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AI won't be replacing your priest, minister, rabbi or imam any time soon

Pauline Hope Cheong, Professor of Human Communication and Communication Technologies, Arizona State University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Early in the summer of 2023, robots projected on a screen delivered sermons to about 300 congregants at St. Paul’s Church in Bavaria, Germany. Created by ChatGPT and Jonas Simmerlein, a theologian and philosopher from the University of Vienna, the experimental church service drew immense interest.

The deadpan sermon delivery prompted many to doubt whether AI can really displace priests and pastoral instruction. At the end of the service, an attendee remarked, “There was no heart and no soul.”

But the growing use of AI may prompt more churches to debut AI-generated worship services. A church in Austin, Texas, for example, has put a banner out advertising a service with an AI-generated sermon. The church worship will also include an AI-generated call to worship and pastoral prayer. Yet this use of AI has prompted concerns, as these technologies are believed to disrupt authentic human presence and leadership in religious life.

My research, alongside others in the interdisciplinary fields of digital religion and human-machine communication, illuminates what is missing in discussions of AI, which tend to be machine-centric and focused on extreme bright or dark outcomes.

It points to how religious leaders are still the ones influencing the latest technologies within their organizations. AI cannot simply displace humans, since storytelling and programming continue to be critical for its development and deployment.

Here are three ways in which machines will need a priest.


Given rapid changes in emerging technologies, priests have historically served as gatekeepers to endorse and invest in new digital applications. In 2015, in China, the adoption of Xian'er, the robot monk, was promoted as a pathway to spiritual engagement by the master priest of the Buddhist Longquan Temple in Beijing.

The priest rejected claims that religious AI was sacrilegious and described innovation in AI as spiritually compatible with religious values. He encouraged the incorporation of AI into religious practices to help believers gain spiritual insight and to elevate the temple’s outreach efforts in spreading Buddhist teachings.

Similarly, in 2019, the head priest of the Kodai-ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, named an adult-size android “Kannon Mindar,” after the revered Goddess of Mercy.

This robotic deity, who can preach the Heart Sutra, a classic and popular Buddhist scripture, was intentionally built in partnership with Osaka University, with a cost of about US$1 million. The idea behind it was to stimulate public interest and connect religious seekers and practitioners with Buddhist teachings.


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