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Why should religious leaders care about Artificial Intelligence (AI)?



When I started with the research on AI and theology for my dissertation, I mentioned the topic to some people. Many people were impressed with my topic. I also got strange reactions from people who thought I was going to work on an issue that does not have anything to do with religion or theology. Someone commented, “at the end of the day, it is a machine, and you can take out the power plug.” I do not think they understand the issue or questions raised by AI.  

I will be highlighting many issues in future posts. Let me give you one reason to start. It is the view on religious services or gathering. Online services have become standard for many years now, and many attend a church or religious service online. With COVID-19 and lockdowns, everyone went online to conduct their services. Many who opposed online services in the past started worship services over Zoom, Skype, Facebook live, Youtube live, etc. Even some people started doing communion online. Still, there are people involved, and religious leaders like Pastors, Fathers or Priests are still conducting the service.

In my research survey conducted among college students from seven countries, I had a question around the willingness of people to attend religious service where robots with AI will perform rituals like prayers and preaching.  I got 115 responses to this question.



Sixty-nine responded that they would dislike a great deal if robots performed religious rituals. Sixteen answered that they would dislike it to some level. Eight answered that they would like a great deal, and another twenty responded that they would like it to some degree. Considering that people who identify themselves as Christians provided this response, it is alarming that twenty-eight answered that they would like to some level and that they are willing to attend religious services where robots will perform rituals like prayer, preaching, and teaching.

Already we see some instances where robots are used or proposed for religious services. There is a robot monk who can perform funerals. There is a willingness towards confessing to robots instead of humans. I am providing some links which give more details.


An atheist or agnostic may laugh, seeing the innovations happening in AI and robotics for religious purposes. A person who follows a faith life where relationship matters, then it can be concerning.  It can be troubling for many who follow the Christian faith, where a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is required or emphasized. There are Christian groups who have mediators, and for them, this may not be a big issue to adopt.

As society becomes more reliant on technology and the use of technology has become part of life, the transition to technology-based religious services may be a smooth one for many.

A 2015 report by Leadership Network and Hartford Institute found that the use of “online campuses” is rising, with 30 percent of megachurches offering an online campus experience, which includes not only the live streaming of the worship service but also interactive features and online attendee accountability[1].  I think the day is not far away when the church could have an AI-powered robot preacher. Tools will be available to generate sermons automatically based on the demographics and recent events that may have happened locally or internationally. The systems will be able to create sermons, which will generate a maximum sensation among people or on a positive note more impactful.

Is this a good reason for religious leaders, including Christians, to look at AI and see where they stand from a  theological perspective and how much they will adopt? Whenever we choose something new, there can be resistance. The question is, will everything be adopted, or will there be clear boundaries defined.  




[1] Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, “Recent Shifts in America’s Largest Protestant Churches: Megachurches 2015 Report”, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, accessed August 5, 2019, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/2015_Megachurches_Report.pdf.

Comments

  1. These are some very interesting questions you pose, which generate even more questions. Will the Christian faith have to offer this as an option for the sheer fact that fewer enter the clergy ranks? Would this allow for hacking and the messaging to be co-opted for extremism? When robotics is so advanced that a person cannot tell the difference easily of human vs machine, would ethics dictate the worshipper is told it is a robot?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Dan for some great points/ questions.

      One of the claims of AI and related technology initially was that it would remove bias. But it was realized soon that AI algorithms inherited the human bias from the data, which was used for training the model. It has proved a challenge to train without any prejudice, or in other words, I would say, “really Neutral AI” in most cases.

      My understanding is that technology has already brought many changes in the way ministry or services are done by religious groups, including Christians. COVID situation is a good example as people met virtually via Zoom, Webex, etc. I also see a growth in the number of bi-vocational ministers, and I think that trend will increase due to some other factors. In general, there is a decline in people entering the clergy rank, but there are other trends that point to growth in different dimensions. I believe AI will get used, but I am not sure of the adoption rate. Many people will still need a human touch and presence. The story of older people in nursing homes getting tired with robots, and longing to talk to humans is a crucial point to consider. The generation who grew up mostly interacting online may view or experience it differently.

      I think the messages can be hacked and manipulated. If algorithms are based on the trending topics and using the internet as a data source, then it will be easy to manipulate. The design of AI’s algorithms will be crucial. I do not advocate for this, but I also think it is inevitable.

      Ethics is a big issue with AI. Many people are not comfortable with giving RPA based Digital workers human names and presenting it as humans. Many people design those systems with the intent that others should not know that it is not a human. Others think they have the right to know whether they were talking to a human or machine, and the companies should let them know upfront. When it comes to religion, I think faith practice and philosophy will dictate how people view it. In groups of Christianity were there is an emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and other humans, it will be difficult, but some others may adopt it. The use of robots for sermons also has to do with how people view inspiration. I have mentioned that in my research and plan to write a post about it.

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I recently completed my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) from Bethel University. My thesis was on "Creator God, Humans, and Artificial  Intelligence: Framework to Address Theological and Relational Issues".

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