Here’s where Karl Marx got it wrong: Opium sells itself, while religion requires marketing. The Kodaiji Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, is just 400 years old. But its latest priest, Kannon, can technically live forever, acquire unlimited knowledge and like Douglas Adams’ fictional supercomputer, Deep Thought, could hold the answer to “life, the universe and everything”. Kannon is an android priest, with silicon skin and a camera for a left eye. It began conducting sermons earlier this year and preaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.
Apart from the tricky theological questions, an android does provide the perfect vessel to preach detachment. When it talks of desire and ego, it can counsel without hypocrisy. Ironically, though, the motive behind the technological update may not be so detached as the new priest. The clergy at the Kodaiji temple reportedly hopes that Kannon will attract younger people, amongst whom the influence of religion is waning.
Closer home, too, robotic intervention holds much promise for religion to get with the times — and we can do it cheaper. The repetition of mantras, whether at weddings or funerals, is set and, frankly, requires little engagement from the audience. Given that most people are not well acquainted with classical Sanskrit, the vedic android will require programming no more sophisticated than a tape recorder. The only thing preventing the complete digitisation of religion is that even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence cannot perform the moral gymnastics that human beings who deal with religion and public life are able to. For instance, what will be the caste of a robot priest? Some questions trump even the most sophisticated technologies.