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Will We Outsource Religion and Spirituality to AI ?

A philosopher makes the case. But he worries, are we really outsourcing caring about others?

Last Sunday, we looked at the question raised by Professor David O’Hara of Augustana University (South Dakota) as to whether AI could someday have mystical experiences. Of course, a lot depends on whether AI can have any experiences at all. An agnostic himself, O’Hara has also asked us to consider how robot priests will “change human spirituality”:

What matters is not whether we have invented true artificial intelligence, but whether we believe we have invented it. If we trust the machine, we might let it function as a mystic or a priest, even if it isn’t one.

This raises the interesting question of what to do when someone makes a machine that is actually intended to play the role of clergy. Some pastors joke that they help people “hatch, match, and dispatch,” by celebrating births, weddings, and funerals. They joke, but even if we aren’t religious, we do tend to trust professionals to guide us through those serious moments.

David O’Hara, “How Robot Priests Will Change Human Spirituality” at One Zero Medium (January 2, 2020)

Mark Zuckerberg has thought about that too.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that Facebook can act like a type of church for its users.

Zuckerberg claimed that as church attendance declines, the social network site he established can offer that same sense of community that worshippers normally get from church.

This is part of Facebook’s new mission statement, which is to ‘Bring the world closer together.’ Consequently, Zuckerberg hopes Facebook can be an enabler of community and even encourage people to be more active in volunteering and in charitable work.

Michael Bird, “Why Mark Zuckerberg will never be my pastor” at Christianity Today (June 30, 2017)

Will the trend really catch on? It’s true that the robot Pepper chants at Buddhist funerals in Japan but then some people in Japan also hold funerals for robotic dogs.

What might work in Japan fell flat among Western theists, probably because a great deal depends on what we understand religion to be. For example, most Western theists assume that, to the extent that God is a Person, only a human person can mediate the relationship.

True, one church in Germany developed Bless U 2, a robot to pronounce blessings, but that seems to have been intended as a provocation to thought: “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” O’Hara mentions that the government of Dubai’s cultural and Islamic affairs agency IACAD has launched the first-ever “Virtual Ifta” but all it does is provide formula answers to frequently asked questions. So it doesn’t really seem as if the idea of robotic clergy is catching on outside of Japan where robots already have a special cultural significance.

In any event, O’Hara suggests a role for religiously programmed robots:

So we might not want a truly mystical machine, but maybe we could use machines that do the best things clergy do for us. A machine that resembles a human could chat all night with a lonely person, and might make a very good counselor. It could offer comforting words at the bedside of someone who suffers from dementia, or who needs a listening ear. It could read stories or sing songs. Why not automate the singing of hymns, the reciting of scripture, the chanting of prayer, the pronouncement of blessings? All of those things are desirable, at least to some people.

David O’Hara, “How Robot Priests Will Change Human Spirituality” at One Zero Medium (January 2, 2020)

Of course, most theists would not agree that passively listening to a dementia patient, reciting Scripture, or leading hymn sings are among “the best things clergy do for us.” What about holding forth the Word of Life as a living example of the faith? Again, how likely is all this to catch on with those people who even trouble themselves about ultimate realities?

Dr. Bird, who is a Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, offers, by way of critique of the First Church of Facebook,

I do have some grave concerns about any organisation that aspires to function as a church and to identify its leaders as the equivalent of clergy. If Facebook is a church, does that mean it wants our worship? If Zuckerberg is a pastor, does he intend to instruct us in all things divine, seek to give us spiritual counsel and shape our ethics? For those of us with a more catholic sensibility, can we seriously imagine Facebook mediating divine grace and Zuckerberg embodying the authority of Christ? I hope not.

Michael Bird, “Why Mark Zuckerberg will never be my pastor” at Christianity Today (June 30, 2017)

Perhaps a less godly and charitable man than Dr. Bird would have called Zuckerberg a presumptuous ass.

You may also find of interest:

And now… can AI have mystical experiences? A philosopher wonders whether technology could be part of some bigger plan to enable us to perceive other dimensions. Philosopher David O’Hara argues that machines might have mystical experiences and help us understand the underlying reality. But he fears we won’t accept them.

Are robot pastors the answer to religion’s decline? Many Christians say no. Some Buddhists say yes. What is expected of the pastor?

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.

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.


A.I. Jesus sputters from the King James Bible. The developer emphasizes that the program is a purely human creation. Possibly tongue-in-cheek, Durendal thinks his creation is the right sort of religion for humans and robots over the next few millennia.

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Will We Outsource Religion and Spirituality to AI ?