Manhattan Professor Explores Unique Relationship Between Science and Religion

Fulbright Scholar Grant recipient and religious studies professor Robert Geraci, Ph.D. examines the intersection of religion, robotics, artificial intelligence and video games.

Manhattan College professor Robert Geraci, Ph.D., has made it a habit to defy tradition with his research.

An associate professor of religious studies, Geraci has set out to find the relationship between the typically conflicting studies of science and religion, and how they create meaning.

Focusing on religion in contemporary culture, Geraci has specifically examined the way robotics and artificial intelligence are compatible with and create meaning in western religious thought.

In his first book, Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality, Geraci explored how western apocalyptic traditions affect the way certain people think about robotics and artificial intelligence.

However, he doesn’t want to stop there.

While robotics has been explored in the context of western religious theories, there is a lack of research in regards to this technology and eastern religious thought, a gap that Geraci hopes to fill in his upcoming trip to India. He will be traveling there next winter on a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar grant in order to conduct a social study of robotics in India, a previously untapped area of research.

Through a series of interviews with roboticists and computer scientists, Geraci will explore firsthand what people in India think about robotics and artificial intelligence in relation to their religious life.

It occurred to me, other places have different religious environments, different ways of thinking about things. I wonder if robotics is different in a meaningful way.

“It occurred to me, other places have different religious environments, different ways of thinking about things. I wonder if robotics is different in a meaningful way,” Geraci says.

He will be conducting this research at the Indian Institute of Science’s Center for Contemporary Studies, an elite technical institution in Bangalore, India.

Along with traveling around the country to conduct various interviews, Geraci hopes to uncover popular literature that will be productive in gathering data. Ultimately, he hopes to produce a substantial book that either traces the influence of eastern religion on technology, or, if there is no connection between the two, explain the lack of techno-theology in that part of the world.

“I hope, in an academic sense, that this research enables me to help ground future research. I really fret over research that is not empirically minded, that is disconnected from real people and what people are actually doing, building or thinking,” Geraci says. “So if I can get some really good in-depth work on what is happening in India, then I can hold that out as an example of what I think would be productive in a broader global scale.”

In the meantime, Geraci is preparing to publish his next book on the association between virtual worlds (particularly World of Warcraft and Second Life) and religion. He is interested in how video games provide players with meaningful experiences, which he and three of his students have been studying with funding from a National Science Foundation grant.

Samantha Fox ’12, one of the students who has done research with Geraci, was initially drawn to his work because she had taken his Religion and Modern Art course the previous semester.

“I really admired his passion for unique subjects like robotics, artificial intelligence and religion,” Fox says. “He’s taught me to take pride in my research, and to not be nervous about explaining what I'm doing to professors or professionals that are much more knowledgeable than I am.”

In addition to his research, Geraci also recently participated in a public discussion at the All Souls Interfaith Gathering summer exhibit on how robotics have been envisioned during the past century and the importance of ensuring that technology is used toward humane ends in the future. 

“As a consequence of such a public conversation, we could make different policy moves that could make the world better,” Geraci says.

Challenging the traditional approaches to studying science and religion, Geraci continues to explore how technology, religion and meaning are all intertwined in different contemporary cultures throughout the world. 

Watch Geraci discuss religion and robotics at the Shelburne Museum: