Theology and Robotics - Workshop Observation


The workshop on robotics in religious practice, which took place on March 16 and 17 at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, was able to discuss current issues in the border area of systematic and practical theology.

Already in the run-up to the workshop, the prayer robot of Gabriele Trovato, a computer scientist and robot engineer from Italy who teaches in Japan, was exhibited in the rooms of the university chaplaincy. Interested visitors from our faculty as well as from the CampusSegen environment came to try out the robot CelesTE. The actual workshop was an opportunity to discuss the use of new technologies in religious practice and to develop new concepts for this area.

There was great interest in the installation of CelesTE and the discussion of robots in religious contexts. In response to the call for papers, a program of eight keynote lectures could be put together, dedicated to four different topics ranging from robot design to robot eschatology. The two expert presentations by Prof. Gabriele Trovato (Japan) and Prof. Ilona Nord (Würzburg) as well as the joint analysis of the robot CelesTE rounded off the program. The workshop itself was attended by more than twenty participants from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Great Britain, who were interested in the topic from different religious contexts and scientific disciplines, from theology to neuroscience and computer science.

Lukas Brand, Dominik Winter und Gabriele Trovato (v.l.) diskutieren über die Funktionen des Gebetsroboters CelesTE
Lukas Brand, Dominik Winter und Gabriele Trovato (v.l.) diskutieren über die Funktionen des Gebetsroboters CelesTE
© Fabian Strauch FUNKE Foto Service
Konsequent disziplinübergreifende Perspektive

The workshop confirmed several points at the border of theology and robotics, consistently taking the interdisciplinary perspective between systematic and practical theology. Here are some key observations summarized:
Theolog:ians have been underrepresented in the design process of robots. The workshop nevertheless offered the opportunity to learn about and try out other digital tools for religious practice besides CelesTE, which are already being developed by theologians in isolated cases, are being used in religious practice, and were able to directly encourage the pioneering spirit of the participants. Overall, theologians should engage more in discourse with the disciplines of engineering and computer science. In so far as these disciplines produce cultural objects, they also relate to the previous religious experiences of the users addressed by the design. At the same time, it is clear from the examples considered that religious technology, especially when it addresses such global phenomena as aging, can also be used globally without further ado due to digitization and the availability of the individual technical components and must be adapted here to a clearly diverse audience. As a result, the religious intrinsic values of the respective place and context of origin are confronted with the religious expectations and prejudices of different parts of the world. For example, CelesTE was developed especially for older people and tested in Peru, Poland, and Germany in selected contexts characterized by traditional religious symbols and rituals. Based on these examples, it became clear that when designing AI and social robotics for religious domains, all countries with an aging society must remain in view, and thus almost the entire spectrum of religions and ecclesiastical traditions in the world must be taken into account. For the cultural adaptation necessary here, it can be stated in the overall view of the topic, practical-theological, especially sociological perspectives of religion and pastoral competence are required. The relevance of the theological perspective was underscored by the observation that developments that could be used in religious contexts initially emerge independently of religious ties (e.g., avatars in VR for individual commemoration of the dead) but are obviously intended to satisfy a spiritual need for transcendence that certainly requires professional support in existential extreme situations such as death and mourning.Polen und Deutschland in ausgewählten Kontexten getestet, die durch tradierte religiöse Symbole und Rituale geprägt sind. An Hand dieser Beispiele wurde deutlich, dass beim Design von KI und sozialer Robotik für religiöse Bereiche alle Länder mit einer alternden Gesellschaft im Blick bleiben müssen und damit nahezu das gesamte Spektrum an Religionen und kirchlichen Traditionen der Welt berücksichtigt werden muss. Für die hier notwendige kulturelle Adaption, so lässt sich in der Gesamtschau des Themas feststellen, sind praktische-theologische, insbesondere religionssoziologische Perspektiven und seelsorgerische Kompetenz gefragt. Die Relevanz der theologischen Perspektive wurde durch die Beobachtung unterstrichen, dass Entwicklungen, die in religiösen Kontexten zum Einsatz kommen könnten, zwar zunächst unabhängig von religiösen Bindungen entstehen (bspw. Avatare in VR zum individuellen Totengedenken) aber offensichtlich ein spirituelles Bedürfnis nach Transzendierung befriedigen sollen, das in existentiellen Extremsituationen wie Tod und Trauer durchaus einer professionellen Begleitung bedarf.

Wirkungen künstlich-spiritueller Begleiter

Particularly where, as in the case of SanTO and CelesTE, technology is being developed for pastoral contexts, pastoral-sociological and pastoral-psychological issues come into play. Initial test runs with SanTO have also shown that "religious" devices are certainly perceived and accepted as spiritual companions. However, the context in which the device is used obviously plays a decisive role: If the prayer robot was denied attention or even insulted in secular spaces (e.g., museums), similar behavior could not be observed in church spaces. Despite the progress in the development of robots and AI systems that can take over human tasks also in the socio-caritative field, from the perspective of pastoral theology, finally, the requirements should not be overlooked that represent and will continue to represent the benchmark for the extremely complex profile of pastoral caregivers.
At the same time, the use of robotics for individual liturgical design calls for a liturgical-scientific perspective: Insofar as engineers like Gabriele Trovato explicitly refer to sacred art in the design of their technology, on the one hand the practice of prayer can be reflected upon anew and, on the other hand, the design of theomorphic or religious-practical machines should be contextualized with the methods of liturgical scholarship.
In the interdisciplinary conversation, it became clear in many cases that in the field of AI and robotics, different core issues need to be addressed and discussed in the systematic-theological perspective through the human-machine comparison, which provides an authoritative framework for the practical-theological investigations. Thus, questions about the ontological distinction from human beings can be more concretely determined by the purpose limitation of the machine, which is essential for technology, and by its life cycle, which practically borders on immortality, than by speculations about a possible consciousness of the machine.

Interreligöser Dialog über Maschine und Mensch

Also in a systematic theological perspective, the workshop turned to the questions of religious robotics to other religions that have their own experiences with the topic. The Islamic theological and philosophical perspective was represented by two Islamic scholars from Erlangen and Vienna. If one takes into account that technical development took its roots in the Islamic region over a long period of time before it grew into Christian Europe, it is obvious to look for Islamic theology as a discussion partner. It is beginning, albeit with similar reluctance as Christian theology, to reflect scientifically on robots and technology and to weigh the pros and cons of using them in a religious context.
Through interaction with smart technical systems, humans are constantly challenged in their self-perception (both positively and negatively). In this context, religious education is gaining in importance as a place for reflective discussion of existential questions in the development of young people's identities.
Finally, the examination of science fiction can provide another important contribution to the philosophical-theological discourse. With the question of a heaven for robots, for example, the soteriological question of the need for redemption of creation is also cleverly extended to the non-natural creation of man, including technology that accompanies man, supports him or even expands his abilities.
The results of the workshop will be prepared in the form of an anthology, which will be prepared for publication later this year and is scheduled to appear in 2024.

Lukas Brand
(Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

Dominik Winter
(Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

Martin Kutz
(TU Dresden)

Insights and reviews of the participants
  • #nethKI2023 auf Twitter
  • Theonet: Roboter und Theologie „Robot, Pray for Me!“ 28. März 2023: Die Verbindung von Robotik, Theologie und religiösen Praktiken stand im Mittelpunkt der Tagung „Robot, Pray for Me!“, die am 16. und 17. März 2023 an der Ruhr-Universität Bochum stattfand . Diese interdisziplinäre Veranstaltung versammelte Forschende, um ihre Projekte an der Schnittstelle von Religion und Robotik zu präsentieren. Die Teilnehmenden konnten sich vernetzen und das Verhältnis von Menschen, Maschinen und religiöser Praxis diskutieren.


The Ruhr University and the Diocese of Essen formulated their own press releases on the installation of CelesTE and the workshop. Different media reported on the event both beforehand and afterwards.


Die Veranstaltung wurde unterstützt durch Mittel der RUB-Research School und der EKD.

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