In this episode, we travel to a future where a tech mogul feeds a machine learning system all the religious texts he can find, and asks it to generate a “super religion.”
Buckle up because this is a long episode! But it’s fun, I promise.
For the intro of this episode I worked with Janelle Shane to actually train a machine learning algorithm on a big chunk of religious texts that I assembled, and spit something back out. The specifics of the texts and the machine learning algorithm come with a handful of caveats and notes, which you can find at the bottom of this post. Janelle has done of ton of really funny, interesting things with machine learning algorithms that you can find here.
To analyze the text that this algorithm generated, and talk about the limitations of this kind of project, I spoke with a big group of people from a variety of backgrounds:
- Linda Griggs is an Episcopal priest and an assisting priest at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence Rhode Island.
- Lauren O’Neal and Niko Bakulich are the hosts of a podcast called Sunday School Dropouts, whose tagline is: “an ex-Christian (Lauren) and a non-believing sort of Jew (Niko) read all the way through the Bible for the first time.”
- Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, and director of the Digital Islamic Humanities Project.
- Beth Duckles is a sociologist (who you heard last episode talking about peanut allergies).
- Carol Edelman Warrior is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. She is also enrolled with the Ninilchik Village Tribe (Dena’ina Athabascan / Alutiiq), and is also of A’aninin (Gros Ventre) descent.
- Mark Harris is a journalist who writes about technology, science and business for places like WIRED, The Guardian and IEEE Spectrum. He wrote a great piece about Anthony Levandowski’s new religion of artificial intelligence called Way of the Future.
- Sunday School Dropouts: Robobible
- Inside the First Church of Artificial Intelligence
- God is a Bot and Anthony Levandowski is His Messenger
- Way of the Future
- Nine Billion Names by Arthur C. Clarke
- Dataism + Machine Learning = New Religion
- Machine Learning May Help Determine When the Old Testament Was Written
- Indigenous Writers of Speculative Fiction
- Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion
- The Space NDN’s Star Map
- Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation
Caveats on the Algorithm:
There are approximately a thousand caveats to this machine learning project, and here are some of them: To train the algorithm, I compiled a set of source texts. This is by no means a full sampling of religious texts, nor is it in any way scientific. I am not an expert on religions in any way. I made no effort to balance the source texts by popularity of the religion or anything like that. The sampling is heavily biased by which texts I could find online for free in a format I could use. I had to exclude a few texts that I wanted to have in there because I couldn’t find versions that did not heavily include non-English sections. (The machine learning algorithm would have been totally thrown off by random bits of Italian or French or Mandarin, and I didn’t have time to manually go through thousands of pages and strip out the non-English text). I also had to skip a few texts that were so full of footnotes that the spiritual text itself was hard to pull out.
I did make a conscious effort to balance out the Abrahamic religions, while also trying to avoid accounts written by white colonizers about traditions they had just “discovered” in their travels. I tried my best to include mostly descriptions and texts written by folks who actually belonged to the traditions themselves, or at least were respected translators. That said, there are huge holes in this list.
Here is the full list of sources and links to where I found them:
- King James Bible: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10/pg10.txt
- Yusuf Ali’s English translation of the Quran (1934): http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/yaq/index.htm
- The Jewish Publication Society of America 1917 Tanakh: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tanakh-full-text
- Book of Mormon: https://www.archive.org/stream/thebookofmormon00017gut/mormon13.txt
- Gita Society http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/gita/agsgita.htm
- Jaina Sutras translated by Hermann Jacobi http://www.sacred-texts.com/jai/sbe22/index.htm
- The Kojiki: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/kojiki.htm
- Guru Granth Sahib: http://www.sacred-texts.com/skh/granth/index.htm
- Rig Veda: http://www.sanskritweb.net/rigveda/griffith.pdf
- The Analects of Confucius: http://www.wright-house.com/religions/confucius/Analects.html
- The Complete Works Of Chuang Tzu, Translated by Burton Watson https://terebess.hu/english/chuangtzu.html
- The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: http://web.archive.org/web/20110106080428/http://home.pages.at/onkellotus/TTK/English_Henricks_TTK.html
- The Kitáb-i-Íqán: http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/KI/index.html
- Holy Piby: http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/piby/index.htm
- Australian Sacred Legends: http://www.sacred-texts.com/aus/alt/index.htm
- The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary: http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/cuts/index.htm
- Dianetics: https://stss.nl/stss-materials/English/Books/EN_BO_Dianetics_The_Modern_Science_of_Mental_Health_DMSMH.pdf
- Hausa Folk Lore by Maalam Shaihua, translated by R. Sutherland Rattray: http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/hausa/index.htm
- Maori Myths and Ledgends: http://eng.mataurangamaori.tki.org.nz/Support-materials/Te-Reo-Maori/Maori-Myths-Legends-and-Contemporary-Stories
- Sioux Legends by Zitkala-Sa: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/oil.htm
- Truth of a Hopi: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/hopi/toah/index.htm
- The Mesnevi and the Acts of the Adepts translated by James W. Redhouse http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/mes/index.htm
- Hávamál – The Sayings of Hár: http://www.voluspa.org/havamal.htm
- Popol Vuh: https://archive.org/stream/PopolVuh/1019117-The-Popol-Vuh-English_djvu.txt
- Gardnerian Book of Shadows (Wiccan): http://www.whyte-witch.com/sacredtext.pdf
- Joyous Cosmology: http://www.holybooks.com/joyous-cosmology-alan-watts/
- Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft: https://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/religion.occult.new_age/Magick/Complete%20Book%20Of%20Witchcraft.pdf
- The Second Battle of Mag Tuired (Celtic): http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm
- The Cattle Raid of Cualnge: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/crc/index.htm
- The Celtic Dragon Myth: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cdm/index.htm
- ‘Raja Yoga, or Mental Development: http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/ryo/index.htm
- The Kalevala: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/index.htm
- Yukara epos of the Ainus by Kamuy-Yukara: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/ainu/yukara.htm
- Yana Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/yat/index.htm
- The General Book of the Tarot: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/gbt/index.htm
- A Dweller on Two Planets: http://www.sacred-texts.com/atl/dtp/index.htm
- Fifty-one Tales: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/dun/fotd/index.htm
- The Kybalion: http://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/kyb/index.htm
You can find the full plaintext document we fed the algorithm here. I tried to strip out tables of contents, introductions, indexes and as much of the other non-spiritual text as I could (special thanks to Robert Brenner for his help with that). That said, despite his valiant efforts, some of it almost certainly creeped in.
You can read all about the algorithm Janelle used to generate the text on her blog.
In short: don’t take the output of this algorithm too seriously. It was a fun and interesting project, but it is not a new religion nor is it meant to be comprehensive or representative. All that said, here’s the algorithmically generated holy text:
The perfect guru is the giver of the lord, and the perfect pool of the lord. The deluded of the lord god is the doer, the doer is the lord, and the doer is the lord’s darshan.
And the lord shall be the son of Eliphaz in the land of the dumb of the ladies of the skin of the lamb of the tabernacle of the tini of the lord.
The camel (might), in this day, face the lord’s light. He is never precious (to the camel).
The gurmukh speaks: I bless the glorious praises of the lord of the lord of the land of the guru, the searcher of the lord of the holy treasuries within the one lord.
This is made the job of the chicken-hued, with the common world, (and) to the hand.
A nun met the universe of the unseen; in the world-halves will be the light of the water of heaven.
The chicken listed of the enmity is not a guest of the chicken of his people, as the universe had met the rain of that day.
O my beloved is contemplated in the rear of the lord, is bountee of the true guru, is the boat of the lord of the lord of the lord, and the lord of the lord of the holy of the lord of the lord is in the true guru.
The gurmukh speaks the glorious praises of the lord, har, har is the naam, the searcher of the lord himself understands the body of the guru, the naam. I am the glorious praises of the lord. The lord is the glorious praises of the guru, and the holy judge of the lord.
Whoever comes to be in the word of the lord shall be put in the middle of our content. And it is the sea, and the king. They were vexed grapes, and take them forth to the king of the lord, that the lord is the king of the children of the divine king.
His father dreamed up his clothes.
And he said unto them, and said unto him to put his clothes, and he was not cleaner than the magicness of the sword of the lamb, and he hath sworn by the sword of the sons of the lord of the ark of the service of Sinai and pain.
And he shall not be cleanness: but it shall be clean cloth, and saved the kine of cloth the heavenly male, and fifty more more to the gate of the gods and said unto them, and said the arts of the living of the children of the sword of the camp of the valley of the lamb of the world, for her substance of the sword of the lamb of heaven, and shall not be after in the day of all the cattledoves of the congregation of the sun.
and the lord said unto the lord shall be opened the clothing of the lamb of the lord.
one who loves the grace of the naam, the name of the lord.
one who loves the grace of the lord’s name, the name of the lord.
one who loves the grace of the lord.
one who loves the lord, one is not found the naam.
you have met the lord
god offers goodness of the lord.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The voices from the future this episode were by Stephen Garande and Linda Griggs. Special thanks to Robert Brenner who helped me clean up the giant corpus of religious texts. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
This episode is sponsored in part by:
- HAPPY! a new SYFY show featuring Christopher Meloni and Patton Oswalt. HAPPY! premieres December 6th at 10, 9 central, on SYFY.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
Flash Forward is a critically acclaimed podcast about the future.
In each episode, host Rose Eveleth takes on a possible (or not so possible) future scenario — everything from the existence of artificial wombs, to what would happen if space pirates dragged a second moon to Earth. What would the warranty on a sex robot look like? How would diplomacy work if we couldn’t lie? Could there ever be a black market for fecal transplants? (Complicated, it wouldn’t, and yes, respectively, in case you’re curious.) By combining audio drama and deep reporting, Flash Forward gives listeners an original and unique window into the future, how likely different scenarios might be, and how to prepare for what might come.