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3 crucial areas of ethical research in technology for the Digital Public Square

A new project seeking to equip the Church with wisdom for a digital age

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October 18, 2021

Nearly every area of our lives has been technicized or digitized in one way or another during the past century. Technology has ushered in innumerable benefits for humanity, which often overshadow some of the damaging effects of these massive shifts in our daily lives. Smartphones have led to a growing culture of digital addictions and isolation, especially among young people. We see this fact clearly in the recent reports of how Facebook — and by extension, all of social media — has become toxic for teenage girls and for the rest of us as well.

Social and mass media have connected societies across the world, opening up new opportunities for everyone’s voices to be heard, stories to be shared, and economic opportunities to be spread like never before. But they have come with a price, exacerbating an exponential breakdown of civil discourse and leading to a weakening of various control mechanisms that helped govern our common pursuit of truth. Modern medical technologies have allowed for longer and healthier lives for millions of people, but have also led to a devaluing of humanity.  For all of the real benefits of technology, there are countless dangers that have often fallen outside of the public eye. In truth, technology has ushered in a breakdown of our social fabric and led to the commodification of everything. 

One of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century with the rise of modern technology, Jacques Ellul, opened his influential work The Technological Society by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood” (3). As a trained sociologist and a Protestant theologian, Ellul rightly saw that there are not only political or social components to technology, but also theological and ethical components as well. Southern Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr. echoed these truths by recently stating, “Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue.” 

Yet, in light of these realities, there is still only a small — though growing — library of theological and ethical resources on these crucial issues. So where might the church turn for wisdom in this technological age?

Equipping the Church

Over the last few years, the ERLC has sought to lead the way in preparing the church for this digital age and warn of the impending issues of technology in the public square and in our local contexts. In April 2019, the ERLC launched a groundbreaking statement of principles on artificial intelligence (AI) declaring that the imago Dei is not only the central element of Christian ethics but also a key aspect of how we navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology. In a world seemingly set on the immanent and material, this Christian teaching reminds us that we are uniquely created by God given dignity, value, and moral responsibility for the things we create and their shaping power over all of society and culture.

In September, the ERLC board of trustees approved an ambitious and large-scale research project called the Digital Public Square which will serve as a hub for Southern Baptists and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology and digital governance over the next couple of years. The main goal of this project is to provide research and resources to help you navigate this digital age as we collectively think through complex and crucial ethical challenges with biblical wisdom and insight. It will include a state of digital governance report, statement of principles on digital technologies, two major book projects, and various resources — including the recently launched Digital Public Square podcast with conversations on theology, ethics, and philosophy in the public square.

The challenges ahead

As we look ahead to the ethical challenges of technology and the public square, we see three main areas of needed research and ethical reflection. 

First, the Church must be able to proclaim the inherent dignity of all people and their God-given, pre-political rights of free expression and religious freedom in an age that is increasingly hostile or apathetic to the truth of Christianity. The public nature of faith is a key aspect of the Christian worldview, even in a secularized culture that seeks to simply relegate religious belief to a private matter of individuals. Christianity is not a privatized faith, rooted in individualism, but a faith that radically transforms every aspect of our lives including how we love God and our neighbor in the digital age. These two issues are especially prevalent as society faces yet another epistemic crisis over the reality of truth and how we navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse society.

Second an underdeveloped, yet key area of ethical research is defining the competing concepts of hate speech in a digital age and the key distinctions of physical threats of violence or immanent harm versus the dramatic growth of emotional safeism. In recent years, ideas — especially those of biological realities and historic Christian teaching — have been deemed as inherantly bigoted and harmful. But, as Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch eloquently states in his recent work The Constitution of Knowledge, “words are not bullets . . . stopping words does not stop bullets, and . . . confusing words with bullets is a tragic error” (203).

Lastly, in light of the dangerous abuses of technology and data happening all across the world today, the Church needs serious reflection on the ethical aspects of digital privacy, data collection, and the growing authoritarian abuses of technology. Examples of this are the desperate longing for complete and unfettered control of the Chinese Communist Party over the Chinese people — and, by extension, the growing influence of the CCP abroad — and the concerning trends of data collection being used to alter the behaviors of countless people through digital technologies. The combination of the power of these tools and the sinful nature of humanity does not allow for the Church to passively engage these issues.

Through the Digital Public Square project, the ERLC hopes to chart a new path for Southern Baptist and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology. We will do this based on the unchanging Word of God and the kingship of Christ, alongside a rich heritage of public and social engagement built upon the dignity of every human being. Technology is not a tertiary issue in the public square. It is a deeply theological and ethical issue that the Church must engage, compelled by the love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31).

Learn more about ERLC’s work in the digital public square and sign up to receive articles like this at ERLC.com/digital

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and leads the ERLC Research Institute. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, public theology, technology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with … Read More