Robots aren’t credible preachers, get less respect and donations

Can AI robots replace human priests?
Sejal Sharma
Representational image
Representational image


Humans tend to place more credibility on fellow human preachers as compared to robot preachers, says a new study. No kidding.

In a unique field study, researchers also found that humans will show less religious commitment, like giving donations to a temple, while witnessing a robot preacher than witnessing a human preacher.

The research findings published recently by the American Psychological Association don’t exactly come as a surprise.

With the advent of new-age AI, we live in an entirely new world where we’re experimenting and predicting which jobs can be successfully automated and which need to remain human. The researchers noted: “Domains like religion, which rely on agents modeling their epistemic and moral commitment to belief systems and each other, may not be easily outsourced to robots.”

Declining commitment from congregations

The researchers conducted three separate studies to draw these conclusions. The first study took place in Kodaiji Temple in Japan, where they surveyed individuals leaving the Temple who had either seen Mindar, a humanoid robot, give a sermon or had seen a human preacher give a sermon. No participant saw both. Researchers found that participants who viewed Mindar were less likely to believe in God than participants who viewed the human preacher.

The second study was a preregistered experiment conducted in a Taoist temple in Singapore. Half of the participants heard a sermon written by a priest, and the other half from a humanoid robot called Pepper. The results mirrored the first study. The participants gave less donations and viewed the humanoid robot with less credibility.

The third study had participants from the US who read a sermon online. The researchers wanted to test whether participants would anticipate less religious commitment after witnessing an AI-generated versus a human-generated sermon.

Half of the participants were told that a human wrote the sermon, whereas the other half were told that AI wrote the sermon. Participants in the AI sermon group reported the sermon was less credible because they felt an AI program had less capacity to think or feel like a human.

Interesting Engineering had reported on a similar story in which a sermon was led by ChatGPT, for the first time, at a church service in Germany, which included 40 minutes of prayers, music, and sermons amid a congregation of 300 people. While some received the sermon due to the new age we live in, others thought the sermon was flat and emotionless.

Study abstract:

Over the last decade, robots continue to infiltrate the workforce, permeating occupations that once seemed immune to automation. This process seems to be inevitable because robots have ever-expanding capabilities. However, drawing from theories of cultural evolution and social learning, we propose that robots may have limited influence in domains that require high degrees of “credibility”; here we focus on the automation of religious preachers as one such domain. Using a natural experiment in a recently automated Buddhist temple (Study 1) and a fully randomized experiment in a Taoist temple (Study 2), we consistently show that religious adherents perceive robot preachers—and the institutions which employ them—as less credible than human preachers. This lack of credibility explains reductions in religious commitment after people listen to robot (vs. human) preachers deliver sermons. Study 3 conceptually replicates this finding in an online experiment and suggests that religious elites require perceived minds (agency and patiency) to be credible, which is partly why robot preachers inspire less credibility than humans. Our studies support cultural evolutionary theories of religion and suggest that escalating religious automation may induce religious decline.

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