Facial recognition and religion


While it is not particularly well-known among the general public, debates concerning the use of facial recognition in churches are very real and not entirely new. As early as 2015, Vice published an article mentioning that some churches were experimenting with the use of facial recognition for managing their parishes. According to the article,

Dozens of churches in the United States and around the world are using facial recognition software to track their members, according to the company that’s selling them the software to do it. … The idea behind [the facial recognition software] Churchix is to keep track of which congregation members are attending services and events. It works like this: When a new member of a congregation is registered, he or she will be asked to provide a file photo, which is fed into the church’s local database. Churchix then extracts identifying facial features from this photo. From there, the software is also hooked up to cameras streaming live video, or pre-recorded video can be used.

Naturally, it is not limited to the United States. In 2020, for instance, Evangelical Focus Europe reported about the use of facial recognition in Brazilian churches.

At the end of last year, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo hosted the so-called ExpoCristiana, a commercial event which offers concerts of Christian music, samples of evangelical publishers and even virtual simulations of episodes of the Bible. One of the most striking products was the one offered by the artificial intelligence company Kuzzma under the slogan “Change the way you manage your church”. The company presented a facial recognition service especially aimed at churches. … facial recognition works from a high-resolution panoramic camera installed in the churches, that identifies both personal data and the attendance to the worship service.

Meanwhile, facial recognition remains a highly controversial technology. A 2022 study by Pew Research Center shows that a substantial number of Americans remain skeptical about facial recognition – 27%, for example, believe that the use of facial recognition by police is a bad idea, 48% of respondents were against the use of facial recognition by companies to monitor their employees, and 57% were against the use of facial recognition by social media.

In the editorial to the 2018 special issue of the journal Surveillance & Society, Eric Stoddart and Susanne Wigorts Yngvesson pointed out that for a long time “religion was a blind spot in surveillance studies.” The situation seemingly did not improve much in the following years – in 2023, Wigorts Yngvesson once again wrote that

nearly every religious context we studied or approached is quite unaware of the issues raised in this surveillance society. Some religious communities are of course well aware from their experience, but when it comes to the reflection of how surveillance technologies are used against and within religious groups, people and practices, there is a distinct lack of reflection. One big issue that I did not raise in this article is the connection between commercial interests and intelligent technology, which is able to shape not only individuals but communities and the inner self, i.e., how people think, act and believe – and what we think about. Shoshana Zuboff describes this as a new world where human beings become products of a surveillance capitalistic system. This is a global phenomenon and religious practices are of course also part of the system.

The potential implications of these new technologies for the freedom of religion and belief constitute a topic of particular concern. It is all the more important given that surveillance practices introduced in religious communities can also affect their neighbors.

Recently, The New Republic has reported about the Evangelical app Bless Every Home that is used by missionaries to target their non-Evangelical neighbors for proselytizing and prayer walks. The app collects a lot of data, including religion, ethnicity, country of origin, and so on, on people who have never explicitly consented to provide this data to religious groups. Due to its nature, the app especially affects minority groups, like Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, inviting Christians to participate in a form of public prayer near non-Christian households and places of worship to expel evil spirits presumably inhabiting these places. Not only this practice can be seen as disturbing for non-Christians, the sheer amount of sensitive data available in it is ripe for abuse.

There is also little doubt that once the data is collected and available, it eventually could be used not only by respective congregations but also by marketing companies and governments. This, in turn, directly affects people’s ability to practice their religion. For example, reflecting on surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City, Sharmin Sadequee argued that

The infiltration of Islamic communities has a drastic impact on the way practitioners experience their lives and faith. Surveillance under this paradigm is not simply an information-gathering exercise; it is also a method of attempting to reconstruct the way of being and experiencing the world of the targeted population. It can strongly affect the way in which people experience and perceive their social world, sacred time and space, and the world as a whole, and deny adherents their own preferred modes of conduct, existence, and belonging.

Within Christian theology, too, there are concerns about the effects of surveillance practices. Some theologians have argued that the practice of surveillance is, in principle, incompatible with Christian values. Evaluating surveillance from a Lutheran standpoint, the theologian Christian Simon has argued, in his 2022 doctoral thesis, that

automated processes have contributed to a dehumanization of all participants. The whole approach of surveillance violates human dignity on many levels. … The attempts at conditioning human behaviour with the help of control mechanisms that dish out rewards or punishments show a patronizing attitude that is inappropriate in a “world come of age”. The permanent encouragement to behave in predictable ways suppresses individual creativity and discourages variance. … human beings are being evaluated according to a utilitarian calculus as risk factors or assets. In this way, they are made into objects that can be used and instrumentalized to fulfil others’ purposes. Altogether these practices uncover a concept of the human person that is not compatible with a Christian notion of the human person…

If this, indeed, is the case, then one could argue that introduction of digital surveillance in Christian churches not only has a potential to affect human rights of their parishioners and neighbors but also can eventually undermine the Christian nature of these institutions.

Religion is a part of society and therefore it comes as no surprise that religion changes following social transformations. Technology plays an important role in this as it has the power to shape a wide gamut of cultural domains, including religion. The changes introduced by new technologies can be for better or for worse. However, today, the rate of adoption of controversial technologies dramatically outpaces ethical, legal, and theological reflections that could protect us from their potential harms. Technology is powerful and beautiful. Yet technological development is always guided by human values. What are the values that drive it these days is the question that all of us should ask ourselves.

Programming with Bahá'ís

The post begins with a particular Linux program that has an unexpected connection to Bahá'í Faith and explores Bahá'í attitudes towards science and new technologies specifically focusing on the conversation about the transformative power and possible perils of the Internet.

2022-12-13 · Read ›

A Computer is a Plato's Cave

From the early days of personal computers, they were used as a metaphor for esoteric reality that resembles Renaissance visions of Hermetic universe. This metaphor emerged, at least in part, because computers themselves were a product of esoteric imagination. However, do they still retain this emancipatory esoteric power?

2022-12-05 · Read ›