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AI Plays the Reverend

An AI chatbot gave a sermon at a church in Germany, allegedly telling congregants "not to fear death."

An AI chatbot gave a sermon at a church in Germany, allegedly telling congregants “not to fear death.” University of Vienna theologian and philosopher Jonas Simmerlein was responsible for the service and for giving the ChatGPT bot its prompts. Talk about eerie. Even churches are starting to incorporate AI into their homilies.

Simmerlein noted that overall the chatbot gave “a pretty solid service,” and included psalms, prayers, and also mentions of climate change and Ukraine. Not all the congregants got the same impression. Per the report from Fox News, in conjunction with the Associated Press, some church attendants felt put off by the chatbot’s mechanical and impersonal delivery. One woman expressed,

“There was no heart and no soul,” Heiderose Schmidt, 54, told the AP of the service. “The avatars showed no emotions at all, had no body language and were talking so fast and monotonously that it was very hard for me to concentrate on what they said.”

Simmerlein also noted that the AI can’t “know” the congregation. It can’t be with the people, bury the departed, or serve the needs of the community. So why have it preach a sermon?

This isn’t the first time AI has been used in religious services. Most likely, it won’t be the last. For more examples alongside some scintillating commentary, see this article by the essayist Paul Kingsnorth, who has been largely critical of digital technologies and the way modern people worship at its altar.

Alongside the craft of storytelling, music, and the arts, religious services are another sphere where the implementation of machine intelligence seems senseless. If you’re a churchgoer, you probably want someone speaking personally to the congregation – ideally, it’s someone who has spoken to you, knows your story, and actually understands where you’re at in life. AI can do none of this. It can communicate a message via prompt, but as the woman at the AI service attested, it lacks heart and soul.

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Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

AI Plays the Reverend