Robot priests more acceptable to Protestants than Catholics, says professor

Can AI create better priests? Are we prepared to worship via machines rather than fallible humans? A Villanova University professor believes a post-human priesthood has its advantages.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

A godsend?

Screenshot by ZDNet

Our faith in almost everything is being tested these days.

Everything is instant, yet nothing seems real.

The news is apparently as fake as people on the take.

Yet we're desperate to believe in someone -- or even something -- that'll help give our lives meaning.

For many -- though, perhaps, a dwindling number -- religion provides answers. Or merely some comfort.

Step into a church, and you hope to be embraced by values and celestial guidance.

Somehow, though, suspicion about God's human (alleged) intermediaries has grown.

I was moved, therefore, by an article in Vox that explored the notion that religion will be "transformed" by artificial intelligence.

Already, a Buddhist robot priest called Mindar is offering its wisdom to worshippers in Kyoto, Japan. It's not powered by AI, but it is empowered to offer Buddhist teachings to a no-doubt rapt congregation.

It's not difficult, though, to imagine a robot priest, bathed in supreme religious wisdom by the power of AI.

Recently, the subject has invoked humor. This is largely thanks to Anthony Levandowski, the former Google and Uber engineer currently embroiled in a lawsuit as to his, well, ethical purity.

A couple of years ago, he announced the creation of a Church of the AI God. At the time, he explained: "It's not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?"

Um, an annoying know-it-all, perhaps?

Is it possible, though, that some familiar religions might embrace a robot priest, rather than the more fallible kinds the real world seems to produce.

For example, one of the first things that come to many minds if you mention the Catholic Church is the constant sexual abuse and pedophilia scandals.

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 movetoward a post-human priesthood," she said.

Perhaps some would feel enchanted at being offered spiritual guidance by a robot. Perhaps they'd think this was far better than the same old stuff Father Seamus has peddled for the last 20 years.

(A confession: I was brought up in a severely, manically Catholic household. It was so manically Catholic that I haven't been to confession for decades. Nor, for that matter, to a Catholic Church, save for a couple of funerals.)

Delio jested that robot priests have a better chance of being embraced by Protestants than Catholics. The former tends toward the more stoic and the less soaring than the latter.

There is, though, still one large philosophical problem. Or, rather, a technological one.

As with so much in AI, what matters most is who programs the robot. Elements of faith are -- despite fundamentalist protestations -- open to interpretation. If all robot priests were Bible-thumping fundamentalists, that might deter the faithful.

Moreover, how easy would it be to tamper with their teachings? Imagine an unscrupulous Russian hacking a robot priest to tell Sunday's congregation that they should send their alms to Blessed Putin Fellowship Foundation.

Still, some religions are wising up to the power of AI in a slightly different way than offering robotic holy beings at the altar.

Recently, the Church of England created an Alexa skill so that, at any given existential moment of woe, you can call on your deity just by commanding Alexa to fetch it/him/her.

I know that those in favor of the Great Singularity believe that humans will soon be Gods. Robotic Gods, that is.

Perhaps having a robot priest merely places us halfway to our own personal heaven.

It's artificial, of course.

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