Are chatbots changing the face of religion? Three faith leaders on grappling with AI | Artificial intelligence (AI)

“Write a sermon in the voice of a rabbi of about 1,000 words that relates the Torah portion Vayigash to intimacy and vulnerability. Cite Brené Brown’s scholarship on vulnerability.” That was the prompt Rabbi Joshua Franklin put in ChatGPT, the results of which he used to deliver a sermon to congregants of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in December 2022.

The sermon the chatbot came up with spoke of Joseph, the son of Jacob and a prophet in the Abrahamic faiths. It quoted from a book by Brown, a professor who specializes on topics of intimacy, to define vulnerability as “the willingness to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome”. Being vulnerable could mean “we are able to form deeper, more meaningful bonds with those around us”, the chatbot wrote.

It wasn’t the greatest sermon, Franklin thought, but it was passable. And that was his point. The irony of the AI-written speech about vulnerability and human connection was that it lacked exactly what it preached: human vulnerability and emotion.

“It actually had a little bit of content to it,” he said. “And the congregation thought it was written by some other famous rabbis. But if I’m going to preach about vulnerability and intimacy, I would share something of myself as a model for vulnerability. And that’s something that artificial intelligence and ChatGPT cannot do.”

The mainstream adoption of generative AI and large language models in the form of chatbots like ChatGPT has left few spaces untouched, including religious communities.

In addition to the generalized chatbots, which can provide conversational answers to theological questions or prompts using information scraped from the entire internet, more specialized religious chatbots have emerged. One of them, HadithGPT, gives advice rooted in Islamic texts.

Together, the phenomenon is one religious leaders like Franklin have felt compelled to consider the potential utility as well as the potential ramifications of.

“It’s a major development,” Franklin said. “This would be like me commenting on how the internet is going to change the face of Judaism.”

Other faith leaders who the Guardian spoke to may not be writing their sermons using chatbots just yet, but have similarly weighed the impacts of the rapid adoption of using AI chatbots to answer questions about religion. The resounding sentiment is that this is not exactly a novel circumstance.

Call it “Rabbi Google” as Franklin referred to it or “Sheikh Google” as Jihad Turk, the founding president of Bayan Islamic Graduate School, an institution for higher education on Islamic studies, referred to it, but people have long turned to the internet for answers about the intricacies and complexities of religion.

“To some extent, this is just another iteration of how people might consider what opinion to follow,” Turk said.

“As someone who served as an imam of a community for a long time, I would often receive phone calls from community members that had a question related to Islam’s position on X, Y or Z after having done some of their own research which might include Googling it, talking to friends and other scholars,” Turk said. “So there’s a lot of judgment calls that are being made by individuals anyway.”

But ChatGPT and chatbots that use large language models, can have problems with accuracy because they prioritize responses that have a conversational flow rather than those that are precise, according to Beth Singler, the assistant professor in digital religions at the University of Zurich. That could pose a particular problem for religions like Judaism and Islam that have a strong dedication to textual sources.

“That is a concern in itself that there’s going to be a reforming of the theological knowledge that’s been shared so accurately and so patiently for hundreds of years, because ChatGPT is sort of hallucinating answers,” she said. “It’s a correlation machine. It’s not a knowledge-finding machine. What it does is it predicts the likelihood of the following word.”

HadithGPT, for instance, uses hadiths or the narrations of the sayings and life of the Prophet Muhammad to answer questions about Islam. Its responses come with a disclaimer: the answers are AI-generated and may not be accurate, it says. “Islam is passed down from heart to heart and it is important to learn and consult real Islamic scholars for more accurate information.”

Even with this disclaimer, an average person may not have access to an actual scholar they can consult, making it easier to rely exclusively on Sheikh Google or services like HadithGPT, Turk says. The source material is also missing a lot of context typically considered when answering Islamic questions, he added. That includes the human layer of analysis of the hadiths and consideration of other texts such as the Qur’an, as well as scholarly opinions and Islamic jurisprudence. Different schools of thought also give weight to different customs and traditions, he said.

“The hadith are silent on a lot of questions that are more contemporary in nature, Turk said. “It’s much more complicated than just what do the hadiths say in a black and white fashion.”

In other faiths like Buddhism, many practitioners are less text and more practice-centric, making the religion “uniquely situated to shrug” the proliferation of chatbots off, according to the Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, Roshi a Zen Buddhist priest in California.

“There’s a practice centricity that takes all of the text and sets them aside and says, it doesn’t matter how much you read, doesn’t matter what you get out of a chatbot,” Williams said. “That’s not the answer. The answer is in your life: do you feel the truth of those words that you speak? And if you don’t, that’s really the only measure.”

Concerns about an overreliance on increasingly sophisticated AI have sparked fears of job losses across industries, even among prominent AI and tech executives. But there is a bit of optimism among faith leaders like Williams. Though chatbots may free people up to do more “functionally human things” because they’re not spending time researching information from various sources, Williams believes they’ll still long for human connection.

“Nothing is going to replace the deep sense of this longing that we have to be connected and how that’s felt in a true teacher,” she said.

Franklin, who thinks he might use ChatGPT as a tool to help him write sermons, agrees. “People are going to realize that human beings are no longer the best purveyors of information,” he said. “But what they can do that makes them distinctly human are those things that are precisely in the realm of religion and spirituality.”

Bessie Venters

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