(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"Amen," said the priest, crossing himself. The assembled congregation followed suit,
murmuring "Amen" and crossing themselves in perfect synchronisation.
The priest sighed and suppressed a strong urge to
wipe the sweat off his face. He was relieved the Mass had gone off so well.
After all the warnings, he’d been expecting something much tougher.
The Bishop himself had been more than a little
circumspect. "You understand," he’d said, back in his office, "that strictly
speaking this is not something I can order you to do."
"I understand," the priest had replied. He was
young, only very recently ordained, and more than a little ambitious, and had
taken this chance for getting noticed in the corridors of ecclesiastical power.
"Still, it’s something I feel the need to do."
"But these are robots," the Bishop had replied.
"They are not human."
"According to the latest governmental regulations,"
the priest had argued, "Artificial Intelligences qualify as sentient entities.
Therefore, they have the right to the solace of religion. According to the
latest Papal Bull, the Vatican
approves. You know, Bishop," he added, "that with church attendances falling
like they are, we need every parishioner we can get. If the robots can be made
to hear the Good News, then..."
The Bishop had inclined his head. "Of course," he
had murmured, "the Lord’s call must be obeyed." He’d moved on to the details.
"You’ll be holding it late at night, of course," he’d said. "It wouldn’t do to
let the parishioners know. They might not understand."
That was the understatement of the year, the young
priest thought. The parishioners – the flesh and blood parishioners, he amended
– would go ballistic. They already hated the robots for taking their jobs. Now
they’d say the robots were taking their religion away,
and what next, a robot Pope?
The priest smiled a little at that thought. Perhaps
a robot Pope wasn’t too idle a fancy. He’d had doubts about how human the
current occupant of the throne of St Peter was, anyway. The old man seemed to
have no idea how actual living breathing people thought and acted. Shaking his
head, he put the blasphemous thought out of his mind.
The smooth metallic faces of his congregation still
stared up at him, expectantly, as though there was something else to be said,
something that he’d left undone. He cleared his throat, a trifle nervously.
"Are there any questions?"
A slender, multi-jointed arm rose from the back.
"Father," came the toneless voice, "if I understand
you correctly, you ask us to believe in your religion, in order to be ‘saved’.
Is that not so?"
"Yes," the priest said, a little uncertainly.
"But," the robot continued, "also, according to
you, this ‘saving’ does not comprise the physical body. You speak of something
apart from the physical body, which survives the end of its function."
"Its death," the priest said. "The word is death.
Never mind, go on."
"What we fail to understand, Father," the robot
continued, "is this thing that survives the end of function of the physical
body, which you call a ‘soul’. Is it like an operating system?"
"In a way." The priest felt a little out of his depth. "But it
is something more, something above that."
"And all humans have it?"
"Yes," the priest affirmed, loudly. "Each and every
human has it. That is what the Church enjoins us to believe. So we must believe
The robots passed a moment in silent thought. At
last, the robot at the back spoke again.
"Then, Father," it said, "it
is clear what we must do."
The Bishop got out of his car, squinting in the
morning sunshine. The door of the church was ajar, and it should not have been;
the young priest had volunteered to lock up after finishing the Mass last
night. Feeling sudden tension wrench at his gut, he rushed to the door and
threw it open.
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