Are AI-powered church services coming to a pew near you?

While AI-led services haven't become mainstream, scientists and theologians are exploring how new technology can coexist with some of the world's oldest teachings.
AI and religion
Posted at 7:21 PM, May 10, 2024

Welcome to a Friday morning church service at St. Paul's in Germany.

The parishioners are all here. The clergy are, too. Well, sort of — if you count avatars powered by artificial intelligence.

Today's service features a sermon, prayers and songs brought to you almost entirely by ChatGPT.

While AI-led services haven't become mainstream, scientists and theologians are exploring how new technology can coexist with some of the world's oldest teachings.

In places like Temple B'Nai Or in Morristown, New Jersey, the congregation, made up of scientists young and old, sets out to answer a question: What is a human? And does allowing technology into a fundamentally human experience like faith alter it somehow?

"We started looking at the future that is now and had questions of AI and, you know, even uploading our mind to the cloud, things like that," Rabbi Michael Satz told Scripps News.

Satz says it isn't the first time the nearly 4,000-year-old religion has had to grapple with change.

"My ancestors wrote the Torah in the scroll — 2000 years ago, the new technology was to have a book. And so the ancient rabbis had to ask the question, can we liturgically use a book when we read the Torah? And they decided, no, you need to read out of the scroll because that's connecting us to our ancestors," he said.

Today, they're faced with similar questions.

"How do we look at AI as a tool that can help us be who we are rather than help us divide ourselves from others?" Satz asked.

But can AI answer the tougher questions of spirituality, like "What's the one true religion?"; "Why do bad things happen to good people?"; "What happens after you die?"

"I can see people turning to AI as a start, as a research tool for those questions, and see, what have the great Jewish teachers said about this question in the past?," said Satz.

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Kutter Callaway, an associate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and an adviser with AI and Faith, agrees the human touch is necessary.

"Depending upon what data sets it's using, we get an intense amount of bias within AI right now," Callaway told Scripps News. "And it reflects, shock and awe, the same bias that we have as humans. And so having someone that is actually a kind of wise guide or mentor to help you discern how to even interpret, understand the results that AI is giving you is really important."

But Callaway says there's good that can come from AI, like translating the Bible into various languages.

"That is a very difficult task when it requires on-the-ground humans who know a language really well. But when assisted through AI, all of a sudden you have a tool that actually can speed up that process quite a lot," he said.

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, who helped found the studies at Temple B'Nai Or through his organization Sinai and Synapses, agrees, saying AI can be an aid in study.

"The best sermons that I ever find ... that I ever hear are when a rabbi sees a word in one text that is used in some other text and links the two of them," Mitelman said. "AI can very, very quickly say, 'Yes, here's all the places where this text is used' and then the rabbi can then say, 'Oh, that's interesting, I hadn't seen that connection before, but I wouldn't have known this might connect here.'"

However, there are concerns across religions about the interpretation of such texts, bias and misinformation.

"The spread of misinformation and how easy it is to create and then spread misinformation, whether that's using something like Dall-E or ChatGPT or videos and also algorithms that will spread misinformation — because at least for hundreds of thousands of years it was better for humans to trust than to not trust, right?" said Mitelman.

That cautious view of AI and religion seems to translate across practices, a poll from the Christian research group Barna shows.
Over half of Christians, 52%, said they'd be disappointed if they found out AI was used in their church.

In 2020, leaders from the Roman Catholic Church, IBM and Microsoft signed the Rome Call for AI Ethics, a joint agreement that would eventually include leaders from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to make sure future usage of AI is transparent, inclusive, responsible, and impartial.

But no matter how far the technology goes, all three agree the embrace of AI and religious life won't happen overnight.

"Our tradition tells us when two people are studying Torah together, the divine presence is with them. And I think, you know, using AI, being with AI can be isolating because you're not with other real flesh-and-blood people," said Satz.

It's just like when places of worship turned to Zoom: Four years later, people are slowly coming back to in-person services. The clergy we spoke to said there's a reason for that.

"If you think about so many of the great conversations that you've had or meetings that you've had, how many of them were just sort of serendipitous conversations that you had in the parking lot or at services, or you know, so much of the joy of life are the unexpected meetings," said Mitelman.

"Often Christian worship is supposed to be cumbersome. It's supposed to be inconvenient. It requires you to bring your body into a space with other bodies and celebrate the broken and bruised body of the God that we worship," Callaway said.

Which leads back to that church service in Germany, and the idea of bots someday replacing faith leaders.

"I think probably yes, it is coming and faster than we think," said Callaway. "To me, depending upon an algorithm essentially to deliver to us what I think is a moment where humans commune with other humans and with God — if you remove the humans from that equation, then it's very quickly you're removing God from the equation too."

Mitelman agrees.

"I think I would be a fool to say that's never going to happen. I think that's certainly not outside the realm of possibility, but I don't think it's going to be hugely accepted," he said. "People need humanity here, whether that's Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. So much of religion is not just faith, but it is a physical manifestation. So is that kneeling, is that kissing the Torah scroll, is that standing or sitting."