How the dreams of robot pastors reveal a deficiency in the church

February 17, 2020

My wife and I love our local church. But since my wife began her chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin’s lymphoma late last fall, we haven’t been able to join on Sunday mornings for worship. Instead, we have the blessing of watching the Sunday sermon on our television while our toddlers run free in the playroom. This is not the ideal option for us, but we would rather have this than nothing.

While many people debate the use of technology in the life of a local church (and for good reason), no one I know is debating the use of artificially intelligent (AI) pastors or robots performing religious rituals. But in many places throughout the world, debate on this very concept is beginning to emerge, and the conversations surrounding AI in religion are beginning to heat up. 

As observers look at the technological marvel of robot clergy alongside the rising interest in spirituality among young people, some have proclaimed boldly that AI may be the future of religion itself. From robot pastors to personalized online churches, these visions of the future reveal a disturbing trend and a major deficiency in the way we think about the nature and role of the church body.

Robot pastors

The idea of a robot pastor may sound ludicrous to you, and for good reason. But as the technology’s influence continues to grow, we may be faced with the possibility of robot pastors sooner than you think. 

In 2017, the German Protestant Church released Bless-U2, a robot designed to dispense blessings in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This robot dispensed over 10,000 blessings to those who interacted with the system.

This was followed by the release of the Mindar robot priest in Japan, which is an adult-sized representation of Kannon Bodhisattva, a Buddhist teacher, that recites sermons at the Kodaiji temple in Kyoto. 

Today there is an AI-enabled robot named SanTO being distributed in places like Peru that is modeled after the small figurines of saints in many Catholic homes. This robot is equipped with microphones, facial recognition, and various sensors so that it can be as highly interactive as possible for users. People are able to confess their sins to the robot and even receive personalized encouragement from the Bible.

Many of the proponents for these technologies in the life of religious groups argue that these robots can help engage a younger, more spiritual generation that is enamored by technology. They hope these robots will serve as another way to reach people across the world.

Renewed ecclesiology

As the conversation about the role of robots in the life of religious bodies throughout the world generates interest, Christians need to examine why we often feel uneasy or turned off by this use of technology in the Church. About 20% of those who used the Bless-U2 robot in Germany reported uneasiness and gave negative comments when asked about their experience. Some argued that it was an offense to God himself and others just felt like they were missing something that you get from a human interaction. Much of this uneasiness stems from a correct understanding about the nature and purpose of the Christian Church.

Christianity is not about information transfer or an individualized experience. At the core, Christianity is a communal faith in a God who sent his Son to die for our sins and create a new community of people by his blood. Christianity fundamentally rejects so much of the consumeristic and individualistic tendencies that we see throughout the world today.

Even without the use of robots or other AI technologies, churches often feel the need to impress potential churchgoers with flashiness and perceived cultural relevance rather than share the clear message of the gospel with grace and love. When many people attend church, they often want to be entertained and leave feeling good about themselves instead of letting God’s Word transform their lives in a community setting.

Christianity is not about information transfer or an individualized experience. At the core, Christianity is a communal faith in a God who sent his Son to die for our sins and create a new community of people by his blood.

Innovations, such as robot priests or personalized AI saints, will likely feed these consumeristic mindsets that already plague many religions throughout the world, including various streams of Christianity. We must fight this urge to transform our churches into mini-malls of individualistic expressions and desires and seek to become the singular body of Christ made up of people from every walk of life, race, and background.

The goal of the gospel is a radical transformation from the inside out as we join the body of Christ. The gospel teaches us that we must die to ourselves and our sinful desires in order to be raised to new life in Christ (1 Cor. 15). A robot may be able to cull data to produce a sermon, select an applicable Bible verse, or interact with you like a human being, but it will never be able to take the place of the flesh-and-blood image-bearers that Christ died to save. These devices may draw a crowd, but they will never be able to facilitate the community that will sustain a soul.

While the Church will continue to modify its tactics to reach the lost and continue to properly embrace many technologies to further its mission, we must never let ourselves buy into the lie that we must save the Church from obsolescence or appeal to every consumeristic fad. Jesus reminds us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church, and that even includes a host of robot priests (Matt. 16:18).

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24