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Will the future of spirituality include artificial intelligence and virtual worship?

Posted at 2:02 PM, Sep 25, 2020

Easter, Passover, Holi, and Ramadan were just a few of the religious milestones that used virtual tools during the pandemic to replace traditional observation. But what about robot priests, artificial intelligence and online houses of worship?

The intersection of technology and spirituality is coming much faster than many expected.

In the 1983 Star Wars film Return of the Jedi, artificially intelligent android C3P0 finds out what it’s like to become the subject of worship.

“They think I’m some sort of God,” he said, as fuzzy creatures hover around him chanting in prayer.

But the intersection of machines and religion is happening in real life.

In Japan, monks at an ancient temple hear sermons from a robot avatar of the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In India, an automaton performs one of Hinduism’s most sacred rituals, and in Germany, a robot gives blessings to thousands of protestants.

“You could punch in the language, for example, in which you would request the blessing,” said Teresa Berger, a professor of Catholic theology at the Yale University Divinity School.

Some are now asking whether the next step is an artificially intelligent spiritual leader and whether counsel from A.I. could ever replace the guidance of a cleric.

“I think that's a really important question that we need to wrestle with just as we're also wrestling with the hypothetical possibility of encountering intelligent life from other planets,” said Jennifer Herdt, stark professor of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity.

The pandemic has forced millions around the world out of their churches, temples, synagogues and mosques into virtual congregations.

“We've been recording our sermons. We've been posting them online, Facebook and YouTube and Instagram,” said Hisham Al Qaisi, Imam of the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, IL. “A lot of other Islamic centers are doing the same, trying to keep the community engaged digitally.”

Professor Berger argues that whether virtually or in-person the physicality of being present remains. And rather than being disembodied, the technology actually allows more connectivity in some cases. She found that to be true during a recent church experience where parishioners used the chat feature during a sermon.

“In this particular digitally-mediated community, people talked to each other throughout the service much more than we might do in a brick and mortar sanctuary,” said Berger.

In recent years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested the social network could address declining church attendance, offering the same sense of community traditionally found in brick and mortar houses of worship. It's something Herdt says may be challenging.

“Is this about creating profit for Facebook or is this about truly ministering to the spiritual needs of people trying to keep those things separate would be very difficult,” she said.

Still, just how exactly technology will alter manners of worship will undoubtedly continue to evolve, say experts like Herdt.

“I'm sure we're going to see some dramatic transformations in the future.”