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.