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AI Preachers and Teachers? No Thanks, Say Most Americans.

American Bible Society study finds majority don’t trust technology with spiritual matters.
AI Preachers and Teachers? No Thanks, Say Most Americans.

Ask ChatGPT how to improve your spiritual life, and the natural-language processing artificial intelligence chatbot has plenty of suggestions.

But Americans are skeptical that artificial intelligence, or AI, has much to offer in the way of reliable religious guidance.

Sixty-eight percent of people don’t think AI could help them with their spiritual practices or “promote spiritual health,” according to the latest research from American Bible Society (ABS). Fifty-eight percent say they don’t think AI will “aid in moral reasoning” and only one out of every four people say they feel optimistic about the impact the technology will have.

“Americans are more fearful than hopeful about artificial intelligence,” said John Farquhar Plake, an ABS program officer and editor-in-chief of the State of the Bible series. “People don’t know how AI will change the culture—but they’re mildly uneasy about it.”

ABS surveyed about 2,500 people for its annual report on Scripture engagement and related topics. While technology has been a regular part of the survey, this is the first year ABS dedicated a set of questions to the topic of technology that performs tasks traditionally associated with human intelligence.

AI is rapidly evolving, and currently includes everything from Amazon’s “virtual assistant” Alexa to chatbots running large language models that can pass the bar exam. People are pushing the technology further every day, and some Christians who work in tech are excited about the possibilities—dreaming of algorithms that might one day help people grow, learn, and go deeper in their faith.

“It is not difficult to imagine how pastors and church leaders can use these tools for the work of daily ministry,” A. Trevor Sutton, a Lutheran pastor and the author of Redeeming Technology, recently wrote. “It won’t be long before generative AI technology is woven into the background of our church lives.”

And yet a majority of Americans are uncomfortable with that idea. Questions about using AI to understand the Bible or connect to God reveal that many feel “a great deal of uncertainty” about the advancing technology, Plake said.

Few religious people sounded excited about the idea of replacing their current devotional practices with technology-enhanced Bible studies.

“People who are most connected to the Bible and have had their lives deeply impacted by studying and understanding the Bible are somewhat skeptical that that experience can be replicated by a machine learning model or a generative AI model,” Plake said. “Practicing Christians who maybe know their pastor or minister or their priest very well, they’re skeptical that that personal touch and that real relational engagement with God’s Word and God’s people can be replicated by a technology like this.”

People who are less engaged with a religious community and less likely to spend time reading Scripture were more optimistic about the potential of AI, according to the survey. Those who want to read the Bible but are not currently doing so—a group ABS calls the “movable middle”—can imagine that the tech might give them a place to start.

It can be daunting, Plake pointed out, to pick a book with more than 700,000 words for the first time and look for the answers to life’s biggest problems. For someone like that, AI could be a godsend.

“You can ask an AI, ‘Where did Jesus say …’ and ‘Give me a summary of that,’” Plake said. “Then open the book or open your favorite Bible app, turn to that page or that chapter and verse and read it for yourself.”

Derek Schuurman, a computer scientist who teaches at Calvin University, said there are some obvious ways that AI will contribute to people’s spiritual lives. The technology is a great tool for Bible translation and is already being used to accelerate translation projects. AI can provide transcriptions of sermons in real time, producing captions for people who have hearing impairments. There are probably thousands of other uses that churches will find too, from pairing sermon themes with worship songs to scheduling volunteers for church activities.

Schuurman has been getting a lot of questions about AI, though. Many people have utopian fantasies about the potential benefits and many fear a kind of Frankenstein scenario, where the thing that scientists created turns on humanity and becomes an existential threat. He doesn’t think either of those views is right.

“The Bible is unequivocal in its rejection of anything in creation as either the villain or the savior,” Schuurman told CT.

Instead, the computer scientist thinks Christians should focus on the role they have to play in shaping the technology and establishing the moral framework for its use.

“The church, I think, has something to say about justice and about loving our neighbors and about cultivating spiritual disciplines and practices in our lives,” Schuurman said.

Some of the anxiety about AI might just be a stage of the technological development, according to Brad Hill, the chief solutions officer at Gloo, a technology platform for ministry leaders.

“It’s actually quite normal at this stage in a new technology for people in the church, people of faith, to have reservations,” he said. “We saw this with the internet, we saw this with broadcast TV, even the printing press.”

And there are reasons for that, Hill said. When things are changing quickly, people don’t know what they will lose. Right now, the developing technology produces programs that seem to possess a lot of knowledge but lack wisdom.

Hill said he wouldn’t personally rely on ChatGPT for spiritual input, for example.

“I trust ChatGPT to help me with recipes or administrative tasks,” Hill said, “but I would take its input with large grains of salt when it comes to anything spiritual.”

But Hill and Gloo have chosen to pursue the positive potential and encourage Christians to find ways to use AI rather than avoid it.

“AI is really important and arguably could be one of the most important technology advances in our generation,” he said. “We have a moral imperative as believers to understand how we might use it redemptively and how we might use it for good.”

So far, though, most Americans are skeptical that’s really possible.

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