AI Priests, the Butlerian Jihad, and Human Dignity

This week we saw the rise and fall of the first AI "priest" when Catholic Answers unveiled "Father Justin", a conversation AI chatbot with an avatar modeled after a diocesan priest. Within two days, the apologetics site withdrew Father Justin after concerns about misrepresentation as a priest were raised; users discovered that it could be prompted to pretend to perform the sacrament of reconciliation; and multiple parody accounts of it spread across social media, in some cases fooling users into thinking it was a genuine representation of the actual tool.

"Father Justin" avatar

"Father Justin", a short-lived AI chatbot from Catholic Answers

The situation prompted some to conjecture on the theoretical issues of replacing priests with artificial intelligence (explicitly not the goal of the chatbot, which Catholic Answers states was merely to operate like a search engine, similar to the one used on secular site Quora), while others referenced the Butlerian Jihad, a fictional ban on machine intelligence in Frank Herbert's Dune universe following a robot uprising that nearly extincted humanity. Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 setting, which draws heavy inspiration from Dune, also features a distant future where humankind has outlawed "Abominable Intelligences" in self defense (though some alien factions have no such reservations.) Star Wars (even more directly inspired by Dune) instead tolerates AI in the franchise's iconic Droids, who rather than rising up against their creators, seem to embody the "happy slave" trope

One known incensepunk work, Andrew Gillsmith's Our Lady of the Artilects, tackles the topic of ensoulled machines in its titular artilects, but we haven't found an example yet that looks at the question as it applies to clergy. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale featured simple machines that recorded and "prayed" indulgence-like "soul scroll" prayers, though the faith in that book is viewed very cynically. Lavie Tidhar's Central Station includes robots that perform various religious sacraments (such as circumcision and administration of a sacramental drug), but the presence or absence of the robots' souls is not addressed.

The meteoric rise of emerging machine learning technologies including generative AI (such as Midjourney) and conversational AI (such as ChatGPT) raise many questions incensepunk is well-positioned to address: Do AI and other automation technologies pose a risk to human dignity? Is such a risk relegated to certain conditions, such as what economic model they exist under? What are the consequences of genuine created intelligences on theology? Can a machine serve in religious roles? What should the response to technologies like these be from religious institutions? We'd love to see future works tackle questions like these. An incensepunk title about controversies surrounding the first functional robot priest is definitely something that would pique the interest of the community.