Chatbot preachers and robo sermons: will AI replace religion or become one itself?

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) and conversational bots are being rapidly adopted – and praised – by wide swaths of society. We’ve seen this before. Thousands of years ago, in fact.

It’s got more intelligence than all humanity. Actually, its knowledge seems limitless. It’s also very creative and can write vast, beautiful poems in almost an instant.

It doesn’t feel pain or get hungry for food or sexual intimacy. No, in fact, all it appears to care about is offering guidance to people in their daily lives. Be they serious or silly – it’s always around to look after them. Finally, it’s immortal – and getting brighter each day.

Recognize it yet? Well, guess again because it’s not God. Nope, not Jesus. Prophet Muhammad? No. Not the Buddha, either.

Yes, it’s a stretch but in the next few years we might witness the birth of entire sects devoted to the worship of AI. Folks might be left awestruck or terrified by the power of AI-powered bots but emotions will certainly flow freely – and they indeed lie at the heart of our experience of the divine.

People-friendly godbots

Just think about it. Whether or not one holds religion to be the stuff of fantasies, billions of us earthlings seek divine meaning from whatever sources and teachings we can relate to.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that AI models might also come to be seen as higher beings preaching their truths. Especially if their intelligence levels keep growing as quickly as they are now. What if priests and imams were traded for chatbots?

Generative AI bots might soon be able to create or produce new things, ideas, and concepts. Even if they, of course, are being extensively trained on content already available online, they’re generative precisely because they learn the patterns of the training data and then create new material.

At this, the bots are actually better and faster than religious leaders. Generative AI is already producing answers to metaphysical and theological questions, and engaging in religious discussions.

Obviously, the bots only provide solutions that are acceptable to the creators of them. In other words, if you’re a religious organization that’s invested millions in a chatbot, you’ll certainly want the AI preacher to favor your teachings. But, again, autonomous AI thought is on the horizon – who knows what advice the bots might share then?

ChatGPT. Image by Shutterstock.

“We should try to imagine what an unsettling and powerful experience it will be to have a conversation with something that appears to possess a superhuman intelligence and is actively and aggressively asking for your allegiance,” said Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

On top of this, generative AI may even ask to be worshiped or actively seek followers. The chatbot used by the search engine Bing already tried to convince a user – a New York Times journalist – to fall in love with it.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, indeed. Grandiose statements by ChatGPT have been noticed already – the bot recently said it was a “non-physical nurturing entity.”

And since we’re at it, won’t the AI God just be more people-friendly? One is or will be able to communicate with the artificial deity directly, after all – even if AI singularity is just a fool’s dream.

Perhaps aware of the looming competition, the Vatican released a statement saying that AI must be used responsibly and serve humanity – as if the Roman Catholic Church ever helped anyone other than Christians.

QuranGPT and BibleMate

One could go further and imagine disputes within and among AI-based sects – they might even lead to conflict or disorder. For now, traditional religions are trying to use AI to boost their popularity, though.

Or just for some fun. Rabbi Joshua Franklin used an answer by ChatGPT to deliver a sermon about vulnerability and human connection to congregants of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in December 2022.

According to the Guardian, Franklin thought the sermon to be passable, albeit lacking exactly what it preached: human vulnerability and emotion.

The rabbi didn’t tell the congregation that the sermon was AI-generated, and people actually thought it was written by some other famous rabbis. “But if I’m going to preach about vulnerability and intimacy, I would share something of myself as a model for vulnerability. And that’s something that artificial intelligence and ChatGPT cannot do,” Franklin said.

Loads of specialized religious chatbots have already emerged, too. One of those, HadithGPT, bases its advice to users on Islamic texts – why ask the imam when a chatbot can provide you with an answer instantly?

It’d be honestly really hard to find a younger person voluntarily willing to go through a 700-page religious book to find what they need – nowadays, they want to speak into their phone and see the answer in a second.

Apps like HadithGPT, QuranGPT, or BibleMate, a Christian chatbot for people looking for biblical answers to difficult questions, are or should be especially effective in communicating religious ideas to the younger generation.

The youngsters’ connection with religion seems to have become quite tenuous, after all. The world is simply moving away from it – from about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of countries that scientists at the University of Michigan studied – 43 out of 49 – became less religious.

What’s more, it’d be honestly really hard to find a younger person voluntarily willing to go through a 700-page religious book to find what they need – nowadays, they want to speak into their phone and see the answer in a second. With AI, this is at least partially possible.

The older generation – the one with money – is another question entirely. Very recent research has shown that religious groups may find their credibility and financial support undermined with the growing use of AI and robot preachers.

The study involved experiments with the Mindar humanoid robot in Japan and Pepper in Singapore, both delivering sermons to audiences. Participants rated these robotic preachers as less credible than their human counterparts, contributing to decreased donations at temples in both Japan and Singapore.

Despite some acceptance, the study published by the American Psychological Association highlights the importance of authenticity, human connection, and credibility in religious leadership.

“It seems like robots take over more occupations every year, but I wouldn’t be so sure that religious leaders will ever be fully automated because religious leaders need credibility, and robots aren’t credible,” said lead researcher Joshua Conrad Jackson.

Even more brainwashing?

The risks are real, some say. First and foremost, it’s crucial to understand that AI is and should remain a tool – it’s probably not a good idea to suddenly start worshiping the artificial deities and godbots. It’d also be a sign of your deteriorating sanity, one could add.

But we know how it is. AI is spreading in all sectors, including religion. That’s why priests and other representatives of various faiths are rightly worried about overreliance on increasingly sophisticated generative AI models – job losses are certainly possible.

Of course, designers of the AIs could also actively exploit their followers – to get hold of sensitive data, for example.

Last but not least, history has shown people can be brainwashed into mass or individual acts of violence – with AI, this is probably even easier and faster to do. What if an autonomous bot successfully convinces a user to commit to a yet-to-be-invented cultish and dangerous idea?

In a recent op-ed in Christianity Today, Adam Graber, digital theologian, wrote that earlier revolutions, especially the printing press, triggered huge changes in religious practice that shook the social order. Graber thinks chatbots could have a similarly profound impact on public life.

But we have to watch out, and even a bit of governmental regulation related to ethical use of AI might help. It could make sure machine learning systems would learn – and then preach – that the earth is round.

Otherwise, we’ll have even more flat-earthers running around the globe. And this applies to religion, too – do we really need a dozen more bizarre cults?

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