Siri, Pray For Me

Siri, Pray For Me September 9, 2016

The last time my Religion and Science Fiction class met, we continued a conversation about Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Since the story mentions motorized prayer wheels at a monastery in Tibet, I thought that focusing in on that detail might be useful, as a way of highlighting that readers – whether religious people or critics of religion – make theological assumptions about what God is like, what religious practices are valuable, and what makes them meaningful or otherwise.

And so I got students to ask Siri to pray for them.

I didn’t try it in advance to see what would happen. Have you ever tried it? Siri’s response to both students who asked Siri to pray was, “Who, me?”

I found this to be an excellent prelude to a discussion of how sci-fi can bring theological and religious matters into focus. When I asked whether it would make sense (theologically – obviously from a purely practical standpoint this would drain your battery quickly) for someone to get one or more of their electronic devices to pray for them. Everyone agreed that the answer was “no.” Many spoke of “intent” as important. Others mentioned the idea of connecting with God in a personal way.

I asked whether the fact that Siri, if it prayed, would simply be uttering words with no comprehension or cognition would be relevant – which led naturally to a quip from me, “It’s a good thing that human beings never utter prayers in a mindless, unthinking way.”

We also talked about whether prayer aims to change the mind of God – since a God whose mind can change seems more personal than one that is unchanging.

If there was one thing we all agreed on, it was that it would be worth making an app that prayed for you. Whether out of curiosity, novelty, or devotion, lots of people would buy it.

If there is one thing that is consistently present at the intersection of religion and science fiction, it is schemes to make money.

But seriously, have you ever asked Siri to pray? If you did or if you try it now, what was the result? If you think it makes no sense to do so, why do you think that?

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  • arcseconds

    Well, I did write a prayer macro once.

    Fred’s post to which that is a reply also has some relevance.

  • Sue Burnam

    Tried this with my classes as soon as I read your post. We got these responses: “I can’t answer that” (3x), I am not allowed to,” “not sure I understand,” and my favorite, “This is about you, not me.”

    • Wow, thank you for sharing these! Was the request posed to Siri in the same way by all the students? I wonder whether Siri adapts to individuals and thus responds in different ways to the same question depending on the device and its owner…

      • Sue Burnam

        No, this was extremely uncontrolled and unscientific. Interested students grabbed their phones, addressed Siri, and told me the replies. Lots of fun, though. I’ll try to make it a more contained exercise next time.

        • I approached it the same way, but didn’t get nearly the diversity of responses you did, nor as interesting ones!