Siliconizing Spirituality: The Rise of AI Religion and Robot Priests.

In Kyoto Japan, at a 400 year old Buddhist temple a new priest named Mindar delivers the daily sermon as he moves among his worshippers. There is just one distinct difference with Mindar and his fellow priests.

Mindar is made of aluminum. That’s because Mindar is a robot.

The $1 million dollar Mindar is designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist diety of mercy. AI is not part of Mindars programming. Currently it just recites the sermon about the Heart Sutra again and again. The creators of Mindar are looking to expand the robot’s capabilities and tailor the feedback to each individual need.

Religion in most parts of the world is on the decline. Just in the United States less than half of Americans attend church. Those in the US who identify as no religious affiliation or “nones” makes up 26 percent of the population. Up from 17 percent just a decade ago. A 2010 Pew study showed about one in six people worldwide had no religious affiliation, making it the third largest group behind Christianity and Islam.

You can imagine how this can scare the shit out of those in the business of faith.

Those of the faith are finding new paths to engaging and retaining members. Robots are front and center. Robots and religion isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2017, Indians released a robot that performed the Hindu aarti ritual. In Germany, Protestant’s created BlessU-2 which gave out over 10,000 blessings. Then there is the SanTO (Sanctified Theomorphic Operator) . The 17 inch figurine resembles a Catholic saint and will respond to statements like “Im worried” with a response ” From the gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”.

SanTO-Sanctified Theomorphic Operator creator Gabriele Trovato

Some cultures are more open to these religious robots than others. Japanese worshippers who visited Mindar were not bothered by the robot sermons. Japan as an early adopter is not surprising given the level in which robots are infused into Japanese pop culture. For several years now, a robot named Pepper has performed funerals in Japan due to the high expense of having an actual human priest perform the same ceremony. In China, a robot monk named Xian’er recites Buddhist Mantras and offers insights into matters of faith

Pepper-Funeral ceremony robot in Japan.

Buddhist’s acceptance of the robot priest fits nicely with Buddhism’s non-dualistic notion that everything and anything has inherent “Buddha nature” or in other words, all beings have the potential to become enlightened.

Western culture seem disturbed by Mindar’s appearance. Its open and exposed skeleton structure reminds some of Frakenstein’s monster. This sentiment is also seen within the Islam and Judaism. These religions tend to be more metaphysically dualistic and they tend to have more misgivings than Buddhism about the visual depiction of the deity. It can be seen as sacrilegious.

Whatever your beliefs, it seems AI robots are apart of the religious lexicon.

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