Robotic Religion

robot monkClergy can be irritating. I know that better than most . . . because I am one.

While a tiny minority bear some striking similarities to humble saints of the past, far more carry all of the common marks of fallen humanity. They can be argumentative, vain, manipulative, and even vindictive.

It’s not pretty.

Ministers aren’t unique. Being on the “inside” of any community—be it construction workers, educators, soldiers, bankers and politicians—allows one to see unpleasant attributes that are often shielded from the general population.

But, getting back to clergy . . . Since their role is unique in conveying “divine” counsel to others, it is especially important that they be approachable and amicable.

Scientists in China are working on a means of getting around the built-in limitations of the human mediation of divine wisdom.*

They have devised a “robot monk.” It is quite versatile. Not only can it chant Buddhist mantras, something an iPod could do at least as well, it is able to carry on a conversation! Well, the conversation is presently limited to 20 set questions about Buddhism. And the use of a touch screen “held” against his chest makes the comparison with an iPad a bit more accurate.

The automaton’s creator predicts the robot in the yellow robe of a novice will have a major impact, even though he spends most of his day “meditating” on an office shelf.

Enthusiastically agreeing, one worshiper said, “He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people, since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism.”

Now, how can a Christian pastor hope to compete with that. After all, not many are considered to be “cute and adorable.”

What Would C.S. Lewis Think?

That’s a question I sometimes ponder when confronted by particularly odd realities that few of his day could have foreseen.

Lewis was quite respectful of clergy. Read, for example, this account of the way that even religious leaders can succumb to a type of patriotism that is far from biblical.

Patriotism . . . is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?”

He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (The Four Loves)

Now, it was not the personality or demeanor of this elderly priest that made his comment inappropriate. It was the comment itself. But for a prime example of clerical pride that drives people away from the Gospel, one needs look no farther than the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis concisely states the distinctive purpose of clergy. “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever.”

Could any other role demand so much integrity and goodwill? I think not. And it is precisely because this role is so unique and significant, that our shortcomings are doubly damning.

Perhaps, given the failings of sinful (i.e. all) ministers, it’s time to consider substituting a robot?

shermanI have no doubt that in no few cases it would be an improvement.

Of course, Christian churches would require a different model. Perhaps one that looks like Sherman on the Mount (minus the bird)?


* You can read a Reuters article about this marvel of Chinese technology here.

17 thoughts on “Robotic Religion

    1. Now, I’d like to be in charge of determining that!

      On second thought, I wouldn’t want to bear the responsibility.

      The safest thing might be to use statements from kids songs, like “Jesus loves me, this I know…” Then again, if that was on the “lips” of a robot, I’m not certain it would remain true…

      Probably just need to stick to biblical quotations, such as, “And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall.”

  1. Now why did this “cute and adorable” bit of artifice make me think of “The Emperor and the Nightingale”? When I was a child, it was the only fairy tale that made me weep.

  2. Hello Brother,

    Flesh and blood are not perfect, but that makes us human. Robots are not the best examples for people who struggle with real issues. We need flesh and blood, imperfect as it is, to see our need for the Lord. I love technology, but not enough for it to model human or divine attributes, no matter how lovable in appears.

    1. You’re right, of course. We are imperfect, fallen being. But we are of incredible value to our Creator, who loves us despite the worst things humanity is capable of.

      A fellow human being, who has struggled with and triumphed over the same afflictions that assail me, can speak hope to me with a power no robot or holograph could ever duplicate.

  3. I don’t know. Considering the variations human questions can be, “conversations” with this robot could be quite funny. Although some say “real” answers are within ourselves and the robot might just continue to utter vague responses prompting self exmination? Between a robot and a cat, I might tend to converse more with the cat – who has more in common with a human. (Or is this first religious robot only a step/experiment for figuring out how humans think so as to surpass them eventually? Twilight Zone coming up…)
    Intriguing post

    1. My, you’re reading a lot into this. I was thinking that the robot probably just gives directions to the shrine’s rest rooms and such. Doubt it could get too philosophical. However, the film AI Artificial Intelligence did teach us that sentient robots certainly are capable of emotional (and perhaps spiritual) depth.

      As to your second thought, about mechanical motivations… you’ve got me wondering. I too have seen enough episodes of the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits to recognize a conspiracy in its infancy…

  4. Pingback: C.S. Lewis and Robots « Mere Inkling

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