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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Jul 16, 2014
Scott great post. I'm glad you're open-minded. However, as a religious person, sometimes I get annoyed at the false equivalence non-religious folk give to all religions.

First, let me say that I understand your perspective. If it's all untrue, then it's all equally untrue and there is not a lot of distinction beyond the actionable demands drawn from the false conclusions.

Let's use politics as an example. You can't hand wave and say that politics is good or politics is bad, or politics works toward X end because "politics" covers a broad range of conflicting ideas. However suppose you believed that all populations everywhere were really controlled by lizards who don't give a damn, and governments are meaningless and powerless.

Suddenly, in that situation, "politics" as a range of ideas can now be hand-waved together as equally inert just the way agnostics/atheists do with religion. Now let me explain the problem with this thinking from the insider to an outsider. If you believe that in "the lizard rulers" and that politics is futile, then you must ascribe a different purpose to politics than those who are actually involved do.

You may say that politics are still good because they are a way to release frustration, have intellectual discourse, meet minded people, or simply have fun. You could use all of these things to argue that politics is both futile and good for humanity.

But do you see the issue? All those positive reasons I described for politics aren't the reason anyone involved ascribes to. They may be secondary, but the primary reason is "to affect change in government", which you flatly reject.

Bringing it back to religion, when you wave off the primary reason the people involved do it, but still try to support the secondary benefits, it makes sense from your perspective, and it's fine. But when you try to shove the primary reasons under a rug and pretend that the secondary benefits, are the primary reasons, it comes off as condescending and patronizing.

It's basically saying to someone, "the things you care about are stupid and meaningless, but I see that you're having fun so good for you. And good for me for so bravely recognizing it."

[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]
Jul 16, 2014
Even if you think of religion as nothing more than persistent fairy-tales, I don't think it is wise to dismiss fairy tales simply because they don't happen to be true.
Fairy tales had (have) two main purposes; to entertain, and to reinforce social norms. These two things have a definite value to a society.
Every adolescent likes to question and rebel against the social norms they were taught as children, but after a certain point they go back and teach those same norms to their children, using the same technique.
If telling true anecdotes was enough to do the job, I'm sure we would. But the reason we don't is that real history is mostly boring, and the stuff that isn't boring usually sends the wrong message, or at best a mixed message.
It seems to me that the outright rejection of religion (even pragmatic and atheistic religions like Unitarianism) is like a perpetual adolescence. You are too old to believe in fairy tales, but not yet mature enough to see how valuable they are.
Jul 16, 2014
I was introduced to the idea of religion as software in Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. It helped me detach from people who wrote me off as a loser because I didn't share their religious beliefs -- and it still does!
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Jul 16, 2014
"All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect."

Prayer is, metaphorically speaking, like clicking a bunch of buttons on the screen after which nothing happens. If you think that's an acceptable user interface, well, I don't. I'd have a few words for the designer, myself ... um ...

[Have you tried Windows 8? -- Scott]
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Jul 16, 2014
"human brains are not equipped to understand reality so all that matters is the consistency and usefulness of our user interface"

Religion is useful for many people. But consistent? Many religions are only consistent with the observable universe if you keep your head firmly stuck in the bible and avoid observing reality. For consistent religions you are basically left with those that do not have any testable predictions... which mean they don't really improve your understanding about reality... which means you still need to get your understanding from science.

[Religion is consistent in the sense that it gives you what you expect of it. Even religious people don't expect prayers to be answered every time. But they do expect something that appears to be divine intervention from time to time, and indeed the universe delivers exactly that because luck and God's work look the same. -- Scott]
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Jul 16, 2014
This is one of your more charming posts. Aside from the two paragraphs about religion causing wars and Stalin, etc. (all of which is true, but slightly off-topic), it's a nice idea. I've shared it with friends and they like it, too. As for the commenters who disapprove, it seems that several of them are a bit close-minded. I like it, and can build on it. Thanks, Scott.
Jul 16, 2014
One of my favorite one-liners is apropos here: "Having a religion is like having a big c*ck. It's fine to be proud of it, just don't take it out in public, or force it down other people's throats."
Jul 16, 2014
[ And science seems to support a correlation between believing, happiness, and health. ]

I've heard this, too, though I suspect it is for much the same reason as the shorter lifespan of left-handed people, i.e. it isn't religion itself that is conveying the benefit, it is being in the majority, and living with social systems that are set up assuming your position as the default. As a left-handed, not to mention pale and redheaded (more social stigmas) atheist, I'm faintly surprised to have survived into my mid-40s.

It also has less to do with religion making religious people happy, than with making life harder for the non-religious. (Certainly, my happiness is degraded whenever I grow irritated at the incredible follies of the religious.) This isn't just a "majority rules" kind of thing; atheism is a direct threat to the most-dearly-held beliefs of the religious, and given that those beliefs are, to be kind, incorrect, the response to atheism can be virulent and extreme. I've seen surveys indicating that religious people, in general, trust atheists less than convicted felons. Heck, seven states have constitutions that forbid atheists from holding public office. (No, really, this isn't just an Internet meme. The states are: Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. A sample quote, from The North Carolina Constitution, Article VI, Sec. 8: "The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." Heh, Section 8, how appropriate.)

Whether the law is enforced (or even enforceable) is besides the point. If atheists were the majority, there would not be similar provisions barring the religious from various things. Personally, as long as they behave themselves, I like being surrounded by the religious. It gives me a warm feeling to have such definitive proof that I'm the smartest person in the room. Usually, I have to just assume it.
Jul 16, 2014
You say -Would things have gone better with less religion? That is unknowable - and I agree. I'm glad that you wrote about this because it is something I have been thinking about lately, and I have my own view on the subject.

I think that if you consider the theory of evolution, then religion has been a good thing for humans, on the whole. Basically, things that are good for the group will stick around and things that have no use die out. I know this doesn't constitute a proof, but it is a strong indication that humans need a set of religion.

Take the food laws that some religions incorporate. Eating pork is discouraged, which makes sense because pork is often the cause of food poisoning. Having a day of rest set aside makes sense too. It's basic health and safety.

There have been psychological tests that show that people are more like to behave honestly if they think they are being watched. So inventing the myth of an all-seeing deity is a good way to promote honesty.

Religion obviously has huge drawbacks sometimes, but what doesn't?

I'm an agnostic because it seems clear to me that religion came about because it was useful, not because it has any basis in reality.

Having read the other comments though, I might go for Wicca or Bokononism. Both sound interesting.
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Jul 16, 2014
"Would things have gone better with less religion? That is unknowable."

Strongly disagree.

Take a look at what's happening in places with Sharia Law (for example).

Now compare that to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What wins?

Your description of "religion" isn't religion at all. If anything it's "spirituality".

The reality of "religion" in the world is large organizations trying to control the masses by maintaining a state of ignorance and promising them eternal bliss at some point in the future if they toe the line.

As for "spirituality", science is far more spiritually uplifting than trying to dumb down your thought processes enough to believe in the god of (eg.) The Bible.

Especially the cosmology part. That's awesome.

+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 16, 2014
If asked about my religion, I reply that I am a Bokononist.

Bokononism is a made-up religion in Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle", whose first principle is: "All regions, including Bokononism, are made up of 'foma'. Foma are harmless untruths. Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy."

Once you acknowledge that whatever your religious belief (or -- importantly -- non-belief) is a lie, is a "user interface", is a filter through which you are choosing to see the world through, you become (if nothing else) less of an obnoxious know-it-all who attempts to impose their filter on others.

There isn't a UI that is right for all people, or even right for one person in all situations. A command line UI, such as with DOS or LINUX, is more powerful and flexible and some might argue more "real", but it is not as convenient as a GUI with canned macros written by others that guide you to doing what you want. And, yes, do things for you that you DON'T want.

I had never really noticed that those who curse Microsoft act much like atheists who curse religion; and those who complain about LINUX share the same "I don't want to think to hard" attitude as some True Believers.

Thanks, Scott.
Jul 16, 2014
"A good user interface is one that cannot be seen."

I don't remember where I read that, but it seems pertinent here. A hammer has a good user interface. A car does not. In that sense, only animals have a good user interface to understanding reality. In the words of Terry Pratchett, "The entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks."

Religion and Atheism aren't opposite in the sense that you made it out to be Scott. Religion tries to understand the reality of the universe. Atheism just tries to say that there is no god. It doesn't try to understand the reality of the universe. That it leaves to science.
Jul 15, 2014
Hey, you're a wiccan! Wiccans believe it is healthy to worship the gods, and dedicate a good portion of your time and thoughts to spirituality in order to achieve a happy and peaceful existence. But it doesn't matter which god, just pick one or a few that resonate with you.

I've never heard it explained the way you just did, but it makes perfect sense as you've written it. Every wiccan I know (there's no consensus on dogma) believes there's some kind of fundamental truth out there that nobody understands, but the many faces of the different gods throughout history represent different cultures' ways of viewing that truth. Scientific endeavor into the big questions would be another way to view the truth, and is not at all in conflict with religious pursuits.

If you decide to operate this way, don't tell anyone. They'll think you're a freak.

Congratulation on your voice! :-)
Jul 15, 2014
>The so-called "truth" of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren't equipped to understand it anyway.

Can't disagree strongly enough with this. There is nothing a human can't understand, if properly explained! We have mental models of how the sun works, how quasars work. We currently lack the knowledge to explain the universe entirely, but I think you're crazy if you think it's impossible for us to understand, in principle, everything. Our brains aren't tiny, they're the most complex things we know of in the universe! I could describe the workings of a star on a single page (hydrogen being converted to helium, etc). It would fill every book in a large library to explain the working of a human brain.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
Wow, this was a really good post. I like reading your blogs when they have good though provoking insight. I like the funny stuff too.

As a software developer of a website which is completely UI driven and growing up Catholic at my Moms behest, I have to say, the interface works only if you want to understand it. You can create the best world-view reality interface and most people are entirely too stupid to understand it for what it could be.
Jul 15, 2014
What you describe is still agnosticism. Maybe a pragmatic agnostic.
Jul 15, 2014
am I the only one wondering if Michael Stipe is a Dilbert fan right now?
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
I have no problem with anyone having any religion they want. As Jefferson said "It matters not to me whether you believe in no god or 20 gods, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." What I have a problem with is folks trying to push their beliefs on me. What is the "War on Christmas?" It is a group of Christians demanding that the holidays be about their religion, and not inclusive of Jews and others.
To use your analogy, those folks are like the folks who swear that only Apple products are any good, and you should throw out your IBM compatible machine (or science) because it isn't compatible with Apple. (Yes, I know Apple products are compatible with IBM products now, like religion is often compatible with science, that was my point).

Also, Miij, "All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense." was a quote by SRI SYADASTI SYADAVAKTAVYA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADASTI CAVAKTAVYASCA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADAVATAVYASCA SYADASTI SYANNASTI SYADAVAKTAVYASCA, not Mal.
Jul 15, 2014
Religion is not inherently good or bad. Where religion tends to go bad is with theist religion: the belief that morality and choices should be dictated by a deity who is more capable than humans.

When people believe that an infallible deity is guiding them, it has strong negative effect on their reasoning.

The debate about the existence of God is worthless unless both sides have an agreement on what God is. Only after that can there be meaningful discussion on the existence of God. Words are arbitrary and individuals have there own definitions for words. We have to have shared meanings of words to have meaningful discussions.

Jul 15, 2014
When we say "I believe in xyz", we are not thinking the same kind of thoughts as someone a thousand years ago who said "I believe in xyz". A thousand years ago, the statement was not a "metaphysical" opinion. It was like talking about a distant real physical mountain that you had never seen, but had heard about from other travelers. Today's notion of un-real "metaphysical" things simply did not exist.
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