How to Socially Engineer Secularism

Apparently, using AI to learn how to socially engineer the secularization of vast numbers of Middle Eastern refugees really is a thing. It seems that, to paraphrase Turkey’s Erdoğan, “pluralism” is a train you get off once you have reached your destination.

The goal of the project is to give politicians an empirical tool that will help them assess competing policy options so they can choose the most effective one. It’s a noble idea: If leaders can use artificial intelligence to predict which policy will produce the best outcome, maybe we’ll end up with a healthier and happier world. But it’s also a dangerous idea: What’s “best” is in the eye of the beholder, after all…


The one that focuses most on refugees, Modeling Religion in Norway (MODRN), is still in its early phases. Led by Shults, it’s funded primarily by the Research Council of Norway, which is counting on the model to offer useful advice on how the Norwegian government can best integrate refugees. Norway is an ideal place to do this research, not only because it’s currently struggling to integrate Syrians, but also because the country has gathered massive data sets on its population.

I am not of Norwegian descent, but I have to say that this still hits me a bit close to home. Earlier in my life I was deeply affected by the historical novels of the early-20th century Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. She was a feminist-turned-Catholic author, and the oldest daughter of an archaeologist. Her two most well-known novels (generally considered to be exceptionally historically accurate) are profound stories of sin and repentance in a culture absolutely steeped in Christianity. More than this, they are stories which give a glimpse into a world which was fundamentally human in ways that have largely been lost: for instance, in reading them I felt, for the first time in my life, some small sense of just how deep the bonds of kinship once were. Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Now, the nation founded by St. Olaf has become a surveillance state relying on advanced computer models to socially engineer the end of religion in public life. Chalk another one up to progress, I guess.

Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (forest), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.


“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University.

It seems pretty clear that modernity didn’t need any AI models to discover that the best way to promote secularization is to make sure that people are a) comfortable, and b) properly indoctrinated. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth the results are in. The moral of the story: we really need to get serious about Orthodox education.

Unfortunately, it seems that the AI has been generating results which are not only stereotypically inane, but also stereotypically murderous:

When you build a model, you can accidentally produce recommendations that you weren’t intending. Years ago, Wildman built a model to figure out what makes some extremist groups survive and thrive while others disintegrate. It turned out one of the most important factors is a highly charismatic leader who personally practices what he preaches. “This immediately implied an assassination criterion,” he said. “It’s basically, leave the groups alone when the leaders are less consistent, [but] kill the leaders of groups that have those specific qualities. It was a shock to discover this dropping out of the model. I feel deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.”

OK, fair point, but I feel even more deeply uncomfortable that the human beings doing the analysis immediately made the leap from “religions flourish when they have good honest leaders” to “this model is clearly suggesting that those leaders should be killed.”

The analysts themselves are worried about what might happen if their tools fall into the wrong hands. Not so much the part about assassinating religious leaders; on the contrary, they are assuming the government has already thought of all that (I’m not making this up, read the article). Rather, one of their main concerns is that somebody might flip the polarity and use their work to fight against secularization.

The other models raise similar concerns, he said. “The MODRN model gives you a recipe for accelerating secularization—and it gives you a recipe for blocking it. You can use it to make everything revert to supernaturalism by messing with some of those key conditions—say, by triggering some ecological disaster. Then everything goes plunging back into pre-secularism. That keeps me up at night.”

It is slightly surreal to hear such a concern voiced by someone who is literally using AI to help wipe out religion, and has already stumbled across “cold-blooded murder of religion’s best representatives” as one of the potential solutions.

To be fair to these people: they are definitely aware that what they are doing has serious ethical concerns (though this might qualify as a bit of an understatement), and obviously they are in no way trying to get anyone assassinated. But they’ve made the decision to continue doing what they’re doing (working to socially engineer secularism), mostly on the grounds that if they don’t then someone else will, and at least they’re being honest about it.

As I emphasized yesterday, honesty counts for a lot. But at the same time, being honest about doing something creepy and wrong doesn’t make it any less creepy and wrong. From a purely practical point of view, though, they’re right: it’s not like any of this stuff would just go away if a few people decided to call it quits, and I’d certainly rather know about it than not.

Because as chilling as all of this might be, here is the most chilling thing of all: according to the data, the forces of secularism don’t really need to bother assassinating our leaders. They just need to be allowed to educate our kids.


  1. Thank you for this article Father Gabriel. I also am appreciative of Sigred Unset’s works, by the way and am very sad about how far this culture has deviated from the recognition of sin and repentance. This site is a blessing. I was inspired by your sermon at Holy Cross and I am gratified to see your sermons available at this website. Barbara

Leave a Reply