- - Tuesday, July 23, 2019


Human thoughts seek to freely roam to the farthest corners of imagination and emotion, but there are plenty of bids to rein in their expression. Freedom to speak one’s mind is on a shortening leash and, ominously, religious expression is encountering increasing hostility as well. Mounting government efforts to regulate manifestations of the human-divine connection are disturbing. How much more unprepared is officialdom likely to be in dealing with a different sort of higher calling: The coming phenomenon of human beings under the influence of artificial intelligence.

A trend toward heavier government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion is manifesting worldwide, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center gauging developments during the decade between 2007 and 2017. In a report published last week, the organization found the number of nations with strong government restrictions on religion — including official laws, policies and actions — rose markedly.

“The latest data shows that 52 governments — including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia and Russia – impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007,” read the report. “And the number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.”

Discrimination that requires religious organizations to register with authorities and favoritism that provides government funding for religious activities top the list of ways in which officialdom exerts sway over persons of faith. Both kinds of pressure have surged more than 20 percent worldwide during the past decade, but its degree of preferential treatment for Islam renders the Middle East unique. Europe is found to have experienced the steepest uptick in rules prohibiting religious dress codes and other practices.

Social hostilities toward religious norms, including harassment of women who violate cover-up apparel requirements in some Muslim countries, have seen the sharpest rise. Thankfully, though, interreligious tension, like violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, has eased in recent years, with the number of nations prone to interreligious conflict falling from 91 to 57 over 10 years.

The Pew survey is a valuable tool for gauging changes to restrictions on faith writ large, but it makes no distinction between mean-spirited restrictions on religious practices borne out of cultural animus and those stemming from a good-faith attempt at cultural preservation. There are, in fact, religious traditions that embrace a sort of “privilege for me but not for thee” inequity.

In the case of Europe, and France in particular, rules against the wearing of Muslim headscarves and full-face coverings in public can be reasonably viewed as legitimate efforts to restrain overt cultural practices that intimidate native residents and drive them out of shared communities. In that regard, some government-sponsored strictures stand as a useful bulwark against a form of ethnic cleansing that some Muslim-majority nations are employing to systematically expunge Christian and Jewish communities from the cradle of the Hebraic religions.

Militant religious practices that roil the public peace are obvious targets for external restraint, but interfering with personal perception of the divine is above the pay grade of most public servants. And judging the inner world of fellow human beings as the basis for government regulation is not likely to become easier as the 21st century wears on.

The future promises — or threatens — to open a fresh universe of human thought with the integration of mental function and artificial intelligence. Futurist Elon Musk vows to complete the symbiosis of man and machine by successfully creating a brain port into which a computer can be attached. He hopes Neuralink Corp., a company he founded in 2016, will be ready to implant a prototype into a living person by the end of 2020, according to NBC News.

And it’s just the beginning. Until now a figment of science fiction, the coming era of the cyborg is likely to introduce thoughts and accompanying expression with no precedent in human experience. With governments struggling to rein in the practices of believers communing with the Author of history, similarly daunting will be the challenge posed by those plugged into an expanding neural network rooted in principles based on zeros and ones rather than the common good.

Powers that be unhappy with God may suffer further miserable from machine. As the inimitable Yogi Berra has been credited with saying, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

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