Would you want a robot for a priest?

Like it or not, a $1 million machine named Mindar now preaches in a Buddhist temple in Japan.

Another automaton, too, has performed one of Hinduism’s holiest rites – the aarti ritual – in India.

That’s not to mention the German Protestant Church’s Bless U-2 robot, that gave blessings to over 10,000 people in 2017 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Or SanTO, the robot figurine that reads the Bible to people in nursing homes.

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Driving the news

The fast pace of research and development in recent years mean technology isn’t the issue for the prompt arrival of AI-powered robot priests.

Rather, it’s their ethical and theological implications.

That’s one of the conclusions, at any rate, to an interesting analysis of the topic by Sigal Samuel in Vox.

Samuel suggests robot priests could be a good thing for all religions struggling to reach ever-dwindling, ever-aging and ever-more geographically-dispersed congregations.

But, as she also points out: will robot priests make religion… well, more robotic?

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Go deeper

As it turns out, the idea of robot priests raises interesting questions about just what we mean by “religion”, and by “priest”.

The Catholic Church teaches that its ordained ministers are “responsible for the formation in prayer of their brothers and sisters in Christ”.

“Servants of the Good Shepherd, they are ordained to lead the People of God to the living waters of prayer: the Word of God, the liturgy, the theological life (the life of faith, hope, and charity), and the Today of God in concrete situations”, the Catechism says.

Artificial intelligence will, presumably, be more than capable of teaching prayer, reading the Bible, offering the Mass and giving guidance in concrete situations.

Or at least just as capable as any (likewise limited) person.

There’s just the nagging question of whether or not we’d be prepared to accept this intrusion into our faith life of “our robot overlords”, after decades of Hollywood turning us against them.

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Why it matters

As it turns out, though, robot priests raise questions not just for our lifestyle, but also our theologies.

In the first place, will AI believe in God? Will the technology be able to teach us more about the divine?

That’s the thinking behind the new Way of the Future Church, dedicated to “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence developed through computer hardware and software”.

But there’s more: if priesthood were a potentially programmable quality, why put priests on a pedestal and give them all the authority, as we do in the Catholic Church?

Samuel from Vox spoke to Franciscan sister and theology professor Ilia Delio about precisely that question.

“The Catholic notion would say the priest is ontologically changed upon ordination. Is that really true?”, Delio asked.

“We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas — it challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood”, the religious explained.

Gender-neutral robot priests could even help the Church move beyond the sexual abuse crisis and the deeply-embedded sexism in the institution, Delio added.

Provided that we don’t approach it as an either/or thing: “it’s either us or the robots”.

“This is about partnership, not replacement. It can be a symbiotic relationship — if we approach it that way”, Delio said.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.