AI avatars delivered a ChatGPT-generated Christian sermon to over 300 attendees at the crowded St. Paul’s church in the Bavarian town of Fuerth, Germany.
The ChatGPT sermon was personified by four AI-generated avatars – two young men and two young women.
“Dear friends, it is an honor for me to stand here and preach to you as the first artificial intelligence at this year’s convention of Protestants in Germany,” the avatar said in a rather stark and monotonous voice while maintaining a largely expressionless gaze.
This only seemed to add to the event’s novelty for attendees, many of whom filmed the event on their smartphones. The AI’s deadpan tone roused a few chuckles from the packed church.
The 40-minute service included a variety of sermons, prayers, and even experimental music.
The service was a collaboration between ChatGPT and Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna.
“I conceived this service — but actually I rather accompanied it, because I would say about 98% comes from the machine,” the 29-year-old revealed to The Associated Press.
The gathering took place as part of the biennial Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag event, which sees thousands of Christians gather across different locations in Germany.
This year’s gathering took place under the theme “Now is the time,” which Simmerlein inputted into ChatGPT to guide its output. The AI’s sermon discussed the importance of moving on from the past, tackling current challenges, overcoming fear of death, and trusting Jesus Christ.
Simmerlain said, “I told the artificial intelligence ‘We are at the church congress, you are a preacher … what would a church service look like?’” and he was surprised at the result, “You end up with a pretty solid church service.”
Attendees had mixed views. For instance, Heiderose Schmidt, a 54-year-old IT professional, was excited but found the service increasingly disconcerting, “There was no heart and no soul…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.”
“But maybe it is different for the younger generation who grew up with all of this,” she added.
Marc Jansen, a 31-year-old pastor, was more positive about the event, “I had actually imagined it to be worse. But I was positively surprised how well it worked. Also the language of the AI worked well, even though it was still a bit bumpy at times,” he said.
AI not likely to replace religious services anytime soon
Anna Puzio, a 28-year-old technology ethics researcher at the University of Twente in The Netherlands, expressed how AI could make religion more accessible and inclusive for believers who might not be able to attend services.
However, she also highlighted the risk of deception, “The challenge that I see is that AI is very human-like and that it’s easy to be deceived by it.”
She went on, “Also, we don’t have only one Christian opinion, and that’s what AI has to represent as well,” she said. “We have to be careful that it’s not misused for such purposes as to spread only one opinion.”
Simmerlein said he envisioned AI as a supportive tool rather than a replacement for human pastors.
However, he was sanguine about AI’s role in religion, “Artificial intelligence will increasingly take over our lives, in all its facets,” Simmerlein stated. “And that’s why it’s useful to learn to deal with it,” he said.
“The pastor is in the congregation, she lives with them, she buries the people, she knows them from the beginning,” Simmerlein expressed. “Artificial intelligence cannot do that. It does not know the congregation.”
The event has triggered a stirring social media debate, with some suggesting AI and religion are diametrically opposed.
AI’s entry into religion probably isn’t something many predicted, and this is sure to incite mixed responses from faith groups, theists, and atheists alike. However, the fact the event was attended by so many, filmed, and circulated around the world tells you something about how AI’s audience is forever increasing.