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A Church Led by AI Pastors

Money, religion, and politics. The three things I was always told to avoid in conversation with new acquaintances. Why? Because all three can make people strongly opinionated, defensive, and argumentative.

But I’m going to break that rule and talk about AI in religion because it’s been a sleeping giant for more than half a decade. Bear with me.

Over 300 people attended an experimental ChatGPT-powered church service at St. Paul’s church in the Bavarian town of Fürth, Germany. The 40-minute sermon included text generated by OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot and delivered by avatars on a television screen above the altar.

“I told the artificial intelligence, ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’” Simmerlein told the AP. In his ChatGPT prompt, he asked for the inclusion of psalms, prayers, and a blessing at the end. “You end up with a pretty solid church service,” Simmerlein said.

Reactions to the machine-led service were mixed. Some congregants, like Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old IT professional, found the avatar's lack of emotions and fast, monotonous speech off-putting, remarking, "There was no heart and no soul."

Others, like Marc Jansen, a 31-year-old Lutheran pastor, had a more positive outlook. "I had actually imagined it to be worse. But I was positively surprised how well it worked. Also, the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times," said Jansen. – Associated Press

My First AI Church Experience

I was first compelled to think (and write) about AI entering religion back in 2017 when Anthony Lewandowski (famed self-driving car researcher) created Way of the Future. It was the first religion to be guided by an artificial intelligence. They even had a doctrine for their AI god, which revolved around submitting to this being so that it wouldn’t smite them when it “inevitably” gained superintelligence.

I got a lot of pushback from my newsletter back then for covering the topic and posing serious questions like, “Is there a need for technology in religion?” The animosity was warranted. Challenging long held belief systems and one’s faith is bound to bring up conflict.

But my thought at the time, which I still hold today, is that we’re trending toward less traditional religious activity and a desire for other avenues of spiritual fulfillment. Religious attendance and affiliation is on the decline, after all.

And this presents an opportunity for the disruptive tech mindset to enter.

How Will Religion Adapt?

The aforementioned church in Germany is experimenting with avatar-led and AI-written sermons. Maybe they don’t keep avatars at the altar, but AI might assist with generating sermon ideas so that the pastor can focus on connecting with his parish.

IV.AI trained a model to generate new (and believable) verses of the King James Bible. This could give rise to an entirely new era of endless translations and editions which use current language or examples to share God’s word.

Even the Pope is getting involved. The Vatican is weighing in on AI ethics. Pope Francis worked with Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to write up a handbook titled “Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap.” The handbook is meant to guide AI leaders through moral questions related to AI advancement, data privacy, and encryption, among other things.

If hearing any of this makes your blood boil. If you see this as disrespect for the sanctity of religion. Then that’s completely normal. It’s strange to think about AI in religion. It should make you queasy. But here’s the honest truth:

Spirituality is going to go down some really odd paths in the age of AI. We’re going to see people use AI to create false idols, write compelling religious manifestos, and even build large followings of believers. We haven’t yet seen the worst of it (or best of it, depending how you view this).