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 15, 2014
Interesting point, in fact, assuming Darwinian evolution is true, there is no way to know if humans perception of reality mirrors actual reality in any meaningful way, instead of evolving a self-consistent false perception that is more advantageous for survival. So it could be that every species has a different incompatible user interface to 'reality'.

Here is some counter evidence to what you say, and the above point I just made, if you are interested. The fact that we can use mathematics to understand phenomenon at a microscopic level, in our every day lives in various applications, to predict hurricane landing sites, all the way up to analyzing galaxies billions of light years away, show that in some sense we can perceive reality in some meaningful sense, and that reality exists in some objective way.
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Jul 15, 2014
As an apostate, my opinion is a little different. The believer's UI has one button. You must click that one button and you may only click that one button. Your UI has never changed and will never change. The one button you see is the same one that was programmed into the UI a couple thousand years ago. You don't know what will happen when you click it, other than the fact that everyone around you believes that clicking it is good and thus you believe that clicking it is good. You've never met anyone who clicked the button and can factually tell you what happens when you click the button. Lots of people have good stories about clicking the button though, so that's good enough for you.

The atheist's UI has several buttons for you to click, although some of them are greyed out. Every few years your UI gets updated. Some of the older buttons get greyed out while newer ones appear. The man pages are incomplete, but they are open-source and have many developers.
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Jul 15, 2014
There may not be such a label yet, but I'll propose "metaphysical pragmatist". You don't care how reality works, just that people figure out a way that feels like it works for them.
Jul 15, 2014
"How To Fail..." (and maybe it's just me, but I see books that have been previously published under different titles quite frequently - change the title to Dilbert's Guide to Sucess and watch sales significantly increase) is an attempt to teach "metaprogramming the human bio-computer." The types of things you're working toward and think about in this respect have been explored by "woo woo" (at least in the mainstream) people such as Timothy Leary, Aleister Crowley, and other occult and New Age thinkers.
Jul 15, 2014
I think you underestimate the role that choice plays in belief. Belief is nothing but choice. When something is known with a good deal of !$%*!$%*!$%*! the only choice is to ignore that knowledge or not.
When something is not known with certainty - which could include everything outside our immediate perception or experience, then belief is a matter of making the subjective choice of whether the evidence at hand is sufficient to justify a conclusion.
Consider a judge. He has to determine the guilt or innocence of a person based on evidence provided. He has no personal knowledge, and he has to choose whether the evidence provided is sufficient for him to draw a conclusion. With a judge this is further complicated in that he may find the evidence sufficient to cause him to believe one thing or another, but not sufficient to satisfy the standards of evidence for justice.
Thus a judge might declare someone he believes to be guilty as 'not guilty' and vice versa. He believes what he chooses to believe.
Jul 15, 2014
I'm with Scott on most of this one.

I'd throw out a wrinkle, though. As far as religion remains primarily a personal experience, I don't really care what people believe. When it becomes a social experience, I think it risks bad ends -- things like bias and injustice. When it becomes a social, political, or economic platform, I don't think there are good paths that religion is likely to take.

As with most things, the more influence and power a religion has (or government/ corporation/ individual), the more likely it will exercise that power badly. Religion, unfortunately, is based primarily on the projection of artificial moral authority than something more performance-driven like profits and politics.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
Even if there were obvious, enormous benefits to religion, I could not simply CHOOSE to believe that there are gods or spirits or any variety of Invisible People in the Sky -- without strong evidence. And all the evidence I see is that there is nothing like that. So, religion's not an option.

Are there people who can just CHOOSE what they believe? Do they really believe or just pretend to believe? Is that "faith"? Apparently, faith is no longer an option for me. I could not just choose to believe in gods. I could pretend to, but why?

Seems to me, if you're an atheist, just own it and move on.

[Technically, since you don't have free will, and the odds are that you are computer simulation anyway, you don't have any choosing to worry about. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
I see what Scott means when he talks about reading comprehension. Gateway is not synonym.

" Religion just fills in the things that science can't explain." With what, fairytales? I feel so much better now.

I'm not saying there are not good religious people. I find people run the spectrum of good regardless of whether or not they're religious. Religion may offer comfort to some, but it has no answers. And while logic is a tool that can be applied to philosophy, it will end up in an endless chain if observable, measurable !$%*!$%*!$ are not included. And then you have to make sure that what you observed is indeed real, because we are so easy to fool.

It's been my observation that people get wound up in what the purpose of life is. There is no ultimate purpose imposed by the universe; life is what you make of it. It's that simple and that powerful. Pretending that religion is an answer is a dead end. Then again, everything may be a dead end. Hi ho.
Jul 15, 2014
I had a professor who defined 'conventional' as when everyone agrees on being wrong together.
This is how I think of both religion and science.

When a deep understanding of a task is either impossible or unimportant, as is usually the case, it becomes more important for everyone to just agree on one method that is 'good enough' to get the job done.

If you were to poll a hundred believers from a single congregation to give a detailed account of their personal concept of God, without quoting scripture, I doubt you would get two answers that were functionally identical. Likewise, if you were to ask physicists to explain magnetism in everyday language, I doubt you would find a consistent and accurate answer. Not because the physicists don't understand magnetism, but because the way we communicate that understanding is personal.

Convention is required for people with differing perspectives of reality to get along by agreeing on one concept that is 'good enough'. It creates the necessary illusion of mutual understanding, at least for the purpose of getting along.
Jul 15, 2014
Model agnosticism is the label. Google it and click on the first link to read the preface to Cosmic Trigger.
+20 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
There are plenty of people doing religion the right way and plenty of people doing religion the wrong way. I think most of the strident atheists out there these days are the ones raised by people doing religion the wrong way.

You also run into a lot of atheists that say religion is anti-science and therefore bad. Only the really nutty people doing religion the wrong way believe this. More people doing religion the right way embrace science. Religion just fills in the things that science can't explain. There's a lot less of that now than there once was because we've gotten better at science. Most of the major early scientists were religious men as well.
Jul 15, 2014
So, in terms of Crumb's analogy of the box, you're saying it's just fine to just stay in the box.
Jul 15, 2014
So, in terms of Plato's analogy of the cave, you're saying it's just fine to just stay chained to the wall.
Jul 15, 2014
Whatever the past might have and might not have been with or without - doesn't matter. What matters is what should be the way of going forward.

I understand the 'utility' religion provides. However, humankind need to progress beyond seeking relief in being idiot (that's what being a 'believer' translates to).

Yes, understanding everything is not possible - for an individual or for our species. Maybe an individual cann't even understand 0.00001% of something.

It's ok for my grandma to not know how a computer works and how does an electron's property make it work. It's ok for admit that we don't know something. It's ok to admit that perhaps we as an species and I as an individual would never understand something. It's ok that we may never stumble upon a theory of everything (Google it).

It's not ok to say "since I don't know how this works, I bet there is a all-powerful divine hand behind it".
Jul 15, 2014
Very entertaining. So, "religious" and "stupid" are synonyms because by following religion, one cannot know reality. Do you really think the Aristotle approach of pure logic gets you any closer to reality? Logic depends entirely on axioms. The axioms can be arbitrary. Logic is still a "dead end", but just keeps you busy so you don't think about it. The satisfaction of staying busy chasing logic without end is no better than, but might well be just as palliative as acceptance of religious faith. Seems like an awful lot of work to get back to the same place ...
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
"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?"

Yes. I think they are called Buddhists. :-)

“The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually “grasp” reality.”
― Alan Wilson Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
Religion is fine when people use it to gain comfort/understanding/peace/whatever in their own lives. Problems arise when their religious beliefs compel them to try and control the lives of others, which happens all too often. When you have a system with extreme, absolutist stakes - eternal damnation or eternal bliss, it removes any consideration for earthly concerns. In that scenario you have people who can be convinced that blowing yourself up is a reasonable course of action. That's what I'd consider a sub-optimal outcome as far as an interface to reality goes.

It's a little too convenient to say "Religion is good if you ignore all the bad parts". Well, yes, everything is good if you ignore the bad parts.

At any rate, you don't need to know the truth of the whole universe to make any given decision. If you have a question like "Should gay people be allowed to get married?" I'd rather look at the facts of the situation and observed consequences today than look up what some sheepherder from the Middle East thought about it 3500 years ago.
-6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
Religion is a gateway to stupid. Granted stupidity can be satisfying, especially if you're too stupid to know better, but we can know better and move closer to reality by sussing it out in a systematic fashion.
Sure it may be emotionally satisfying to defer to revealed knowledge from a supposed unimpeachable source, but the source of that knowledge is ultimately people couched in a veil of Authority; anything can be claimed by this authority, and is, no matter how ridiculous. And you're not to question it.
While there are authorities in science, you are encouraged to question them and prove them wrong. If you have an interest you follow the path of reasoning, look at experimental results and come to an understanding of what has been discovered and described.
You find that we've observed particles that we label electrons. That they have certain consistently observable properties. That they can be manipulated with something we've labeled the electro-magnetic force. You discover what people mean when they measure a difference in voltage in a circuit, and that a high voltage in certain range has been assigned a 1 for communication purposes and that a low or no voltage state has been assigned a 0 for communication purposes. You find that you can communicate with these 1's and 0's and that others have developed a kind of logic that utilizes 1's and 0's. You find that you can generate patterns of 1's and 0's that have defined meanings and you can use this knowledge to design electrical circuits that will translate those patterns into actions and different meanings...
I could go on and on in a logical fashion to learn and describe the operations of software in a computer if I was so inclined, and add to the knowledge.
Religion is a dead end. Some people are happy with that. As long as that dead end is used in a private manner with one's self it doesn't really matter. If you bring it out into the public domain and use it as justification for actions that affect me then you suck. You suck because your decision was not based in any kind of reason that can be described or justified beyond "god says so" and you cut off any kind of effective debate that has a chance of changing your or my mind.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 15, 2014
to get a handle on the problems of dealing with the reality of reality, take the ridiculous religion of Discordianism (of which i am pope) out for a spin ..


"The Aneristic Principle is that of apparent order; the Eristic Principle is that of apparent disorder. Both order and disorder are man made concepts and are artificial divisions of pure chaos, which is a level deeper than is the level of distinction making.
With our concept-making apparatus called "the brain" we look at reality through the ideas-about-reality which our cultures give us. The ideas-about-reality are mistakenly labeled "reality" and unenlightened people are forever perplexed by the fact that other people, especially other cultures, see "reality" differently. It is only the ideas-about-reality which differ. Real (capital-T) True reality is a level deeper than is the level of concept.
—Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Page 00049"

"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.
—Malaclypse the Younger, Principia Discordia, Page 00039"
Jul 15, 2014
Thanks Scott. That was one of your best blog posts to date.

I wonder if religions and belief systems are user interfaces (UIs) or application programming interfaces (APIs). The reason I lean toward APIs, is that I can observe many people that have achieved happiness through the religion interface to reality, but despite my willingness, I have not been able to fully adopt that interface myself - possibly because it is incompatible with my internal operating system. So, rather than a UI, which is universally adoptable, maybe religion is a reality API that is compatible with only a subset of internal operating systems. For people with more analytical operating systems, maybe science, psychology or secular self-help programs are more compatible APIs.
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