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Are Robot Pastors the Answer to Religion’s Decline?

Many Christians say no. Some Buddhists say yes. What is expected of the pastor?

Many Japanese Buddhists accept robots that act as priests. The question arises, what is the priest or pastor expected to do and be?

Recently, we were informed that robots can never be Catholic priests:

Sister Mary Christa Nutt, RSM, told CNA that robots cannot be priests because they are incapable of having an intellect or a will with which to cooperate with God’s grace…

“We believe that the priest is in the person of Christ, so only a human being can participate in the person of Christ with intellect and will,” Nutt said.

Mary Farrow, “In robota Christi? Why robots can never be Catholic priests” at Catholic News Agency

But one Catholic theologian has suggested that robot priests could provide an advantage:

Perhaps a non-human priest—armed with all the holy knowledge imaginable and none of the unholy behavior—might be the perfect way to renew the faith.

Ilia Delio, a professor of Christian Theology at Villanova University, offered Vox some fascinating thoughts about this.

Instead of trying to persuade Catholic worshippers that priests are somehow divinely consecrated, she said, perhaps the existence of robot priests would offer a new perspective on being a good person to deserve eternal life.

“We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas. It challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood,” she said.

Chris Matyszczyk, “Robot priests more acceptable to Protestants than Catholics, says professor” at ZDNet

Fr. John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, makes a key distinction:

He said that according to the article, Buddhist priests might be possible, because they are people simply guiding people along a path. But for Catholics, he said, their faith necessitates an encounter with a person—God.

“For Christians, prayer or any sort of religious activity is not primarily a path, but it’s an encounter with a person…with God. And so, that for me is the fundamental distinction. What the priest is doing, he’s acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ,” Kartje said.

Mary Farrow, “In robota Christi? Why robots can never be Catholic priests” at Catholic News Agency

Delio thinks that Protestants would accept robot clergy better than Catholics because they are “the more stoic and the less soaring.” But not much evidence supports her view.

The fundamental theological issue for all Christians is the core tenet that God became a man to enable human salvation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)

But if the priest or pastor is not even a human being, the claim would sound hollow.

East Asia may present a different, more complex picture. Tensho Goto, chief steward of a Kyoto temple, explained the difference, as illustrated by the robot priest Mindar:

Goto told the news outlet that people’s reactions appear to be influenced by their cultural background, with Western visitors being more disturbed by the robot than Japanese worshipers, who come from a culture that has embraced robots.

“It could be the influence of the Bible, but Westerners have compared it to Frankenstein’s monster,” Goto said.

Goto said the Buddhist deity on which the machine is based is not limited to a single form, meaning an artificially intelligent machine may be just as capable as anything of delivering messages about the Buddha’s path. Unlike a human priest who exists inside the impermanent vessel that is the human form, Mindar has a distinct advantage.

“This robot will never die, it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” Goto told AFP. “That’s the beauty of a robot. It can store knowledge forever and limitlessly.”

Peter Holley, “Meet ‘Mindar,’ the robotic Buddhist priest” at Washington Post

So a great deal depends on whether believers think that faith must be mediated through actual human beings:

It’s not a huge surprise that Japan is the initial market for a robotic service like this, although it’ll be interesting to see whether or not it catches on. There’s certainly a question of whether there are particular aspects of a given religion that, for whatever reason, depend on a real live human to imbue them with meaning. There are some subdivisions of Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism) that encourage the use of technologies like prayer wheels to help make prayer more efficient: Spinning a prayer wheel (which can even be done electrically), they believe, will have a similar spiritual effect to reciting the prayer inscribed on it.

Evan Ackerman, “Pepper Now Available at Funerals as a More Affordable Alternative to Human Priests” at IEEE Spectrum

At present, Mindar simply recites Buddhist teachings but more AI is said to be in progress:

Perhaps it comes down to what we believe is the ultimate reality and what we expect our beliefs about that ultimate reality to do for us.


Further reading on robots and religion:

Why are robots part of religion in Japan? Declining population is only one factor. Ancient cultural beliefs are another: The robotic goddess is not an AI cult-of-the-decade steaming out of Silicon Valley. She is intended to blend in with age-old traditions, not replace them.

and

Robot priests: and you thought “robotic religion” was just a pointed criticism…? You know, rote prayers, mindless gestures… Is that the way of the future for some? It’s not so simple. How well robot priests adapt to a religious culture may depend in part on what the culture believes about the purpose of prayer. If what matters is chiefly the number of prayers iterated, the robot priest is an adaptation of the prayer wheel.


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Are Robot Pastors the Answer to Religion’s Decline?