‘Artificial Intelligence: Religious Friend or Foe?’

Wednesday May 15th 2024

Professor Stephen Williams will deliver the 66th Church of Ireland Annual Theological Lecture at Queen’s on Monday May 27 at 6pm.

The lecture, sponsored by the Board of Education (Northern Ireland), will be held in the Great Hall at Queen’s and is entitled: ‘Artificial Intelligence: Religious Friend or Foe?’

Artificial intelligence is changing how we interact with everything, from education to healthcare, food, travel and religion. Robot priests can recite prayers, deliver sermons, and even attempt to comfort those experiencing a spiritual crisis.  Doctors are using AI more regularly for diagnostics and provision of care.

Christians are left with many questions about the ethics of this cutting-edge technology. How can those who claim to have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe engage with or use AI? Can AI replace human or divine creativity? What does it mean to be a human?

Professor Stephen Williams will explore some of these questions in this year’s Annual Theological Lecture. Professor Williams writes: “The title is provocative: Artificial Intelligence means more than one thing; there are different religious traditions; and ‘friend or foe’ may be false alternatives.

“Admitting the complexity of the issues, the lecture sets out the challenge of AI to our understanding of what it is to be human, highlighting its critical nature. It ranges from discussion of the nature of the brain to Western culture and to the significance of the Church in an attempt to answer the question posed in the title.”

Stephen N Williams is a theologian, author and lecturer who, after retiring from a teaching career, was appointed Honorary Professor of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast in 2017.

Attendees will also have a chance to put their questions directly to Professor Williams in a Q&A session immediately following the lecture.

The Rev Danielle McCullagh, Church of Ireland and Methodist Chaplain to Queen’s University, said: “I am delighted that Professor Williams has accepted my invitation to give this lecture. He is one of the most significant Christian contributors to the conversation on AI on these islands and will no doubt share with us some helpful insights and strong theological framework to help our thinking on this topic.”

The public lecture will take place in the Great Hall, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University Belfast. Refreshments will be served from 5.30pm. More information and tickets can be accessed at: www.thehubbelfast.org/annuallecture 

Stephen Williams gained his Master of Arts Degree in Modern History at the University of Oxford and his Master of Arts Degree in Theology from the University of Cambridge. After a period as Henry Fellow in Yale University, he received his PhD through the Department of Religious Studies of the university in 1981.

He has mostly spent his professional life in Presbyterian seminaries in the United Kingdom, firstly as Professor of Theology in the United Theological College, Aberystwyth (from 1980 to 1991), and then as Professor of Systematic Theology in Union Theological College in Belfast (from 1994 to 2017). He was appointed Honorary Professor of Theology at Queen’s University Belfast in 2017 and elected Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales (FLSW) in 2018.

Although his main professional areas are theology and intellectual history, he has an interest in the field of bioethics. During 2018, he held a Research Fellowship at the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School researching the connection between a Christian understanding of creation and philosophies undergirding developments in artificial intelligence.

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