In the book, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the faithful can visit a store called “Soul Scrolls” where a person can buy prayers. In the Buddhist tradition, a person can spin a prayer wheel which continues spinning after one has passed by. And now, in Wittenburg, Germany, birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, a robot will bless you and recite a Biblical verse.
A robot preacher can bless you if you visit a church in Wittenburg, Germany to receive a robotic blessing. A robot with a screen on its belly and robotic arms, called “Bless U-2” is dispensing blessings to the faithful. According to the church’s spokesperson, Sebastian von Gehren, the robot is an experiment intended to inspire discussion.
It has worked. According to von Gehren, half of the visitors “cannot imagine a blessing from a machine.” The other half likes it. The presence of the robot has led to many more visits to the church, which is now always busy.
The Bless U-2 has a face that lights up, a digital mouth that moves, and its hands light up when it is performing a blessing. On its belly is a screen that displays a biblical verse, and it can even print the verse on a little slip of receipt paper for the visitor.
There are no plans to expand the program. Von Gehren emphasized the point is to facilitate discussion, not replace clergy.
Most people would be offended by the idea of machines praying for us, but let us recall Ecclesiastes, where we are reminded, “there is no new thing under the sun.”
In ancient times, people purchased prayers from oracles. In the medieval world, wealthy people would sponsor Mass and ask for the prayers of those in monasteries. This practice continues today, along with requests for saintly intercession. On social media, many people engage with religious apps, some of which offer prayers for people or lead devotions.
These practices blur the line between reality and fiction for people. As Christians, we believe the saints are real. The prayers of the religious faithful are real. Our friends on social media who pray with us are real. But somewhere along the way, our prayers transfer from flesh and blood to silicon chips. We go from personal devotion to merely spinning a wheel.
A robot cannot intercede for you with God. But if a robotic blessing makes you more mindful, if it makes you a better person somehow, if an app changes your life, then by all means, it is good. But we must not seek hirelings as substitutes for our devotion.
We may fool our neighbors hiring monks, sponsoring Mass, or spinning prayer wheels, but if we do not seek conversion within our own hearts, then all the computer-generated prayers in the world will not save us.