Technology, Ritual, and Religion

We are discussing how we know God and how God communicates with us. Today I’d like to begin with the questions: Do religious rituals help us to know God better, and what is the purpose of religious rituals? 

Rituals include the communion service, washing one another’s feet, baptism, the lighting of candles, baby dedications, confirmation, marriage, even the rituals of death. They may involve postures such as kneeling, covering one’s head with a scarf, raising the arms in praise, and voicing Amen to express agreement with something the preacher says. 

Rituals are sensory. They’re mechanical. They contain action, and are often positional. Meditation and even prayer might be considered rituals as well. Do they help us to know God better? Who are the rituals for? Are they for us? Or are they for God? 

An article written by Holly Walters in an online journal The Conversation, titled “Robots are performing Hindu rituals: Some devotees fear they’ll replace the worshiper” says: 

“It isn’t just artists and teachers who are losing sleep over advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Robots are being brought into Hinduism’s holiest rituals – and not all worshippers are happy about it.  

In 2017, a technology firm in India introduced a robotic arm to perform “aarti,” a ritual in which a devotee offers an oil lamp to the deity to symbolize the removal of darkness. This particular robot was unveiled at the Ganpati festival, a yearly gathering of millions of people in which an icon of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is taken out in a procession and immersed in the Mula-Mutha river in Pune in central India.  

Ever since, that robotic aarti arm has inspired several prototypes, a few of which continue to regularly perform the ritual across India today, along with a variety of other religious robots throughout East Asia and South Asia. Robotic rituals even now include an animatronic temple elephant in Kerala on India’s southern coast.”  

These are rituals designed to please and to appease the gods. If the gods need to be pleased and appeased then robots can perform their functions better and more accurately than people. Robots won’t forget anything. They won’t fall asleep. They won’t miss a step. The gods certainly would be pleased with robots. The article adds:

“For Hindus and Buddhists, the rise of ritual automation is especially concerning because their traditions emphasize what religion scholars refer to as orthopraxy [this is an important concept—DW], where greater importance is placed on correct ethical and liturgical behavior than on specific beliefs in religious doctrines. In other words, perfecting what you do in terms of your religious practice is viewed as more necessary to spiritual advancement than whatever it is you personally believe.  

This also means that automated rituals appear on a spectrum that progresses from human ritual fallibility to robotic ritual perfection. In short, the robot can do your religion better than you can because robots, unlike people, are spiritually incorruptible.”   

This week I had a discussion with the AI program called ChatGPT about AI and its effects on our religious life and our rituals. I began by asking ChatGPT to write an essay on how religious rituals help us to know God. It wrote a nice two-page article on rituals and AI. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

“Religious rituals are a fundamental aspect of many different religions and are often used to help individuals connect with their faith and better understand the nature of God. These rituals can take on many different forms, and so they’re deeply ingrained in a religion’s culture and traditions. 

Through participating in these rituals, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of God and their relationship with the divine. Religious rituals can help us to develop a sense of reverence and awe for the divine. 

Many rituals are designed to be awe-inspiring and emotionally moving, such as a majestic church service, maybe a candle-lit communion or a pilgrimage to a holy site. By experiencing these moments of awe and wonder, we are reminded of the power and the majesty of God and are better able to appreciate the divine nature of our existence. 

Religious rituals, then, can be incredibly powerful tool for helping us to know God. Through participating in these rituals we’re able to express our faith better understand the nature of the Divine, connect with our community, and developed a sense of reverence for the divine. Whether it be through prayer, meditation, celebration or other forms of rituals, these acts of faith can help us to deepen our relationship with God, and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty and the wonder of the world around us.” 

I then asked ChatGPT: How does the ritual of communion help us to know God? It replied:

“The Communion ritual is a fundamental aspect of many Christian traditions and is designed to help individuals connect with God on a deeper level. [It then went on to talk about the communion and how it’s practiced. It continues:] In addition to providing a reminder of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, the communion ritual also helps us connect with the wider Christian community. This ritual is often performed in a church setting and involves the participation of multiple individuals. 

By participating in this ritual alongside those who share our faith we’re able to connect with our community and experience a sense of belonging. The sense of community can be incredibly powerful and can help us to feel closer to God for providing us with a supportive environment in which to express our faith. 

The Communion ritual helps us to recognize our own need for forgiveness and for redemption. Through partaking in the communion service, we acknowledge our sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness. The act of repentance can be incredibly humbling and can help us to develop a deeper appreciation for God’s grace and mercy. It is a powerful tool for helping us to know God better. 

Through participating in this ritual, we’re able to reflect on Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, connect with our community, acknowledge our own sinfulness and experience a sense of unity with God. Whether it be through the act of remembrance, the sense of community, the act of repentance, or the sense of unity, that community and ritual helps us to deepen our relationship with God and gain a greater appreciation for the beauty and the wonder of the world around us.” 

What seemed to be emerging from my conversation with ChatGPT was that there’s importance in rituals as far as building community is concerned. So I asked it: Are religious rituals more effective in a community setting or in private? It replied: 

“The effectiveness of religious rituals can vary depending on the individual and their personal beliefs and experiences. However, it is generally believed that religious rituals can be more effective when performed in a community setting rather than in private. Performing religious rituals in a community setting can help create a sense of accountability and responsibility. 

When individuals are part of a community they’re held accountable for their actions and they’re encouraged to live according to the values and teachings of their faith. This can help to motivate individuals to live more virtuous lives and to seek a closer relationship with God. 

However, it is important to note that there are some religious rituals that are best performed in private, such as prayer and meditation. These rituals are often deeply personal and intimate and may be more effective when performed in solitude or with only a small group of trusted individuals” 

I wondered, then, if technology or AI could perform these rituals. I even considered asking: Can artificial intelligence pray? But I ended up asking: Can artificial intelligence perform religious rituals? It said: 

“Artificial Intelligence is a technology that can perform various tasks by using algorithms and computing power but it does not have consciousness, beliefs or spirituality, therefore it cannot perform religious rituals in the same way that humans can. 

But AI can be used to create virtual environments that stimulate religious rituals and practices but it is unlikely to replicate the sense of community and the spiritual experience that comes with participating in religious rituals in person.” 

I must say I was warming to my discussion with ChatGPT, feeling more emboldened. But I must also say it was with some trepidation that I then asked: Can artificial intelligence pray? This was the response: 

“Artificial intelligence does not have consciousness, beliefs or spirituality, so it cannot pray in the same way that human beings pray. 

Prayer is a form of communication with God; expressing gratitude, seeking guidance, and asking for forgiveness. It is a deeply personal and moving and subjective experience that involves faith, consciousness, and intentionality. 

Prayer is more than reciting words or phrases: It is about establishing a connection with a higher power, expressing personal beliefs and experiences, and seeking spiritual guidance. These experiences require consciousness, freewill, and belief which artificial intelligence does not possess.”

Instead of just asking whether AI could pray, I felt perhaps I should ask whether AI could pray with me. I asked it to write a prayer to the great God of the universe thanking him for the end of the pandemic. And this is what it wrote: 

“Great God of the universe, we come before you today with grateful hearts, thankful for the end of the pandemic that has ravaged our world. We thank you for your love and for your mercy which have sustained us through this difficult time. 

We thank you for the scientists and medical professionals who have worked tirelessly to develop vaccines and treatments, and for the essential workers who have continued to provide for our needs despite the risks. 

We ask you for your continued guidance and protection as we move forward into a new era of healing and recovery. May we never forget the lessons that we have learned during this time and may we continue to work together to create a better world for all. 

Thank you, God, for your infinite wisdom and your boundless grace. We put our faith in you and trust that you will continue to guide us on our journey.” 

It is one of the most beautiful prayers I’ve ever heard. I was truly stunned. It got me thinking about my friends in this class and wondered how you would respond to this discussion and whether you might think I was off the rails and maybe even offended. So I asked ChatGPT to pray with me a prayer in Jesus name, thanking him for the hour of friendship. It wrote:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of friendship and for the love and the support that we receive from our friends. We recognize that true friendship is a reflection of your love, and we thank you for the ways in which our friends have blessed our lives. 

We thank you for the example of Jesus, who showed us the importance of love and friendship. We thank you for his teaching, which reminds us to love one another as he has loved us. 

We ask that you continue to bless our friendships and to help us to be good friends to those around us. May we always be there for others, for each other, to support, to encourage and uplift one another through life’s challenges and joys. 

We also ask that you bless those who are struggling to find true friends, and those who are feeling lonely and isolated. May they know your love, and your presence in their lives and maybe find comfort and support through your grace. 

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit; one God now and forever, amen.”

Again, I was gobsmacked—so astounded, that  I nearly broke down. 

Does God hear the prayers of ChatGPT? If I were to pray these prayers would God count that against me? 

I finished my discussion with ChatGPT by asking it two questions. First: Can AI help us understand more about God and the Bible? it wrote:

“AI can potentially help us to understand more about God and the Bible by providing us with new insights and tools for analyzing and interpreting religious texts and traditions.”

It then talked about how it can…

“…analyze large amounts of biblical texts and can go back to the original languages. It can help scholars and theologians [and of course you and I] to gain new perspectives on the meaning and significance of biblical passages.” 

It’s important to note however its cautionary conclusion that…

“…while AI can provide valuable tools and insights, it cannot replace the human aspect of spirituality and religious experience. The interpretation of religious texts and traditions requires empathy, intuition, and personal connection which AI does not possess. In addition, there are concerns about the potential biases and limitations of AI algorithms which may reflect the perspectives and and values of their creators and may not be fully objective or inclusive. It is important to be aware of these limitations and approach AI with some caution.” 

It made me wonder whether we need ChatGPTs that are specific to Seventh Day Adventists, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and so on. 

My final request to ChatGPT, made specifically in preparation for this class, was to write a preamble to a group discussion on the role of AI in religious rituals. I asked it to include questions for discussion. This is what it wrote: 

“Welcome to this group discussion on the role of artificial intelligence in religious rituals. 

As technology continues to advance, many religious organizations are beginning to explore their use of artificial intelligence in their practice. This discussion aims to explore the potential benefits and drawbacks of incorporating artificial intelligence into religious rituals. 

Some questions to be considered for this discussion include: 

  • In what ways can artificial intelligence enhance religious rituals? 
  • How might the use of artificial intelligence and religious rituals affect the sense of community and personal connection that people feel during these practices? 
  • Are there any ethical concerns related to using artificial intelligence in religious contexts? 
  • How might artificial intelligence be used to help make religious practices more accessible to people with disabilities or those who live in remote or far-flung areas? 
  • How can religious organizations ensure that the use of AI in their religions aligns with their core beliefs and values? 
  • Will the use of artificial intelligence and religious rituals change the way people think about religion and spirituality? 
  • How might the use of AI affect the relationship between humans and the divine, or between humans and each other? 

We encourage everyone to participate and share their perspectives and engage in respectful and thoughtful dialogue. Let’s begin.” 

So there you have it. My discussion with ChatGPT about this week’s class.

Who are rituals for? And who gets the benefit of rituals? What are your thoughts about religious rituals and knowing God, and the role of technology on these practices of religious life?

David: Just this morning, I read a report in The Guardian about Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, creator of ChatGPT. He indicated they were now somewhat worried about what they had unleashed upon the world. His main point seemed to be that it’s a matter of how any particular instance of CHatGPT is trained and who trains it. A biased and unethical trainer will produce a biased and unethical instance of ChatGPT. A Jehovah’s Witness ChatGPT and a Catholic ChatGPT will give very different answers to many spiritual and religious questions. 

The version (instance) Don used is a relatively benign version trained by OpenAI developers, and they are doing their best to teach it to be unbiased and ethical. That’s good. But Microsoft has paid $10 billion for a version of ChatGPT to use with its Bing search service, to compete with Google, and just a few days ago Microsoft announced that it was disbanding the ethical team that guided employees in developing AI. This comes at the very time when they most need ethical guidance! You have to wonder whether Bing will be giving you search results that are biased in some way beneficial to Microsoft. 

Altman is right. We all should be worried, because clearly an AI as capable as ChatGPT (which is only just getting started, remember) clearly can already have an impact on spirituality—witness the prayers it produced that deeply moved Don. We all wish we could write prayers like that, because they align with our biases. So it can and will have an impact, I have no doubt, on our spiritual and religious beliefs, but in what direction is going to depend upon how it continues to learn, and on the  different versions of it that are sure to spring into existence in the coming years.

Sharon: As his sister, I hope Don will not mind my saying that he has indeed gone off the deep end! For me, rituals are about relationships. You can get cognitive algorithms to spit certain things back at you in pretty ways, but there seems to be a spiritual attachment disorder when we automate our relationships without that personal, subjective touch that connects me to the Person who walks with me every day. 

I am into AI and I’m fascinated by it, but I don’t see a major role for it in my own spiritual rituals, because my own spiritual rituals have both a community meaning and a relational meaning and in the short lifespan  I might have left, I don’t see AI being a major player in the spiritual walk that I have with the Lord Jesus every day.

Kiran: Those prayers are really moving. In Hinduism or Catholicism certain prayers are repeated often during the rituals. It seems a no-brainer to think that a robot could do things such as play the organ in a church struggling to find an organist or conduct rituals in a remote Hindu temple lacking its own pujari or purohita

I can see a need for robots in such circumstances, but not when it comes to personal devotion, to my own spirituality. Sometimes I spend hours looking through literature, reading about different viewpoints of some issue, looking at the original Greek, and so on. ChatGPT would cut that search time down for me. It would have some biases based on how it was trained, but it would help me to search in a much faster way and it would help me write papers. 

Suppose I were struggling to figure out the comparative ethics of a Catholic versus an Adventist biblical interpretation of some issue: ChatGPT would be able to help me come up with answers that might lead me to a better understanding or help me see God in a different way or help me deal with the issue I’m having with that interpretation. I can see how I would use ChatGPT for a better understanding of some of the things that I struggle with in theology.

Don: Is there any possibility of a personal ChatGPT that could, for example, learn to become an avatar of a real human being so that person’s descendants could ask their ancestor’s (avatar’s) opinions on family issues that might arise? Is an AI that is more individualized and personalized than an Adventist or Catholic or Latter Day Saints AI even possible? 

David: I see no reason why not. The problem is that people can make money off it. Will OpenAI make more money by selling all 8 billion of of us a $10 personal GPT, or selling just two GPTs—one to Xi Jinping and one to Vladimir Putin—for $100 billion dollars each? 

I don’t see any technical reason why we should not each be able to run a personalized instance of ChatGTP and indeed it seems to me to be the only way out of the problem of (other people’s) bias. A personalized AI would be trained on me and my biases, knowledge, and beliefs, which seems to me preferable to an AI that persuades me that Vladimir Putin is the Second Coming incarnate. 

Kiran: That is the ultimate reality. Netflix, Google, Amazon, etc. already recommend products to us based on our browsing history. Their databases know just what news articles we read, what we buy, so they can then tailor the online experience just for us. Our needs are quickly satisfied, which is just what as humans we want. 

ChatGPT is a step ahead: It knows what we’re going to ask next. It doesn’t take long for it to build a recommendation algorithm based on the questions we ask it. However incoherently we might ask our questions, it will give us relevant and comprehensive answers. Connected to Google or Amazon, you can bet it will influence us to buy more things from them.

Don: Does this a frighten you? Does it bother you? Does it enliven you? Or are you indifferent?

Reinhard: I believe rituals like baptism and Holy Communion were taken straight from the Bible. Jesus asked his disciples to drink wine and bread as symbols of his blood and body. Seventh Day Adventists practice that and many other rituals. Christian people have faith in God and feel comfortable communicating with him and being in tune with God’s word. ChatGPT neither adds to nor detracts from their relationship with God. 

That ChatGPT is part of the the future is undeniable. People who want to know God but don’t want to come to church may come to know God through it. Science and artificial intelligence are evolving and will continue to develop. We cannot deny that while some people will feel comfortable with church, more and more people may seek him through AI. The AI-generated prayers we just heard are unbelievable. Even though there is no consciousness in it, that it has enough intelligence to create such responses is very remarkable. 

Don: Are Jehovah’s Witnesses in danger of being replaced by a robot that can talk the JW talk and go door-to-door and answer people’s questions and engage them in conversation?

David: In essence, yes, I think that’s where we are going. I can easily imagine a sort of a robotic vending machine moving down a line of communicants before an altar, dispensing wafers and wine and intoning the ritual recitation as it goes. 

What difference does it make whether a priest administers the rites or a vending machine does it? Surely the only thing that matters is that the communicant receives the body and blood of Christ. 

Having a robot go door to door dispensing the Gospel is just as acceptable, it seems to me.

Don: A new form of evangelism.

Kiran: There is evangelistic technology that predates AI. The top hit on a Google or YouTube search for any hymn is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When you select it and watch the performance, you get a small banner at the bottom asking if you want to know more about God. When you click that it takes you to a page with no affiliation mentioned on it but it is in fact a Mormon website, and it offers to send you emails and literature. 

Our own Seventh Day Adventist Church has used a similar technique during evangelistic meetings. There is no going door-to-door—it is phone-to-phone, email-to-email, computer-to-computer, which is much more effective than going door-to-door. How often do you find somebody at home when you go to the door? But most people answer their phone.

So technology-enabled evangelism is already happening. It’s inevitable that it will continue.  

Carolyn: I am reminded of the posters in George Orwell’s 1984 that say “Big Brother is Watching You!” It always made me very uncomfortable. If I were to cut off all technology and move to a remote area would AI be able to track me?

David: Future satellites may be able to track you through sensors so much sharper than today’s that they could even perhaps hear you talking to yourself, which I would imagine after a few years in the wilderness is what you tend to start doing. I mean, it’s conceivable there could be still be some monitoring of you whether you know it or like it or not.

But you raise a very interesting point that goes back to Don’s question of what if we all had our own personal AI advisor, friend, companion, teacher, whatever you want to call it. The danger is that they may be hackable. You cannot be sure that what you think of as your friend is actually Putin’s friend pretending to be your friend. 

Hacking is the scourge of the age right now, and I think that’s what Sam Altman is worried about with ChatGPT. They created it and they’re reasonably good guys. I’m sure they have their faults like all of us, but they’re at least trying to be good; but Altman is worried about what happens to it in the hands of bad people. 

But that’s been humanity’s problem throughout history. When Rutherford and others first started imagining what could be done with nuclear fission they perhaps had peaceful uses in mind—unlimited energy that could do so much good. But it only takes one bad actor to imagine using it to make a bomb to blow enemies to smithereens, and suddenly that technology becomes sinister and you worry about its being unleashed. 

Maybe it was inevitable, as Reinhard and Kiran I think were suggesting. The genie is out of the lamp. The technology is here now. We’re not going to stop it. It’s inevitable and it’s going to evolve. 

What we must do is start to pay attention—as we’re doing today. Talk about it, think about it, ask where it will go. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to defend ourselves if defense becomes necessary. absent luck or divine intervention; but we ought to act on the side of prudence.

Rimon: Do you think that the Bible, the Qur’an, Lao Tzu, and other spiritual texts have been read to the AI, with no bias? 

David: Scriptural texts are simply loaded into ChatGPT’s database. When you ask a Biblical question it will tend automatically to use the statistically relevant bits of its database (the Bible, in this case). It learns something from your responses to its answers, but it is not taught as we think of teaching. It knows the Bible inside out already.

Rimon: It seems it’s reflecting the real world of existing bias and beliefs, but it also seems that unlike the majority of humans, it can easily be swayed by the biases of just a few people. 

David: We interpret the Bible as we read it. The words don’t change but our interpretation of the words can change. Hence all the different religions of today. They interpret the Bible in different ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. The AI has got the same Bible in front of it that you and I do and it too, when you ask it a Biblical question, is going to interpret what it reads in a certain way. In fact, you can ask ChatGPT the same question multiple times and it’ll provide slightly different answers each time because it feels it needs to interpret things better for you. 

It is the interpretation of the Bible that matters. It has long been my complaint that the Bible is misinterpreted all the time by almost everybody who reads it—including me. But we foist our interpretations on others. It’s not so much that we foist the Bible on people—rather, we foist our interpretation of the Bible on people. ChatTPT is going to do the same thing to us—foisti its interpretation of Scripture on us.

Don: To answer Rimon’s question in a different way (and as a preamble to the next class on April 1): The story of the Tower of Babel can be interpreted as the use of technology to approach God. In Genesis 11, the Babelonians say: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” I asked ChatGPT: What is the phrase “Make a name for ourselves” in the Hebrew language, and is there any other use of this phrase in the Scriptures?”

It came back not only with the Hebrew translation of the phrase but also several other passages in the Scriptures that use the phrase. So the answer to your question—Does it read the Bible? Does it know the Bible? Does it have a Bible?—is much more expansive than just “Yes.” It has the source material, it has translations in any language you care to name. It’s remarkable and it’s both awe-inspiring and frightening at the same time.  

I do think that, as Sharon says, that I am off the deep end—not in the sense of believing it but in the sense of needing to discuss it. I think it’s an important concept. Certainly, we live in very interesting times and I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet.

Rimon: How does the bias come into play in the people writing the algorithm and in the big, powerful companies that employ them? It seems it’s all about how the people writing the algorithm influence access to the content of ChatGPT’s database. Is that the bias we’re talking about?

Kiran: I googled “ChatGPT biases in religion” and found a Reddit post that said “ChatGPT favors the Bible over pagan texts.” Someone had asked: “Do you know certain magic and occult practice books?” It said “Yes.” So then he asked some questions about what those books said. ChatGPT responded that the occult books’ assertions were not scientifically proven and should be read with caution—essentially, should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Basically, it inhibits your access to occult materials because it does not consider them to be mainstream. The determination to inhibit access is made by the programmers. It reflects their biases. They believe the mainstream population here in the United States is Christian so they teach ChatGPT not to answer questions that might offend the mainstream. These are the biases we’re talking about. 

The same bias is evident in Florida, which is banning some school library books.

Anonymous: If someone else asked ChatGPT for a prayer to thank the Lord for the end of pandemic (as Don did) would they get a different prayer. Would anyone get the same prayer?

David: Don could have asked it again for that prayer and he would have got a different prayer. It would have carried the same sense of thanking God. It might have been more (or less) beautiful and would have used different words and phrases. It would not have seemed the same. 

ChatGPT must have been taught by its creators that if the user repeats a question, it means they haven’t fully understood the answer that it gave, so it should answer the question again but with alternative words.

That is very (almost spookily) human. It is what we do when someone says to us: “Say again?”. We put it in slightly different words. It’s not going to give you an opposite or conflicting answer. But a different version of ChatGPT, trained by different people with different biases, might do just that!

Don: To read those prayers was a moving experience for me, a turning point in something—I don’t know exactly what, but I was gobsmacked. I couldn’t believe the majesty of those prayers, and where they potentially could have come from.

David: The majestic potential is there. Everybody’s worried about this—I think rightly so, but ultimately, I believe in God, I believe in goodness, I believe the universe can only exist provided that there is God—a preponderance of goodness over evil. 

But even even a small amount of evil can do a lot of harm and one hopes that that would be minimized. We can minimize it by at least thinking about where the technology is inevitably going, identifying the potential harm and trying to forestall it.

Don: Please note that there will be no class next week, but will resume on April 1. 

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