How safe are congregations and clergy from automation?

Judging by the fast pace at which technology is overtaking certain work tasks, clergy seem not to necessarily be exempt from the threat of automation, with several aspects of their work already being performed by artificial intelligence, writes William Young in the religion and science journal Zygon (June). Certain professions, such as medicine, law, journalism, and finance, not to mention the majority of clerical jobs, have been seen as particularly affected by digital technology, including artificial intelligence (AI). Because the work of clergy touches on several areas seen as protected from technological encroachment, such as spirituality, creativity, specialized knowledge, and personal contact, the profession has not been seen as likely to fall prey to automation; indeed, a 2013 Oxford University study found that clergy had only a 0.83 percent chance of losing employment due to automation. But Young begs to differ, citing several developments already here or on the horizon that pose challenges to clergy and other religious professionals. First of all, the profusion of online forms of spirituality has created a do-it-yourself religious mentality—most clearly seen in the dramatic rise of the non-affiliated (or “nones”)—that does not view clergy as essential to finding a faith or cultivating a spirituality.

But Young adds that there is also the possibility that artificial intelligence “actually will supplement or supplant human clergy in significant ways—writing sermons, delivering pastoral care, conducting scriptural/theological research, or performing sacramental functions.” Because most congregations only have one full-time employee, the pastor, who provides nonadministrative work that might be difficult to automate, there is not a strong incentive for AI researchers to develop applications specifically for the religious marketplace. But “automation within churches might emerge as a niche market leveraging technologies developed for the much larger and more lucrative commercial sector.” For instance, Young sees the technology of AI language generation being used for sermon writing in the foreseeable future, especially since clergy are regularly using online tools for their sermons. As for pastoral care, a new “virtual conversational palliative care coach” developed by Northeastern University and Boston Medical Center incorporates an “explicitly spiritual component” as it seeks to help individuals “manage symptoms, reduce stress, identify and address unmet spiritual needs, and support advanced care planning.” The technology supports a variety of religious traditions as well as atheism, “spiritual humanism,” and secular humanism. Young speculates that the proliferation of AI into the religious sphere will force clergy and theologians to deal with such questions as the purportedly unique status of humans as beings created in the image of God and whether a “soul” can exist in such digital systems, particularly as this technology relates to sacramental functions.