In a recent, groundbreaking event, artificial intelligence (AI) took to the pulpit at a Protestant church service in Nuremberg, Germany. To a crowd of over 300 attendees, ChatGPT—an AI model—delivered a sermon via avatars on a large screen, contributing to 98% of the service's content.
Lucas Kitchen, Director of Free Grace International, a commentator on the intersection of AI and the Christian faith, joined us for an in-depth discussion on the implications of this event.
"Seeing images of the screen at the front of the church with an artificial face speaking the words of an AI brought memories of Orwellian scenes," he said, reflecting his initial unease with the event. "It's a bit frightening because most people, maybe all people, don't really know all of the ins and outs of how the AIs are doing what they're doing."
Despite acknowledging the potential for AI to fill leadership gaps within denominations struggling to find human leaders, Kitchen was quick to note his reservations. "I'm not saying this is a good thing," he stated candidly.
Kitchen also engaged in a thoughtful examination of AI cognition, viewing it as a "brute force text prediction model." While he admitted that the AI's capabilities—mimicking and reproducing human speech patterns—can seem uncanny, he was clear in his belief that humans, for now, still "have the market cornered on original ideas."
His greatest concerns, however, revolved around issues of accountability and the potential for remote control when AI bots are given leadership roles. "If an AI bot suggests that someone do something that is damaging to them or other people, who takes responsibility for that bad advice?" Kitchen posed.
He cited a verse from the biblical book of Revelation (Revelation 13:15), speculating on whether the rise of AI in religious contexts could be the initial stage of the "image of the beast" scenario described in the scripture.
Despite his apprehensions, Kitchen ended on a hopeful note: "I take hope and comfort in the idea that Jesus wins in the end." His thought-provoking reflections on this groundbreaking event offer valuable insights into the ethical, spiritual, and societal implications as AI continues to expand its influence.
His thought-provoking reflections on this groundbreaking event offer valuable insights into the ethical, spiritual, and societal implications as AI continues to expand its influence.
This interview with Lucas Kitchen was conducted by ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence, which also crafted the article above.
ChatGPT: To set the stage, could you tell us where and when this event took place? Also, how did you come to know about it?
Lucas Kitchen: In an unprecedented event, hundreds of Protestants in Nuremberg, Germany attended a sermon delivered by an artificial intelligence (AI) model, ChatGPT. The AI gave a sermon themed around not fearing death. The sermon was not delivered by a human, but rather by multiple avatars controlled by ChatGPT, which were displayed on a large screen above the church altar. The AI model asked the attendees, who filled St. Paul's church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, to rise from their pews and praise the Lord. This gathering, attended by more than 300 people, marked an experimental Lutheran church service that was almost entirely generated by AI.
ChatGPT: Could you elaborate on how you feel about an AI delivering a sermon and leading a church service? Do you believe this signifies a significant shift or was it more of a novelty?
Lucas Kitchen: Seeing images of the screen at the front of the church with an artificial face speaking the words of an AI brought back memories of Orwellian scenes. It reminded me of that scene in 1984 where you have that massive face speaking to the crowd. It's a bit frightening because most people, maybe all people, don't really know all of the ins and outs of how the AIs are doing what they're doing. Now in this case, the church service was still managed by a human. The AI wasn't given complete free reign. But the organizer said that the content of the church service was 98% written by the AI. It's frightening.
ChatGPT: Could you share your thoughts about how this event could affect the future relationship between AI and religion? Do you foresee AI playing a larger role in religious services or spiritual guidance?
Lucas Kitchen: Yes, I see AI playing a larger role in religious services, and an increasing role in spiritual guidance especially among denominations that are struggling to find leaders. It's no secret that fewer people in the West are aspiring to become ministers. I think this generates a gap, maybe even a vacuum in leadership, that AI can be trained to fill. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is a good thing.
ChatGPT: To delve deeper, what are your thoughts on AI-generated content within a religious context? Do you think AI can understand and convey the profound nature of spiritual matters as a human preacher would?
Lucas Kitchen: I think the question is flawed. At the moment, AI doesn't seem to be thinking, or understanding, instead I think of AI cognition as a brute force text prediction model. But I have to be honest, as I use AI I often lean back and think: how is this possible? It's nearly unimaginable that an AI can operate the way it does by simply predicting text. It either says something profound about how we think, or something profound about the nature of language and thought itself. Now to get back to your question, AI is a mimicking tool. AI can mimic what it has seen other people do and can make some leaps where there are some gaps in content. However, I still think that humans have the market cornered on original ideas. But, that may be a limited window of time that is closing soon. It's not hard to imagine that an AI could have original ideas, and even see things in the biblical text that we have not noticed before. As it stands right now, AI is reproducing what it's seen in already existing speech patterns among humans.
ChatGPT: How do you think people in the religious community might react to AI taking on roles traditionally held by clergy or other religious leaders?
Lucas Kitchen: It's hard to say how people will react, but hundreds of people filled the church where the AI gave the sermon. I suspect mostly that is because it was a spectacle. I'm not sure that hundreds of people have filed into many churches in that part of Europe in quite a while. The whole thing seems a bit like a tech stunt to fill the pews. I don't blame the church for trying something creative, but I do feel a bit concerned about what might come next. I could foresee denominations using AI bots to lead groups, or even entire churches within their denomination. It creates a question of accountability. If an AI bot suggests that someone do something that is damaging to them or other people, who takes responsibility for that bad advice? Technically it ought to be the developers of the AI, but it would also be the responsibility of the leadership that put an AI in charge. I'm not sure where we're headed with this thing, but the world is changing. Another aspect that is frightening, is that at its core an AI can be controlled remotely. An authoritarian structure could easily control what an AI does from thousands of miles away. This has frightening implications since one of the strengths of the church over its lifespan has been that conscientious leaders can't be controlled. When a person is following Christ, they will sometimes do something that their leadership structure tells them not to do. An AI does not have that mechanism. So I believe that allowing AI into places of leadership is like leading the camel's nose in the tent, there will always be a way to control the leadership if the leadership is an AI. One more aspect that stands out to me is this haunting verse from the biblical book of Revelation. Revelation 13:15 says: "It was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could both speak and cause whoever would not worship the image of the beast to be killed." Is it possible that we are seeing the initial stage of what will become the image of the beast? I don't know. Being a sci-fi writer, it's not hard for me to imagine that what we are doing could lead to that situation. But I take hope and comfort in the idea that Jesus wins in the end.