable when methodically compared by the computer. A third strain--designated "Priestly" because of its preoccupation with ritual and genealogy-did stand apart....

The Genesis project illustrates an important point in the use of computers for biblical research. The computer did not provide a final answer to the question of authorship but it did serve as a useful tool to challenge accepted theories and thinking.

We should also not overlook the value of microcomputers as a study tool for pastors and laypersons. One possibility is that of computerized theological libraries that could be accessed from a home or church computer through a telephone (modem) hookup. This would allow a pastor who lives far from a seminary or university library to have immediate access to the tools he needs to continue his personal study and growth.

Computers are already being widely used in public education. Many of the ideas that have been tested and proven effective in public education could be used by the Church to design computeraided instruction in Christian education. With appropriate software, computers can be used as entertaining and patient teachers. Bible quizzes, Church school lessons, simulation games, Scripture memorization drills, etc. can all be computerized. Newsweek has recently reported on a product called "The WORD Processor," a computer program that gives one access to the entire King James Version of the Bible .7 Anyone with a minimum of computer knowledge can use this product as a computerized concordance that will search out specific Bible passages or specific words.

One estimate predicts that half of America's homes will have a computer by 1987.6 The development now of quality software by churches, denominations, and seminaries will offer possibilities for Christian Education that have never before existed.

Improving The Efficiency Of The Local Church

There are many areas in which small computers could have an immediate impact on church administration. Computers could be used to keep financial records; provide a database of information on each member's interests and talents; prepare bulletins, sermons, and newsletters; regulate utilities; and maintain mailing lists.

A local church functions in many ways like a small business. There are records to keep, people to contact, paperwork to process, and budgets to meet. Currently available software products could be used by a church to do many of these tasks. Several good wordprocessing programs exist that could be used by a church staff to produce error-free sermon notes, bulletins, and newsletters. Bookkeeping programs written for small businesses might also be appropriate and useful tools for keeping records of a church's monthly income and expenses. Several programs are on the market that could be used to maintain mailing lists and print address labels.

Churches also have unique needs that will require computer software written specifically for their use. For example, a church might like to keep a profile of each member that included not only name and address but also information on individual talents, church experience, and interests. Then when someone was needed for a specific task, such as leading a small group in a certain geographic section of a parish, the computer could print out a list of all church members already living in that area who had the proper training and experience for the job. A computer could also analyze data for the pastor each week and provide him with a list of possible visitation candidates, based on factors such as church attendance, anniversaries of the death of loved ones, or other pertinent data.

Most church buildings have many rooms that are used only a few hours a week. A computer could be programmed to regulate heating and air conditioning so that rooms in use maintain an appropriate temperature, and energy is not wasted on empty rooms.

The technology needed to do all these things exists now. The cost of a microcomputer and appropriate software is within the reach of most moderately sized churches. Far from making the ministry of a church seem mechanical or impersonal, computers would make church workers more efficient, giving them more time for human to-human contact.

Ministering To The Displaced

Even if the church were to avoid using computers as a tool in education, research and ministry, it cannot avoid the impact this technology is having on society. Although computers have created thousands of new jobs for programmers, data entry operators, and analysts they have also caused jobs to disappear. We are moving from an industrial society to an information society. A long list of employees-such as typesetters, office workers, and factory workers-are finding that their jobs either no longer exist or have been radically changed by computers and robotics.

Microelectronic devices incorporated into products in the place of mechanical parts cause labor requirements to plummet. Automated assembly lines increase production while reducing the number of workers needed. One study of a General Motors plant reported a 20% increase in production and a 10% decrease in workforce because of the introduction of robot welders.19 We are entering a period in history that may be characterized by jobless growth. Production will increase in many industries while the number of human workers needed declines.

White collar workers are not immune from this phenomenon. Areas such as banking and insurance that rely on printed paper for most of their transactions are moving to more efficient electronic methods for storage and transfer of information. A recent report predicts that 30% of the jobs in the French banking and insurance industries will disappear during the eighties.10

The human cost of automation is graphically illustrated by a study published in The Futurist of 44 typesetters who were "replaced by a computer."8 Surprisingly, economic hardship, although severe for many of the typesetters, was not the principle problem that had to be faced. The psychological impact often completely overshadowed the financial impact. Established family relationships were altered as wives left the home for outside jobs to help support the family. Many of the former typesetters experienced depression, personality changes, and physical illness. Feelings of uselessness, frustration, and loss of personal worth and pride were common.

Those who take seriously the responsibility of the Church to minister to individuals in pain or need cannot help seeing the implications. We will observe, in this decade, a massive change in industrial society. Great numbers of workers will lose their jobs. Few of these displaced workers will be retrained for the new jobs which technology creates. The result will be spiritual pain in addition to financial loss. The Church should be prepared to respond.

Philosophical And Ethical Questions

Computer technology brings with it many questions whose answers we dare not leave in the hands of technicians and bureaucrats. Ethical considerations abound as we survey what is now or soon may be possible through the use of computers and robots. The massive information storing capabilities and increasingly more efficient access methods of modern computers have already made it possible for your government, your bank-or almost any other interested party with the proper connections-to monitor many aspects of your personal life. Financial records reveal what you spend your money on and where you go to spend it. Telephone records reveal to whom you talk. Employer's records reveal what you do and how well you do it. Creditor's records evaluate your moral character and dependability. Who should be given legal access to these records? How do we protect them from unauthorized users or those who may try to change or manipulate them for their own purposes? Such questions are not just technological and legal problems but ethical ones. Christians engaged in computer, legal, and governmental professions should take the lead to see that these concerns are addressed in ways consistent with the biblical belief in the importance of the individual.

Robotics present many other questions that will be answered by someone during our century. The progress in microcomputers has been such that it is already feasible to dedicate a large number of powerful and compact computers to the control of a single robot. Within the next twenty years robots will be able to perform many, if not most, of the manufacturing operations that now require human skills." Understandably the current pervasive fear of robots is that they will take jobs away from humans. While robot labor will certainly replace human labor in many areas, the long-term effect need not be a negative one. Indeed the primary ethical considerations may not be those of machine versus human but of the powerful versus the powerless. Consider the following quote from James Albus, one of the nation's leading robotics researchers:

It is premature to worry about robots eliminating work as long as there exist such overwhelming problems as providing food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care for millions of people living in desperate poverty.

The problem is not in finding plenty of work for both humans and robots. The problem is in finding mechanisms by which the wealth created by robot technology can be distributed as income to the people who need it ... If everyone owned one or more robots, everyone would be financially independent regardless of whether [he] had a job or not....

I believe we have it within our power to create an everyperson's aristocracy based on robot labor. The question is, do we have the wisdom to develop this technology in such a way that everyone benefits?11

That wisdom could possibly come from the prophetic ministry of the Church.

In a more spectulative vein Irving Hexham, assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia has stated that, "Literature on robotics is nothing less than a debate on the meaning and purpose of existence." 5 For years science fiction writers have speculated on the issues that artificial intelligence (AI) may soon bring about. For example, what happens when a relationship develops between a human and a machine? What rights should a robot have? If its intelligence approaches or surpasses humankind does it also have a soul? What is the difference between man and machine, between God's creation and technology's creation?

Joseph Weizenbaurn brought many of these fanciful questions into reality with a computer program called DOCTOR that parodied the response of a nondirective psychotherapist in an initial psychiatric interview. The patient communicated with DOCTOR by means of a teletype. Many of these people who conversed with the system refused to believe that the computer did not really care about their problems. In addition a number of practicing psychiatrists seriously believed that the DOCTOR computer program could grow into an automated form of therapy.13 Such anthropornorphizing of what was, in reality, meant to be only a demonstration of a limited language analysis program goes far beyond the present state of Al research. Such misconceptions, however, serve only to highlight what Weizenbaum calls "the enormously exaggerated attributions an even well-educated audience is capable of making, even strives to make, to a technology it does not understand."13

Whole computers can now be put on a silicon chip the size of a fingernail. The possibility exists of computer-designed three-dimensional computer chips, too complex for human designers to comprehend, whose internal structure would be patterned after the human brain itself.1 As computers become "smarter" clear lines must be drawn between human and artificial intelligence-between decisions a machine may make and decisions that humans must make.


The Church, on all levels, is already caught up in a technological and social revolution that it must both participate in and be prophet to. On the local parish level computers may be used to the advantage of the Church-and the people displaced by this technology must be ministered to. On the academic level computers have become exciting new research tools-and the harbinger of complex philosophical and ethical questions. Those of us with commitments to both the Christian faith and computer technology must continually challenge each with the other.


1Alexander, Tom, "Computers on the Road to Self-improvement, 11 Fortune, Vol. 105, No. 12 (June 14, 1982), pp. 148-160.

2Baird, J. Arthur, "Content Analysis, Computers And The Scientific Method in Biblical Studies," Perspectives in Religious Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 1977), pp. 112-125.

3Clapp, Rodney, "The Ubiquitous Computer: Is It Coming to Church, Too?" Christianity Today, Vol. 26, No, 16 (October 8, 1982), pp. 72-75.

4Did One Person Write Genesis," Newsweek, Vol. XCVIII, No. 13 (September 28,1981), p. 59.

5Hexham, Irving, "Learning to Live with Robots," The Christian Century, Vol. XCVII, No. 19 (May 21,1980), pp. 574-578.

6Hill, Harland, "Get A Computer," The Christian Ministry, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1979), pp. 29-30.

7The Holy Bible, High-Tech Version," Newsweek, Vol. XCIX, No. 13 (April 5, 1982), p. 53.

8Gilchrist, Bruce and Ariaana Shenkin, "The Impact of Computer on Employment," The Futurist, Vol. 15, No. 1 (February 1981), pp. 44-49.

9Main, Jeremy, "Work Won't Be the Same Again," Fortune, Vol. 105, No. 13 (June 28, 1982), pp. 58-65,

10Norman, Colin, "The New Industrial Revolution," The Futurist, Vol. 15, No. 1 (February 1981), pp. 30-42.

11Steier, Rosalie, "The Robot Revolution: An Interview with James Albus," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 26, No. 3 (March 1983), pp. 179-180.  

12Strasma, James, "Church Computers: Proceed With Caution," The Christian Ministry, Vol. 10, No. 3 (May 1979), pp. 31-33.

13Weizenbaum, Joseph, Computer Power And Human Reason, W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco, 1976.