The Conversation

Navigating the intersection between AI, automation and religion

In a era marked by rapid technological advancement, we are seeing everything from artificial intelligence to robots slowly seep into our everyday lives. But now, this technology is increasingly making inroads into a realm that has long been uniquely human: religion.

From the creation of ChatGPT sermons to robots performing sacred Hindu rituals, the once-clearer boundaries between faith and technology are blurring.

As one of the most prominent religious figures in the world, Jesus has been continually reinterpreted to fit the norms and needs of each new historical context, from Cristo Negro or “Black Christ” to being depicted as a Hindu mystic.

But now the prophet is on Twitch, a video live-streaming platform. And it’s all thanks to an AI chatbot.

Presented as a bearded white man wearing a brown hood, “AI Jesus” is available 24/7 on his Twitch channel “ask_Jesus” and is able to interact with users who can ask him anything from deep religious-in-nature questions to lighthearted inquiries.

AI Jesus represents one of the newest examples in the growing field of AI spirituality, noted Boston College theology faculty member Joseph L. Kimmel, and may help scholars better understand how human spirituality is being actively shaped by the influence of AI.

A unique intersection of religion and robotic technology has emerged with the introduction of robots performing Hindu rituals in South Asia. While some have welcomed the technological inclusion, others express worries about the future that ritual automation could lead to.

Many believe that the growth of robots within Hindu practices could lead to an increase in people leaving the religion, and question the use of robots to embody religious and divine figures.

But there is another concern: whether robots could eventually replace Hindu worshippers. Automated robots would be able to perform rituals without a single error. This is significant because religions like Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize the correct execution of rituals and ceremonies as a means to connect with the divine rather than emphasizing correct belief.

It’s a concept referred to as orthopraxy, according to Wellesley College anthropology lecturer Holly Walters. “In short, the robot can do your religion better than you can because robots, unlike people, are spiritually incorruptible,” she explained. “Modern robotics might then feel like a particular kind of cultural paradox, where the best kind of religion is the one that eventually involves no humans at all.”

According to College of the Holy Cross religious studies scholar Joanne M. Pierce, preaching has always been considered a human activity grounded in faith. But what happens when that practice is taken over by an AI chatbot?

In June 2023, hundreds of Lutherans gathered in Bavaria, Germany, for a service designed and delivered by ChatGPT. But many are cautious about using AI to conduct these religious practices.

In their sermons, preachers not only offer advice, but “speak out of personal reflection in a way that will inspire the members of the congregation, not just please them,” Pierce said. “It must also be shaped by an awareness of the needs and lived experience of the worshiping community in the pews.”

For the time being, it seems as though the inability to understand the human experience is AI’s biggest flaw within the preaching sphere.

Meher Bhatia, The Conversation

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