Rudolf Otto’s ‘Holy’: Artificial Intelligence (AI) as the ‘Tremendum Mysterium et Fascinans’

German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), an influential theorist within the historical development of religious studies, is best known for his notion of religious experience being the apprehension of the “Holy” or the “numinous,” concepts he presented in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917). We will briefly remind ourselves of Otto’s theory before observing how it has been applied to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human perceptions of robots.

Otto was one of several historical theorists to seek after an essence (sine qua non) of religion. An essence is an essential, fundamental component to religion that without which something would not be religion. For Otto, religion is supremely transcendental and there are significant limitations when attempting to understand it through ratio-centric methods,

“The truly ‘mysterious’ object is beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb” (1).

Otto claimed that irrational elements belonged to the heart of religion and that by applying too much rationality one will produce an inaccurate portrayal of it. This motivated him to present the idea of the Holy (also referred to as the “numinous”) which he believed is unique to religion, as well as closely associated with goodness and distinguishable from rationality. Otto traced the essence of religion not to rational, sub-rational, or super-rational elements but directly to irrational elements, which produced what he called divination or irrational religious intuition. Without this core component, religion would not exist.

Otto referred to the numinous, which he claimed is an intangible and unseen yet compelling reality that inspired both fascination and dread within human beings, that is always present within religious experience and awareness. It also encompasses the irrational and non-rational core of religion that points to a reality outside of oneself. To flesh out his category, Otto posited the numinous to consist of two elements bound together, the tremendum mysterium and the fascinans.

By tremendum mysterium he meant awe, overpowering majesty, dynamic energy, and urgency. By fascinans, he meant something wholly other and distinct from everything else but that still attracts and fascinates. According to his evolutionary concept of religious consciousness, Otto believed that the first human beings acknowledged the numinous, but only the fearful side of it (as represented in their fear of divine wrath). They soon, however, became aware of another side of it, namely, “positive self-surrender to the numen.”

Theorists have applied Otto’s theory to AI in what is an interesting blend of historical theory with futurism.

Anne Foerst, a theologian and theorist in AI, suggests that the human being’s experience of intelligent machines is one of both fear and allure, much like his experience of the divine (God in the Machine (2004)). Foerst uses “Cog”, a humanoid AI robot created in the M. I. T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, to show how humanoid machines evoke feelings in people paralleling Otto’s description of the numinous. Human beings experience Cog with both fear and fascination (2). We will note how this is a theme widely used in sci-fi literature on the topic.

Applying Otto’s notion of the numinous produces a range of questions regarding the potentialities of AI. To summarize depictions in sci-fi literature on how AI might produce feelings of both awe and horror, Robert Geraci writes that,

“Technology promises us a life of leisure, perhaps even immortality; at the same time, intelligent machines are always on the verge of revolting and taking over the planet. In such eschatological scenarios, robots attack their human masters and possibly enslave them… Technology promises salvation with one hand while threatening damnation with the other. This coincidence of opposites appears most prominently in depictions of intelligent robots.” (3).

One discerns this pattern in the film series Terminator where advanced, intelligent machines threaten humanity with extinction yet also remain essential to its survival (4). With the terminator machine not present to protect the protagonist of the second and third films, John Conner, John would not have survived. Although the terminator attempted to kill John in the first film, in the latter two he becomes an ally. In the Terminator series, the machine thus functions as both friend and foe. It produces within humans feelings of terror and fascination. There is a craving for the security provided by machines as well as a fear of them. This theme runs through other popular media, literature, and film on the topic.

This theme first emerged in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927) and its presentation of a dark side to technology. The theme has since lived on in Forbidden Planet (1956) and other popular films like The Matrix in which intelligent machines and robots threaten to eliminate humanity. Literature has also developed this motif over time. In I, Robot (1950) machines become a threat to humanity, although one robotic protagonist, Robbie, chooses to come to the aid of human beings. The human-robot relationship is complex. There is the desire to be protected by robots and use them for labor, but there is also a strong fear of them. The perception of machines in these films and literature, and many others like them, parallel human relations with Otto’s Holy. 

Through the lens of Otto’s numinous, AI raises pertinent questions. Will, for instance, humanity come to view advanced AI as wholly other (fascinans)? Will AI arrive at a point where it exceeds everything else that human beings cannot help but be terrified by its power (tremendum mysterium)? Predictions are that AI will become so advanced it will become God-like. Just as humanity cannot escape the ever-watchful eye of God, so it will be unable to conceal itself from AI. Just as God knows the answers to humanity’s existential questions, so will the all-knowing AI. Just as God invokes in human beings awe, shock, and fright, so will AI in its terrifying otherness, its unlimited power over human life, and wholly other quality. Fear is also guaranteed as militaries progressively develop sophisticated self-automated technologies to use in warfare. Whoever dominates in the field of AI, will dominate the future. This lies behind calls for regulation and why some of the leading thinkers such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned that AI could pose an existential threat to humanity.

Although AI is considered by many to be humanity’s prized creation, might it someday possess consciousness, as transhumanists believe? Will there be “A future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed” (known as the “Singularity”) (5).

Some predict that AI will answer questions traditionally answered by religion. Might human beings become utterly dependent on AI and so drawn to it that they cannot live without it? Can AI, like God, be the source of ultimate good and salvation? Many AI apocalypticists and transhumanists look forward to a mechanical future and Virtual Kingdom in which death and pain will no longer exist. Human beings, they hope, will possess immortality as they unlock the ability to upload consciousness into machines. AI will, such people think, become the ultimate good through which humanity will attain salvation.


1. Twiss, Sumner B. 1992. Experience of the Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology of Religion. Lebanon, United States: The University Press of New England. p. 83.

2. Foerst, Anne. 1998. “Cog, a Humanoid Robot, and the Question of the Image of God.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 33(1):91-111. p. 99.

3. Geraci, Robert. 2007. “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 42(4):961-980. p. 965-967.

4. Geraci, Robert. 2007. Ibid. p. 968-969.

5. Kurzweil, Ray. 2005. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Publishing Group. p. 7.

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