Gender-neutral robot priests to take on patriarchy

A piece published on the website of Justice for Men & Boys (and the women who love them), the political party of which I’m the chairman, in September 2019:

piece in today’s Times. The existence of the patriarchy is never questioned in the paper, and invariably taken for granted.

It could be the Lord’s Prayer of the 2020s: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, cathodes be thy brain.”

A Roman Catholic theologian who is a Franciscan sister has claimed that “gender-neutral” robotic priests could help make the Church less patriarchal and tackle its sexual abuse crisis.

Ilia Delio, who holds a chair in theology at Villanova University, Pennsylvania, said that robots could excel in ways that human priests might not.

“Take the Catholic Church,” she said. “It’s very male, very patriarchal and we have this whole sexual abuse crisis. So would I want a robot priest? Maybe.” She said that robots could be gender neutral with the ability to transcend human divisions and enhance a community in a more “liberating” fashion.

They would work alongside humans, rather than replacing them, she added.

Sister Delio questioned whether priestliness arose from ordination or could be a programmable trait. “We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges [them],” she said. “It challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood.”

Nevertheless, in an interview with Vox website she joked that a robot might be more suited to Protestantism. Researchers are developing a robot to guide prayers of the faithful, analyse expressions and offer comfort through Bible verses picked by algorithm.

The 16in SanTO robot resembles an ornamental figure of a saint but has a built-in microphone and voice-recognition program. A camerA and facial recognition software will enable it to identify users, read their moods and turn the figure’s gaze to follow them.

The designers claim that the plastic device will “pray with users, teach them catechism and provide advice through contextual search of biblical passages”.

A “reverb effect” on the figure’s voice and backlighting behind its body will confer a “sense of the divine”. The designers hope to mass produce it for sale at under £100. Gabriele Trovato, the researcher at Waseda University, Tokyo, who came up with the idea for SanTO, said: “The word ‘robot’ gives a bad impression. I prefer ‘interactive saint’ or ‘speaking saint’.”

Mr Trovato, a Catholic, said clergy at the Vatican had expressed an interest in SanTO but it should not intrude on the role of human priests. “It’s supposed to give spiritual help, like when you might open the Bible on a random page,” he said. “It’s not going to give specific, original advice. That is more technically difficult and is morally wrong.”

Mr Trovato said that the installation of a robot priest in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, intended to draw in younger worshippers, showed that religious authorities were recognising technology.

You can subscribe to The Times here.

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