At first glance, technology and faith do not have much in common in everyday life. Nevertheless, it happens that the two areas intersect. For example at the German Church Day.
Last Friday, over 300 people gathered for an experimental service at St. Paul’s Church in Fürth, Bavaria, to witness an unusual premiere:
Because the AI-based chatbot ChatGPT wrote and presented the service there. According to the Kirchentag’s website, the sermon was around 45 minutes long and was delivered by avatars on a screen. Allegedly, only 2 percent of the texts were not generated by the AI.
Monotonous in the future of faith
The service was performed as part of the German Evangelical Church Congress – a biennial event in Germany that draws tens of thousands of participants.
The idea for this extraordinary service came from Jonas Simmerlein, theologian and philosopher at the University of Vienna. He commissioned ChatGPT to write the service and oversaw the entire process.
The service focused on themes such as letting go of the past and overcoming the fear of death.
Opinions are divided
Reactions to the AI-led service were mixed. One or the other preacher avatar had to put up with the occasional laughter. This was probably mainly due to the emotionless presentation and the monotonous voice.
The experimental, AI-controlled service drew so much interest that a long line formed outside the church an hour before it began.
Some community members, such as 54-year-old IT professional Heiderose Schmidt, found the avatar’s lack of emotion and fast, monotonous speech off-putting (via apknews):
“There was no heart and no soul. The avatars showed no emotion, had no body language, and spoke so quickly and monotonously that I had a very hard time concentrating on what they were saying. […] But maybe it’s different for the younger generation that grew up with all these things.«
Others, like 31-year-old Lutheran pastor Marc Jansen, had a more positive view:
“I had actually imagined worse. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. The language of the AI also worked well, although it was still a bit bumpy at times.«
The Dutch Anna Puzio, who also attended the service, thinks that artificial intelligence can benefit religion. But she also warns of danger:
»The challenge I see is that AI is very human-like and that you can easily be fooled by it«
What was the intention behind the experiment?
Simmerlein emphasizes that his intention was not to replace religious leaders. Instead, he wants to use AI as a tool that could help them.
For example, AI could provide ideas for upcoming sermons or speed up the sermon-writing process to give ministers more time for individual spiritual direction.
The danger: As future clergy use language models to guide their sermon writing, parishioners may unintentionally hear novel interpretations of religious teachings, as AIs are far from flawless.
Meanwhile, James Vincent, senior editor at tech magazine The Verge, draws attention to possible problems that AI church services could cause in the future:
link to Twitter content
»Anticipating future splits due to language model hallucinations – the equivalent of mistranslations between Aramaic and Ancient Greek«
Simmerlein is aware of the danger. Nevertheless, he is convinced that you should learn how to use artificial intelligence early on:
»Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over all facets of our lives, […] and therefore it makes sense to learn how to deal with it.«
How would you feel if your preacher or other people in your life were replaced by AI? For example, teachers and professors. Or just the boss? Write us your opinions in the comments!