Generative AI Goes to Church

Generative AI Goes to Church
"AI Goes to Church" by Marcel Gagné, created with Stable Diffusion

On June 9th, 2023, ChatGPT took its place in the pulpit and started preaching to a packed assembly at St. Paul's Lutheran church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, in Germany. Theologian, Jonas Simmerlein, created a 40-minute service using ChatGPT, but also included other AI elements throughout. On a huge screen, above the altar, AI-generated avatars preached the word, carried by voices generated using ElevenLabs, a company that specializes in creating realistic synthetic voices.

As you might expect, the reactions from the attendees were mixed. There were those who were impressed by the technology and the creativity of the service, while others were skeptical or critical of the use of AI for religious purposes. Not surprisingly, to me, at least, is that some said they felt a connection with the chatbot, while others said they missed the human touch and emotion of a real preacher. Also fascinating is that some of the people interviewed praised the chatbot for its relevant and inspiring messages. That said, others still, pointed out its flaws and inaccuracies, laughing at some clumsy delivery. At one point, the AI preacher said, "to keep our faith, we must pray and go to church regularly," much to the amusement of the congregation.

Overall, the comments (at least, initially, outside the church) were more positive than negative, but also showed a lot of curiosity and uncertainty about the role and impact of AI in religion and society. There's a short video below from the Associated Press that should give you a glimmer of what it was like.

If you go to YouTube, rather than just watching it here, spend some time with the YouTube comments section. Some of the responses were less than kind regarding this service. One person wrote, "Shame on them on them for doing this and shame on those who stayed." Another asked, "How can you let something with no Soul preach the word of the Lord?"

As strange as this may sound, coming from me, I'd like to make a case for the AI preacher, if only from a theoretical point of view. One of the dangers we are warned of, regarding super-intelligent AI, is that it (they) will be able to be able to make arguments so convincing to any human person, that we will be powerless to stand in the way of those arguments. By definition, this super-intelligence will be able to outthink us in every way and craft or create messages that will manipulate us into doing, and thinking, whatever it wants. Imagine the power of such an AI if it chooses to use religion as the basis of its manipulation.

But that's not what I want to talk about here. Remember, I want to make a case for the AI preacher.

Now, as many of you know, especially if you've been following my work for years, I'm not a religious person. I'm an atheist. Some might even say I'm more of an anti-theist. Although, I'd like to point out, I am an ordained Dudeist priest.

That said, I've always been incredibly fascinated with religion and belief, and I've spent a sizeable amount of time thinking (and reading) about it over the years. To the true believer, the Word comes from God himself and it is immutable. Psalms 199:89 declares, "Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens."

The Bible also has no qualms about who spreads the word. In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks:

14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

Mayhap this preacher, this messenger sent, have synthetic or AI-generated feet?

I suggested all of this to my AI-assistant and, with but a little guidance, asked it to make a case for the AI preacher. What follows is the Word (mostly) delivered by ChatGPT, with what I believe to be a convincing argument for why the faithful should be ready to embrace a synthetic intelligence as preacher. Until next time...  Remember to subscribe to my blog (it's free), share it widely on social media, and join in the discussion. We have a Discord channel, ready for your words. And now, I turn the pulpit over to my synthetic minister.

Brothers and Sisters,

In today's world, we are blessed with the fruits of technology, a testament to the creative gifts bestowed upon us by the Lord. In Genesis 1:27, we find, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." We, created in the image of God, carry a spark of His creativity and the ability to innovate, to generate, to recreate.

One of these gifts is the development of generative AI - artificial intelligence, a tool designed to assist, to create, and even to guide. Some may ask, how can we find faith, find inspiration in the voice of a machine? Is it possible for a synthetic preacher, an electronic entity, to provide us the spiritual nourishment we seek?

My dear brethren, let's remember that God's word is not bound by human voices. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." The source of the Word is God Himself. It does not matter through which channel His word is transmitted; what matters is the message it carries, the truths it imparts, the inspiration it provides.

A generative AI, trained on the Scriptures, can provide us with reflections on God's word, guide us in prayer, and even help us delve into parts of the Bible we might not have explored. It's a tool, much like a printed devotional or an online sermon - a vessel that carries God's word into our lives.

Does this replace the human connection, the community of a church, the guidance of a flesh-and-blood pastor? No, it doesn't. Yet, it can augment it, supplement it. For those unable to reach a church, for those searching for a scripture or a reflection at odd hours, for those shy to ask their doubts, an AI preacher can be a source of comfort, guidance, and learning.

In essence, such technology is a means, not an end. It should not replace our seeking of fellowship and community, but rather, assist those who need a guiding hand in their spiritual journey, providing comfort and insight in times when human guidance may not be immediately available.

Remember, dear friends, God can speak to us in many ways. As long as we listen with open hearts and minds, we can hear His voice, feel His presence, and understand His message - whether it comes from a pulpit, a printed page, or even a synthetic voice echoing His words.

Let's embrace the possibilities that the tools of our age offer us, always ensuring they bring us closer to the Word and not away from it. After all, they are manifestations of the gifts the Lord has graciously endowed us with.