Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity

CANCELLED.  We regret that the Blake Lecture in the History of Christianity: Will Robots Feel Pain? The History of Religion, the Politics of Race, and the Digital Future of Humanity scheduled for April 2, 2020 Hibbs Hall, room 303 at 5:30 p.m has been cancelled.

From Aristotle’s ancient conception of the soul to Ibn Rushd’s 12th-century analytics of the intellect to the information theory underlying neural networks, scholars have queried the agency of things and the relationship between matter and its other (spirit?). Does agency inhere in material things? Can an assemblage of machine parts be a person? What distinguishes humans from mere objects? In Will Robots Feel Pain? The History of Religion, the Politics of Race, and the Digital Future of Humanity, Sylvester Johnson takes up these questions. He proposes that the use of artificial intelligence for human enhancement has crystallized these age-old conundrums in a new way. Machines have now been successfully engineered to write poetry, compose music, make moral decisions, and even program other machines. He interprets the relevance of these developments for scholars of religion and race. And he discusses the prospect of a new racialization on the horizon, one that promises to expose the limits of the human as a coherent category while creating new possibilities of machine life through developing martial technologies of death.

Sylvester A. Johnson, the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, is a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. Dr. Johnson has published widely on the history of African American religions. In addition to his many scholarly articles and essays, he is author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave Macmillian, 2004), and African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, 2015), and co-editor of The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11 (California, 2017). He is currently writing a book on human identity in the age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis, and producing a digital scholarly edition of an early English history of global religions.

This event is free and open to the public. For ADA requirements and additional information, please contact Andrea Wight at (804) 828-1635 or

The lecture honors William E. and Miriam S. Blake and is presented annually by a renowned scholar. The series' objective is to broaden the audience's understanding of Christianity by making it relatable.

The lecture is supported by an endowed fund established by family, friends, colleagues, and those who enjoyed the History of Christianity course which Professor Blake initiated at VCU. 2020 marks the 27th anniversary of this lecture series. Click here for information about past Blake Lectures.

For more information about the Blake Lecture, please contact Professor Andrew Crislip ( or 804-828-0155), the History Department's Blake Chair in the History of Christianity.