It had been years since I’d ridden a bicycle. Though as they say, you never really forget how to do it.
My girlfriend and I were headed to a temple as we each dodged the cracks, bumps and cow dung peppered throughout the dusty road (if you can even call it that) which we were on. Like clockwork, every few pushes my right foot would slip out of the faulty pedal strap that belonged to my rented blue bike.
Of course, of all the bikes in this town, I get the biggest piece of sh*t.
We were cycling through the town of Lumbini in Nepal; the birthplace of Buddha.
While not religious in the slightest, I was, of course, fascinated to see what all the fuss was about, and why this Buddha character was so prolific. Upon arrival, I found my own atheism only concretized further, as I looked upon a dusty village with very few actual roads and even fewer things to do.
“No wonder he became enlightened,” I thought to myself, “what else is there to do around here?”
As an adolescent, if I wasn’t at school or out riding my skateboard, much of my spare time was spent watching old videos of the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins; famous atheists who would, in my opinion, mop the floor with religious ideologues.
These renowned intellectuals hit a sweet spot within me, appealing to my contrarian nature while teaching me a lot about the art of debate along the way. They were also very formative in shaping my relatively atheistic worldview which, to this day, remains largely intact.
Now, here I was in Lumbini, in a similar position to those I once idolized.
Though “debating” may be a bit of a strong term. Instead, let’s call it, asking questions to Hindu Lumbini locals who didn’t speak the best English.
“But how do you KNOW that there’s an elephant God, or Shiva, or any of these other Gods you believe in? Who discovered them?”
Unlike Christopher Hitchens, I’d always somewhat hoped there was a God. Perhaps the world would make more sense that way. Though if there was indeed a celestial dictator, I wouldn’t find out in Lumbini. The only responses that I got from the locals were platitudes like “we just know,” or “it’s a feeling.”
Needless to say, these answers didn’t do much to dissuade my atheism, even though part of me wanted to be dissuaded. I’ve always wondered where these religious myths come from, and why they shared so much in common with one another. They each believed in metaphysical beings, greater than ourselves, and came packaged with a set of rules or guidelines for how to best navigate through the world.
Either it’s just a consistent and reliable means to control the masses, or all of these different tribes and cultures came to similar ontological conclusions about Gods and deities and spirits.
Our stay in Lumbini was short and was also toward the latter end of our Nepal trip.
A few days later and we had returned to Australia, which is when I came across an article that truly gave me pause when it came to religion; an article written by author and conservative commentator Andrew Klavan.
In it, Klavan rebuts a claim made by fellow author Yuval Noah Harari, in which Harari says that “money and religion are fictions created by language.”
To this, Klavan responded with a single sentence that prompted me to re-imagine my stance on religion entirely.
“Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them.”
It took me a while to properly digest what he was saying, but in the end, I realised that Klavan was completely correct. Money isn’t simply a syntactical concept, it’s a representation of value, turned into a physical note that we can exchange with others.
The concept is akin to throwing flour on an invisible creature; the creature is always there, the flour just makes it known. Similarly, language does not create concepts, but rather, it unveils them.
So what about religion?
Upon hearing Klavan’s stance, I thought immediately of Star Wars. (The original trilogy, don’t worry.)
Star Wars is often considered one of the greatest cinematic tales in history, and George Lucas has stated on numerous occasions that he was deeply inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of a ‘Heroes Journey.’
The Heroes Journey, according to Campbell, refers to the underlying structure which is shared throughout all mythology. This is a structure that Campbell calls the “monomyth.’
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The Heroes Journey doesn’t just make for a great Sci-Fi movie either, but rather, it depicts the narratives of virtually every prophet, as well as many religious tales like Moses, Joseph and Jonah’s stories.
And so, I began to wonder if religion was indeed just a fiction, or whether it instead gives us a glimpse into the essential code of reality; a way of moving through the world that provides humans with the most meaning.
Though Klavan’s piece wasn’t just good for a sentence, but also touched upon another concept which further expounded upon this notion: The Simulation Theory.
The Simulation Theory is the belief that if in the future, we as humans can create simulated worlds which are as lifelike as our own, then it’s plausible that our ancestors may have created a simulation which is…our universe.
To best explain this concept, the Philosopher Nick Bostrom has come up with three scenarios, which he labels the ‘Simulation Argument,’ in which at least one scenario must be true.
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
If you accept that humans are likely to reach the level of technological prowess which allows us to create lifelike simulations without going extinct (think video games in 100 years), and you also accept that humans, given this capacity, are also likely to run said simulations, then we are probably in a simulation as we speak.
The theory is believed, at least partially, by the likes of Elon Musk, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and even famous Atheist Sam Harris.
Neil Degrasse Tyson has put the likelihood that we’re in a simulation at 50%, whereas Elon Musk has stated:
“40 years ago we had pong, like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now 40 years later we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it's getting better every year. Soon there will be virtual reality and augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
Musk has also stated that the probability we’re in the root reality is “one in a billion.”
So where am I going with all of this?
Well, to come full-circle, this Simulation Theory, which is effectively a scientific/philosophical concession that the universe may indeed have been created by a being more intelligent than ourselves, is entertained and somewhat believed by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — the very same atheists who led me on my path to atheism.
On the topic, Harris has stated: “Given these premises — that human consciousness is purely the product of computation; that our computing power will continue to grow; and that our descendants will build simulated worlds — it seems tempting to conclude that simulated people will eventually outnumber all the real people who have ever lived. Statistically, therefore, it is more likely that we are simulated ancestors, living in a simulated world, rather than real ancestors of the real, supercomputing people of the future.”
To conclude I’ll ask, what is God, if not the creator of our universe? And if God is the creator of the universe, then what distinguishes God from the being who created our simulation and the laws within it?
It seems to me that science is beginning to reach the same ontological conclusions as religion did thousands of years ago.
And perhaps religion not only realized that we were created by a being far more advanced than ourselves but also realized that if we want to game this system we need to act in certain ways — a la the Heroes Journey, or the Ten Commandments.