The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University (LISD) convened the 11th annual colloquium of the Program on Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations (PORDIR) in Rome, Italy from June 10-13, 2018, on the subject of “Religion and Cyber.” Hosted in a city rich with history and religious relevance, the gathering was attended by PORDIR fellows, members of the Holy See, and the diplomatic community in Rome.
The PORDIR colloquium was held in the Pontificium Institutum Teutonicum Sanctae Mariae de Anima, Collegium. Throughout the conference, students presented their independent research. Participants heard presentations on (1) the role of artificial intelligence in the practice of organized religion, (2) the relationship between religion, the internet and democratic rights, (3) the notion of blasphemy as a tool of repression, and (4) the role of religious values in developing new technologies, among other diplomatic topics.
Opening remarks were delivered by Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, LISD Founding Director, and Prince Amb. Prince Stefan von und zu Liechtenstein, Ambassador of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the Holy See. Archbishop Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Under-Secretary for Relations with States at the Holy See, delivered a keynote address, which was followed by remarks from Archduke Eduard von Habsburg Lothringen, Ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See, and Amb. Prince Nikolaus von und zu Liechtenstein.
Throughout the two-day colloquium, students addressed the tension between religion and cybertechnologies. During the first session, student fellows grappled with the challenges of artificial intelligence. Caitlin Quinn presented her work on the possibility of artificial superintelligence being akin to “summoning the demon” or to “raising a god.” Iskander Haykel presented a paper on the need to avoid the creation and expansion of artificial intelligence in the form of “artificial persons,” which are forms of artificial intelligence possessing traits that constitute their personhood. Both papers explored the complex challenges associated with A.I. and in particular, opened up a discussion on the nature of personhood and the moral and ethical circumstances of developing these technologies.
Then, conference participants explored the ways in which religious leaders could gain important information on the challenges of A.I. and, particularly, the impact of social media corporations in this exchange of information. The discussion addressed the impact of algorithms on the process by which religious institutions reach their audiences on social media platforms. In this vein, student papers encouraged a healthy dialogue on the relationship between religion, industry, and the state, including Jonathan Haynes’s work on the backsliding of democracy in authoritarian regimes and the impact of internet-source information on religiosity, and Alexandra Veyne’s work on the role of freedom from religion on the human rights system and framework for civil governments.
Following the first session, the discussion shifted to intertwined religious and ethnic identities in various geopolitical spheres. Student research on regions with a rapidly growing population, including South America, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, suggests a powerful narrative of individuals and communities that are in search of religious answers to modern technological changes. The conversation began in South Asia with student fellow Rebekah Ninan, whose research focused on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws with a focus on the impact of religious censorship on the nation’s approach to internet content and national security.
The discussion continued with Shafaq Khan’s presentation on the so-called “beef lynchings” of Muslims in India and the spread of related misinformation through Facebook, WhatsApp and other technologies by religiously motivated actors. Next, Reva Abrol, presented her research on the history of constitutional jurisprudence in postcolonial India, theories of Hindu communalism, and debates on data privacy. Reva argued that information privacy—as conceived in international fora—may lack horizontal applicability in community-centered societies. The series of presentations, specifically on South Asia, led to a lively exchange about technology as an arbiter and hindrance to the resolution of religious tensions throughout the region.
In the next session, the conversation turned to Brazil, Eritrea, and the Middle East. Alejandro Roig presented a paper on the impact of social media and television in transforming the religious fabric of Brazil, which he connected to a rise in Evangelicals in Brazil’s majority Catholic society. Then, Abyssinia Lissanu presented her research on religious repression in Eritrea and the associated control of the technological spread of information. Both presentations inspired a larger discussion on minority rights and repression. Finally, Jonathan Falcone presented his research about the potential for bitcoin to be viewed as a form of Islamic personal finance. By examining the main prohibited forms of Islamic finance, his research presented cryptocurrencies as a potential source of materiality, proof-of-stake blockchain, or institutional sponsorship in Muslim communities.
Throughout the colloquium, participants engaged with a recurring dialogue on the power of religious expression and engagement. This discussion came to life when PORDIR fellows received the unique opportunity to sit within the gallery of visitors at Saint Peter’s Square and attend the mass delivered by His Holiness, Pope Francis. The special invitation to attend the mass in the gallery was arranged through the kindness and courtesy of Amb. Prince Stefan von und zu Liechtenstein, Ambassador of the Principality of Liechtenstein to the Holy See, and LISD Non-Resident Fellow.