Simulation Theory: How is ‘Religion’ Part of It?

computer simulation of a residential street

Tyler Dettmar developed this post from a presentation originally created for Prof. Lauren Horn Griffin’s REL 245, American Religious History. Special thanks for editorial assistance from REL’s graduate student Jacob Barrett.

In recent years, something called simulation theory has begun appearing more frequently in public discourse. Public figures such as Elon Musk have called attention to this ideology, spreading quickly over social media. With the latest movie in The Matrix franchise coming out a few weeks ago, conversation about simulation theory has redoubled. Why don’t we typically study something as popular as sim theory in courses on religion in America?

First, what is simulation theory? Essentially, simulation theory is the idea that we are living in a computer simulation, and that every aspect of our reality is artificial. In fact, according to this ideology, not everyone is even “real”; only the “programmers” are really real and can change reality.

Simulation theory has roots in Western philosophy. René Descartes wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy, “It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false,” with the idea that there is an evil demon controlling our reality. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes prisoners trapped in a cave who can only see the shadows of things illuminated on the wall. To the prisoners, reality was the shadows of the objects on the wall, not the objects themselves.

There are two ways we could examine simulation theory from the perspective of religious studies: simulation theory as religion, and religion within simulation theory. In simulation theory, the body and conscience are separate. If only some people have real consciences with the ability to program, those with programmed consciences might not matter. This separation of and relationship between body and mind is a common idea discussed among many religions, but how does it influence people’s behavior today? An article by Shannon Trosper Schorey on the website for Religion Dispatches describes how simulation theory contributed to dangerous crimes. Schorey describes how Joshua Cooke watched The Matrix many times before he murdered his parents. She also relates how a New Zealand man livestreamed his murder of several people, moving the gun as if from a first-person shooter video game. Did The Matrix and video games “program” these men to commit these crimes, or is this another “bad religion/bad media” discussion? How does the digital participate in how we think about what is “real” and “fake”? These are interesting questions, and Schorey’s examples show that far from a fringe idea, sim theory has real world ramifications and shapes the way people interpret and interact with their world, much like religion.

In addition to thinking about simulation theory as religion, it is also interesting to examine religion within simulation theory. Although simulation theory does not involve worship of a figure or god, the idea of the programmers being in control of what others do sounds remarkably similar to the role of gods or God among many groups we colloquially call religions. The separation of the mind and body, with emphasis on the mind/conscience/soul, are ideas that many religions discuss and propose ideas about. While simulation theory does not involve specific rites or practices and is mostly a way of explaining reality, it reminds me of the idea of predestination in the Calvinist movement which began in the 16th century. Calvinist ideology held that essentially your fate was decided before you were born, so only the “elect” decided by God would achieve salvation, without regard to their actions. In the same way, simulation theory holds that the “programmers” control your fate and your actions are largely meaningless.

With simulation theory becoming a point of discussion in today’s society, examining it through the lens of religious studies offers us a variety of questions that could shed new light on this topic and also show us that maybe some of its core ideas aren’t that new at all. Regardless of what you think about simulation theory, it is certainly interesting to compare it to what we commonly consider religion. And who knows, maybe religion is just part of the simulation.

3 thoughts on “Simulation Theory: How is ‘Religion’ Part of It?

  1. March 21, 2022
    Hello Tyler Dettmar,

    I want to congratulate you on your post, Simulation Theory: How is ‘Religion’ Part of It?
    and mention that I thoroughly loved reading your blog post especially where you had mentioned, “Calvinist ideology held that essentially your fate was decided before you were born, so only the “elect” decided by God would achieve salvation, without regard to their actions. In the same way, simulation theory holds that the “programmers” control your fate and your actions are largely meaningless.” I had never personally heard of this idea or topic so I was very intrigued reading it and I want to dive deeper into the idea. I thought it was also interesting and I thoroughly liked it when you examined two ways to see different perspectives in religious studies.

    I am currently taking a Religion in Pop Culture class and it is interesting to talk about a new area that could be related to religious studies that I had never heard of. Now I have thought and always kind of been interested in the idea of the simulation theory or reading into it so seeing where you were able to compare it to religious studies, “it is also interesting to examine religion within simulation theory. Although simulation theory does not involve worship of a figure or god, the idea of the programmers being in control of what others do sounds remarkably similar to the role of gods or God among many groups we colloquially call religions,” was very intriguing to me.
    I think how you ended it with maybe religion being apart of the simulation makes me want to ask more questions. Is it truly just a part of the simulation? Is it actually all fake? I think this is a very fascinating idea/theory but I definitely want to know more about this and I really liked your post. Congratulations again!!

    Caitlyn Pignetti

  2. Hi Tyler Dettmar,
    I want to congratulate you on your post, Simulation Theory: How is ‘Religion’ Part of It?
    and mention that I thoroughly loved reading your blog post especially where you said, “Although simulation theory does not involve worship of a figure or god, the idea of the programmers being in control of what others do sounds remarkably similar to the role of gods or God among many groups we colloquially call religions.” I have actually heard quite a bit about this theory and the different aspects that cause people to think about this as a real possibility. Movies like The Matrix definitely fueled this theory, in my opinion. From movies to average people talking, more and more you’re beginning to see people talking about this!
    I am currently in an Religion in Pop Culture class and it’s amazing to talk about a new area that could be related to religious studies, like your theory! I have always been interested in the idea of the simulation theory or reading into it so seeing where you were able to compare it to religious studies class, which you’ve done really well! All in all I really enjoyed your post as well as your thoughts on this theory; it is nice to see someone else aside from myself giving this some thought. Congratulations again, I love your work!

    Lauren Frazin

  3. Dear Tyler Dettmar,

    For this assignment and blog post I chose your blog post entitled “Simulation Theory: How is Religion a Part of It?” First off congratulations for putting together the blog post. Thank you for taking the time to spark conversation about simulation theory as in pop-culture it is becoming more and more mainstream either for entertainment or actual theoretical discussion. I really appreciated your compare and contrasting of gods in religions and programmers in simulation theory “Although simulation theory does not involve worship of a figure or god, the idea of the programmers being in control of what others do sounds remarkably similar to the role of gods or God among many groups we colloquially call religions.” I noticed that you posed your blog on 24 January 2022 for Prof. Lauren Horn Griffin’s REL 245, American Religious History. Coincidentally I am also taking a “REL” course, Religion in pop-culture REL 104. Technically I am writing you from the future. As the time your blog post was written it is static and I am writing you from a time that does not exist at the time of your blog. What was the meaning and or application of the word predestination with regard to Calvinism? Could you please explain further about how possibly Calvinism could be associated with Simulation Theory and why you chose Calvinism as an example to juxtapose? Thanks again for the time and research you put into your blog post as Simulation theory is very exciting and adds discussion to religion in pop culture.

    Regards,

    Byron Allen

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