I was raised as a Methodist and I was a believer until the age of eleven. Then I lost faith and became an annoying atheist for decades. In recent years I've come to see religion as a valid user interface to reality. The so-called "truth" of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren't equipped to understand it anyway.

Our human understanding of reality is like describing an elephant to a space alien by saying an elephant is grey. That is not nearly enough detail. And you have no way to know if the alien perceives color the same way you do. After enduring your inadequate explanation of the elephant, the alien would understand as much about elephants as humans understand about reality.

In the software world, user interfaces keep human perceptions comfortably away from the underlying reality of zeroes and ones that would be incomprehensible to most of us. And the zeroes and ones keep us away from the underlying reality of the chip architecture. And that begs a further question: What the heck is an electron and why does it do what it does? And so on. We use software, but we don't truly understand it at any deep level. We only know what the software is doing for us at the moment.

Religion is similar to software, and it doesn't matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice "works" in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.

If you're deciding how to fight a disease, science is probably the interface that works best. But if you're trying to feel fulfilled, connected, and important as you navigate life, religion seems to be a perfectly practical interface. But neither science nor religion require an understanding of reality at the detail level. As long as the user interface gives us what we need, all is good.

Some of you non-believers will rush in to say that religion has caused wars and other acts of horror so therefore it is not a good user interface to reality. I would counter that no one has ever objectively measured the good and the bad of religion, and it would be impossible to do so because there is no baseline with which to compare. We only have one history. Would things have gone better with less religion? That is unknowable.

If you think there might have been far fewer wars and atrocities without religion, keep in mind that some of us grow up to be Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan. There's always a reason for a war. If you add up all the people who died in holy wars, it would be a rounding error compared to casualties from wars fought for other reasons.

What I know for sure is that plenty of people around me are reporting that they find comfort and social advantages with religion. And science seems to support a correlation between believing, happiness, and health. Anecdotally, religion seems to be a good interface.

Today when I hear people debate the existence of God, it feels exactly like debating whether the software they are using is hosted on Amazon's servers or Rackspace. From a practical perspective, it probably doesn't matter to the user one way or the other. All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect.

There are words in nearly every language to describe believers, non-believers, and even the people who can't decide. But is there a label for people who believe human brains are not equipped to understand reality so all that matters is the consistency and usefulness of our user interface?


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of this book

P.S. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of my surgery to fix my voice problem (spasmodic dysphonia). There was some question at the time about whether the surgery would be a permanent fix. So far, my voice has improved each year since the surgery.

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+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 22, 2014
@april26: it is actually *very* easy to comfort someone who's lost a loved one without resorting to religion.

All you need to do is celebrate the life of the one who died.

Tell your mourning friend that his or her loved one was a great person who lived wonderful life--rich, full, and fulfilling.
Say how much the one who passed on loved your friend--remind your friend how much the one who passed on treasured him or her.
Reminisce about everything awesome the one who passed on ever said or did.
Recollect how dearly loved that person was while he or she walked among us--how much better our lives all were because of him or her.

Really celebrate!

That's what I did for the atheist family of a dear friend of mine who passed away.
I hope that, when I go, anyone who loves me will do the same.


@delius1967: that "Having a religion is like ..." one-liner is a fave! I also agree with your other comments, and I'd like to add that science is also apparently a huge threat to the dearly held beliefs of the religious (Who knew? Last time I checked, reality was reality. Guess these people will be repealing the law of gravity next ....).
I am also pale, red-headed, and left-handed ... are you my long-lost good twin?


@kingfisher: I can see defining "conventional" as when everyone agrees on being wrong together, and I can see that being appropriate for both religion and science.
I'd only add that, in science, everyone agrees to be wrong together while *admitting* that they are wrong together; in religion, everyone agrees to be wrong together, but they all *act* dead certain that they are right.


@RayKremer: the "God of the gaps" argument asymptotically diminishes the need for God, so why not just cut to the chase and own that He is not strictly necessary in the first place?


I agree with all the commenters who observe that spirituality is not harmful but that religion is.

I am spiritual in that I experience a component to my psyche that meets the description proposed by multiple reliable sources.
I believe in "God" in the same way that I believe that people are basically good at heart: I have zero proof, but I find comfort in these beliefs.
They make the world feel safer; they make me happy.

People who take their "user manuals" (@uhmdown, good on you for the analogy) too literally are the most dangerous.
They are the ones who tend toward unthinking violence (perhaps spurred in part by all the cognitive dissonance caused by all the obvious contradictions?).
Case in point: a "conservative Christian Tea Party" middle aged white male I know who has said in public, on more than one occasion, that "everyone who voted for Obama should be shot."
How "Christian" is that?
This is the stuff that suicide bombers and doctor assassins are made of.

These people do not want democracy--theocracy or bust.
These "Christians" rant and rave that they are being persecuted because non-Christians want rights, too.
My friend would love to see the ten commandments posted on every public square and in every public building.
Of course, I haven't asked him yet, "Which set?"
After Moses smashed the first set, God gave another set, which was different from the first.
Holy Mulligans, Batman ....
Jul 20, 2014

Penetrating comment (as your tag suggests)! I would say absolutely right - science is even less interested in the why nots.
The day a researcher produces a useful scientific result BECAUSE of his/her faith, all bets are off, but until then...
Jul 20, 2014
I think you need to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion is believing that a given set of beliefs that someone made up is true and you should act accordingly. Spirituality is believing that there is some sort of soul/spirit and it interacts with others and the universe.

Religion is a tool for control and is bad. It discourages thinking and encourages mindless following of what others say is true. It does provide a benefit of community, but that can be obtained other ways.

Spirituality is comforting. It avoids the awful truth that when you die you are gone. That are loved ones who died are just gone. That you can have no influence on the weather and various other things. Generically "praying" that a sick loved one gets better provides comfort, although no medicinal benefit. It is as useful as telling a child that their dog is now living on a farm in the country, instead of saying that they died - and essentially the same lie.

Jul 19, 2014
I like the UI analogy.

The problem is that you are not taking into account Kant's Categorical Imperative, i.e. what happens when a society believes that way vs. when it believes another way.

Specifically, it seems those who generally believe things who aren't true are likely to simply be more dangerous over time. They're more easily controlled. They're more easily incited to commit violence. Etc. They're more likely to be convinced to reject science that can make others' lives better, improve the world, etc.

See gay marriage, climate change, etc.

Your examples of Pol Pot and Stalin are rather overplayed and weak, as they're just a few compared to the millions of religious people who've committed MOST crimes when they should have been doing exactly the opposite.

The relative lack of atheists in prison highlights this well.

So I absolutely agree that religion has some benefits. But don't open the gates of skepticism and let that horse in. It's full of people with swords.
Jul 18, 2014

I'll accept that, but even those norms that are really bad according to modern sensibility did, at least at one point, serve a valuable purpose at one time or another. The most negative and punitive norms espoused by religion were a powerful source of nationalism. "Our country is more righteous than their country because we stone gay people - yay us!". The question of whether nationalism is worth persecuting a minority is a whole other can of worms.
The problem that many religions have is that they often feel as though others not of their faith should be forced to accept their set of social norms. This is the opposite of freedom of religion.
The way I see it a ban on gay marriage is taking away the freedom of religion of those churches who accept it.
Jul 17, 2014
Kingfisher: [ Fairy tales had (have) two main purposes; to entertain, and to reinforce social norms. These two things have a definite value to a society. ]

That is only true IF -- and this is a very VERY big "if" -- those social norms are worth reinforcing. Most of the social norms associated with religion are not, especially the ones that are strictly associated with religion, i.e. moral norms. "Thou shalt not steal" is a good idea, but it has nothing to do with religion; anyone can understand why it is good to respect other people's property. Campaigning against gay marriage is a crappy idea, and has everything to do with religion.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 17, 2014
arh, cr*p....I forgot that c.i.r.c.u.m.s.t.a.n.c.e gets flagged.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 17, 2014
[I think there is no question that religion is bad - much much worse. It teaches people that it is OK to be irrational, and THAT is the cause of most of the evil in the world.]

I disagree.
Some people live under impossible !$%*!$%*!$%*! and there is no rational way for them to feel better about their situation and acquire the strength to dig themselves out of their miserable existence. Religion provides them with an extraordinary tool to deal with extraordinary !$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*!$ could view it as the equivalent of inventing imaginary numbers to find the root of negative numbers (an otherwise impossible task). And imaginary numbers is a perfectly valid tool in virtually all fields of science.

But according to that view, religion only makes sense when you are facing extreme hardship (whether by choice or not). Many people follow a religion, but face nothing close to hardship. For them, religion is nothing but a pair of crutches. If you live a comfortable life, the _only_ way you can justify believing in a religion would be to set insanely lofty goals for yourself, and demand of yourself that you will achieve them. You could choose to believe regardless, but it would be pointless and harder to defend.
Often, following religions entails performing painstakingly lengthy and challenging rituals. I think its purpose is to maintain a minimum amount of hardship required to justified a continued following. And hopefully, it prepares you for times of overwhelming hardship.


I used the word 'goals' above.
I just realized that Scotts mantra of using systems instead of goals could be the anti-thesis of religion.
Jul 17, 2014
I think there is no question that religion is bad - much much worse. It teaches people that it is OK to be irrational, and THAT is the cause of most of the evil in the world. Atheist madmen might be dangerous, but there is no way they could accomplish what they do without irrational followers, which inevitably stems from religious thinking. All civilized humans should be taught from a young age that nothing is more important than thinking rationally, and religion is the antithesis of that (no matter how good it feels).
Jul 17, 2014
I'll see your why and raise you a why not.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 17, 2014
Have you ever tried to comfort a friend on the death of a loved one, WITHOUT resorting to religion? It is almost impossible. I think a key reason why religion has to exist, is to help people accept their own and others mortality without freaking out.
Jul 17, 2014
I understand what you're saying about debating about God's existance, but I still think it's important to really know what is real and what is wishful thinking.

Here are links to two recent books that work best when trying to persuade someone out of believing in nonsense...

http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Reality-Know-Whats-Really/dp/1451675046/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405584980&sr=1-1&keywords=magic of reality

http://www.amazon.com/Manual-Creating-Atheists-Peter-Boghossian/dp/1939578094/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405585108&sr=1-1&keywords=manual for creating atheists
Jul 16, 2014
A bit disingenuous, as usual (I don't mind posting that - you've already moved on to the next big idea so you won't see this).

Science merely explains HOW (which gives rise to countless spin-offs and further advances), never WHY (in the cosmological sense).
Religion starts with the answer WHY, explains it with bollocks for several centuries, then sheepishly aligns itself with science as discoveries come through.

If you want your IT system to work, HOW is important, not WHY.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 16, 2014
I love this perspective on religion.
If religion is a user interface, the scriptures associated with a religion could be deemed to be the user manual.
The 'problem' with these user manuals then, is that all of them are ambiguous. They can interpreted to mean that you should not commit terror and be a sqeaky clean do-good human being, but you can also interpret them to commit horrible crimes in the name of some god.

As a rough analogy, if a user manual for a nail gun is not written in a clear and concise manner with safety instructions and everything, you might end up shooting someone else in the face.

This might lead you to the argument that just like a nail gun without a proper instruction manual should be taken off the market until supplied with a proper manual, religions with ambiguous scriptures should be banned as well.
But whats strange is this: if you were googling for some help to some software today, you'd be skeptical towards a forum post from 1995 that claims it has the answer. Why is it that despite having an ambigiuous, age-old, written-in-some-other-language-from-a-different-time-in-an-unknown-dialect, missing-context, open-to-interpretation user manual, people still try to use them to interface with reality?

The reason could be very simple: people need so badly whatever it is they think the scriptures provide, and if they think that religion will provide it, then they will do whatever it takes.
And once you achieve whatever it is you're after, you're at risk of suffering confirmation bias; you'll think that you applied the user manual correctly.
Compounding the deadlock, its entirely possible to achieve what you want without having applied a user manual correctly (as a bonus, you may even achieve goals that fell outside the original scope).
For some people, this is more than enough.

My mom doesn't need to understand why her computer works. She just needs me to tell her what buttons to click.
When my mom figures out how to do something herself, she'll continue to do so even though I tell her that it can be done smarter, in half the time. But nope, she knows better. If she tries my method, she'll infuriate me by saying "It just doesn't feel right".
Jul 16, 2014
[Are you saying your mind is capable of accurately understanding reality but mine is not? All viewpoints are by their nature a rejection of other viewpoints, and thus condescending. No way around it. -- Scott]

From a Christian perspective yes. Because that's the whole idea behind it. Jesus says: "[God has] hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children" and elsewhere "...no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."

Now, I'm not trying to debate religion and I appreciate your appreciation for it. I also agree that your conclusion is the rational one from your base assumptions. I'm only pointing out the difference in motivation of religion from the inside, and perceived motivation from the outside.

I say: I'm religious and I think that great.
You say: I'm not religious. But he is and I think that's great.

Now a third party asks us both "Why?" We will give them completely opposed answers on why it's great that I'm religious.
Jul 16, 2014
[ Has anyone noticed the positive correlation between being religious and being close minded? ]

In general, yes, I've met a few of those, but that camp doesn't seem to be commenting here, as evidenced by the lack of labeling the other side. My comment was specifically about these comments. Hmmm... Does that make it a meta-comment?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 16, 2014
Personally I'm a bit of a Wiccan, a bit of a Discordian, a bit of a Jew, a bit of a Daoist and a bit of an Agnostic, with a healthy layer of sceptic...
But as an outsider from the perspective of major religions, here is my perspective.
When I read the tenants of most religions, I agree. Christianity, Islam, Buddism, Daoism, Hinduism, all teach lessons about respect, love, and tolerance.
Then I meet followers of those religions (I'm looking at you Christians), and frankly I get really disappointed.
Yes, there are a whole lot of great Christian folks, but they are out-shouted by the a$$holes who want to force others to follow their beliefs, and who want to impose their religious laws on others-and not all the laws, just the ones they agree with.
Leviticus says gays, bacon, earings, and menstruating women are bad, but which law do modern Christians seize on?
You can study your 10 commandments all you want, but if you put it on public (aka partially my) land, you are trying to force your beliefs down my throat, which is not really Christian...
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 16, 2014
Has anyone noticed the positive correlation between being religious and being close minded? I guess when all the answers are in one book you don't need to learn anything new?
Jul 16, 2014
Anybody else notice the positive correlation in the comments between atheism and narcissism? When one is clearly the smartest / most (self) important being in the universe, then there is no room left for a deity.
Jul 16, 2014
As long as pitiful humans get to make up the rules of religion (as they always have), some will use religion to control and harm others, and will do so outside the bounds of the law as belief is enshrined that way, at least here in the USA.

Science does not have made up rules that let you stone your wife to death, marry off your 12-year-old daughter for a herd of goats, fire your receptionist for being gay, or any of those other stone-age activities.

Now that we know better, going forward, let's not promote things that allow people to screw each other over and get away with it under the guise of religious freedom.
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