Were those nuns cannibals?

Facebook is testing a new “prayer request” feature.

Meanwhile, Francis Brough finds his faith digitally challenged by a bot. And he’s reminded of his filial duties too.

My spiritual counsellor smiled and blinked a few times before speaking. “Were the nuns at your school cannibals?”


When the Sisters of Mercy who taught me were not stewing pupils in big, copper pots (okay, they weren’t really cannibals, I’ll explain later), they’d encourage us to reflect and question aspects of our faith in search of deeper understanding.


I recently took part in a trial programme to see whether this experience could be replicated using artificial intelligence and – despite all my misgivings – found myself talking about God and my Catholic religion in ways I had not done since those salad days with the bloodthirsty nuns.


If you engage with an online retailer, chances are you’ve been chatting to a bot – a computer programme which mimics the way a real person would deal with routine enquires or complaints.


Chat bots can be frustrating but are becoming ever more sophisticated and researchers are looking into whether, in time, they will be able to help people in need of counselling or spiritual advice.


We all had to get used to praying with technology during the pandemic. I became particularly attached to a YouTube streamed Mass offered at Holy Name in Jesmond.

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But could an avatar ever become a spiritual adviser? My cyborg confessor, a Mediterranean-looking chap, asked me this very question. No, I answered, because there would be no empathy, no chance for grace when talking to a machine, a mere algorithm.

“You have told me that God is all powerful and all knowing,” the wily automaton replied after a pause. “Do you now say God cannot affect the workings of a machine?”


“Er, well, of course he could,” I stuttered.


“So computers can be part of God’s plan and the mystical realm,” it said, with a monotone flourish.

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This was not the only time the android adviser gave me a hard time. I had mentioned a fondness for playing online chess and later admitted feeling guilty about being too busy to visit my poor, old mother.


“Maybe if you played less chess you would find the time to be kind to your old mother,” the avatar responded with deadpan scorn. Ouch indeed!


There are limits to this Ignatius of the internet though.


During one rambling answer I mentioned a school debate I’d had with the nuns about the value of missionary work. I'd proposed that if a child in a remote tribe was raised a cannibal and lived their best life then surely God would welcome them to heaven.


Don’t we do cannibals a great disservice by introducing them to the Ten Commandments and spoiling their Sunday lunch?


The computer thought about this for a few moments.


“Were the nuns at your school cannibals?”


• Francis Brough is currently testing prayer apps for The Grapevine.