Religion as virtual reality?

That’s how one observer sees it – and he believes it has implications for the future of humanity in a technological future without work for many of us.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

. . .

People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions”.

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions like Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender”, and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka Heaven).

As religions show us, the virtual reality need not be encased inside an isolated box. Rather, it can be superimposed on the physical reality. In the past this was done with the human imagination and with sacred books, and in the 21st century it can be done with smartphones.

Some time ago I went with my six-year-old nephew Matan to hunt for Pokémon. As we walked down the street, Matan kept looking at his smartphone, which enabled him to spot Pokémon all around us. I didn’t see any Pokémon at all, because I didn’t carry a smartphone. Then we saw two others kids on the street who were hunting the same Pokémon, and we almost got into a fight with them. It struck me how similar the situation was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims about the holy city of Jerusalem. When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

. . .

Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already. 

There’s more at the link.  The author goes into much more detail in his new book, ‘Homo Deus:  A Brief History of Tomorrow‘.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to accepting this ‘religion-as-virtual-reality’ view of humanity is that it begins with the understanding that religion is factually false;  that there is no God except one of our own invention, and no eternity outside this life.  In other words, since we have ‘made’ (i.e. invented) God in our own image, we can proceed to remake ourselves in our own made-up vision of what we are and should become.

That’s the sticking point for people of faith, right there.  It’s our contention – whether we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any one of many other faiths – that we are made in the image and likeness of God, rather than the other way around.  We believe that we were created by God, not that we have created a fantasy God in our own minds.  If people of faith are right, that means any attempt to remake humanity by inventing a computer-game simulation that we ‘play’ in order to give meaning to our lives, must inevitably fail, because it doesn’t take the reality of creation into account.  As St. Paul put it from a Christian perspective:

And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.  Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.  For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!  Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

That’s the nub of the problem.  If a secular scientist, or a secular government, seeks to remake human society in the image of what people of faith will inevitably regard as a ‘false god’ – secular humanism – then their efforts are certain to meet resistance.  In the final analysis, to treat religion as if it were nothing more than a fantasy is to tell people of faith that they have been deceived, and that those propagating their faith are liars, and that their hope is in vain.  I, for one, will never accept that, and I know many other people of faith who will respond likewise.

It’s a dilemma and a conundrum . . . and it’s going to become a real problem for those of us who live long enough, and for our descendants and successors in faith.  We’re living in, not just a post-Christian, but a post-religious society.  What will it become in future?  Into what will it evolve?  What will become of people of faith – people like us?  Will society have any room for us at all?



  1. I never got why any religion needs acceptance by other people.

    So what if other people consider Christianity nothing but a virtual reality game (or a reality filter, as per RA Wilson)? I mean, the majority of religious people consider it wrong anyway. Every major religion is a minority belief.

  2. There is no need to go to religion to see how useless people will exist in the future. Look at the Ghettos today. generationally unemployed and unemployable people exist through government handouts and spend their days "hanging". When they can get jobs, they get jobs in the bureaucracy.

    What the author fails to notice, is that it is religion that creates the ethical imperative to work and be productive. Not every person can be a priest. Most of the religious practitioners need jobs in the real world, and always have.

  3. Wow. This is maybe the stupidest thing that I've seen in a long, long time. Peter, you were far more generous to him than he deserved.

    My assessment of him is "over-educated idiot", which is lacking in Christian charity.

  4. He really is saying things so stupid only an academic can think that way. Borepatch is right. It might be the densest piece of idiocy I've ever read.

    I have a big problem with this whole "the robots will take over everything". The last 20 years of data shows that robot sales go up with employment, virtually in lock step. Robots "replace" workers in the sense of doing things alongside existing employees as the company expands, if even that.

    There are literally billions of people working today, in the sense of doing something to eek out a living. A Masai herding cattle is working for a living. Are we going to sell the Masai a robot to herd cattle? Beyond that, how do we build billions of robots? Metals and other minerals have to be mined, refined, distributed, built into subassemblies and full up assemblies. How long will that take? And don't say, "the robots will build the robots", because the problems are the same. Who sells the robots and how much do these wonders cost? There are lots of practical questions nobody is talking about.

    Have you ever seen any society, anywhere, at anytime in recorded history when people weren't making a living doing something?? And this is suddenly going to end?

  5. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork.

    My experience with repetition of magical formulas was mostly when I was a kid ("Please don't notice that. Please don't notice that. …"), but avoiding pork seems to be a simple way of avoiding trichinosis when you don't know what causes it, but can associate it with the eating of pork. I've seen other dietary restrictions, such as shellfish, attributed to people knowing that some foods were dangerous during some seasons or all the time, and noting the fact with such proscriptions.

    As far as homosexuality, it would seem to go directly against "be fruitful and multiply," which, even outside the context of religion, could be interpreted as, "it's a dangerous world, and we need more people on our team" — not to mention that prior to government help programs, you needed a large family in order to have sufficient children survive long enough to support you when you could no longer support yourself.

    Having those be religious directives makes sense to me, because even if you didn't know and couldn't reason these things out for yourself, priests (or shaman, or medicine men) were generally accepted as authority figures and served as repositories and dispensers of accumulated knowledge.

  6. 'Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable."

    Sorry but that class of people has always existed and has rapidly expanded from 1965 to the present date. Currently they can get a college degree yet not possess any qualities that make them employable.

    We are 1 for 6 with interns who had a basic work ethic and the ability to perform a task within a given time frame. Sadly they were science or engineering students.


  7. Sorry but that class of people has always existed and has rapidly expanded from 1965 to the present date.

    One of them appears to have written the quoted article.

    I can't decide whether to be amused or frustrated by the mischaracterization of Christianity. It's not about scoring points for the afterlife (as the great sage Weird Al put it)

    It may be the only religion in the world that isn't about scoring points for the afterlife, and which tells people that no matter how good they are, on their own it will never be good enough.

  8. It sounds to me like we are going to be building it and putting ourselves into the Matrix… will there be a tax on those who chose not to (Obama care)? Will we be allowed to opt out?

    According to my "video game religion" called Christianity, Solomon already figured it out… everything is meaningless under the sun, give God glory!

    Now I'm not a huge peak oil guy, but I also recognize that it takes 12-18 calories of oil to produce 1 calorie of corn and it takes more than 6lb of corn (grain feed) to make 1 lb of beef in conventional systems…

    We have big problems in our food system here that robo-tractors/sprayers/fertilizers/harvesters won't fix. We have big problems in our health care system that corporations make too much money off of to fix. When you add in the idea that those who own all this technology (let's call it the useful top 10%) are going to keep it running just so we can be happy playing our video games, you've got to be kidding yourself!

    This is going to make the Holocaust look like a day in the park… at least in the Matrix they were still siphoning off the lives of the humans. If everyone becomes useless, they will be thrown out in the trash… it's the American way!

  9. I stumbled over computer games as purposeful activity before I ever got to his ideas about religion.

    Just a thought and I know correlation does not equal causation but the increase in earthquakes and the increase in atheism could be related as atheists wake up, having died, and start banging their heads, "stupid, stupid, stupid."

  10. And yet, created in God's image, we still go to war over how that image must be seen. In this corner, the only way to win the game is to accept Christ as your personal savior. in that corner, Christ is an okay guy, but you have to follow the Prophet Mohammad to win. And over here, neither of those guys is right, but your rabbi has some suggestions. And each of those has several versions, all shouting that the other guy's version is all wrong, and you'll still lose if you play the right game but the wrong version.

    All in all, Western Civilization is pretty awesome, but when it's Sunnis vs Shia, Catholics vs Protestants, and Baptists vs Everybody, it's hard to accept that traditional religions somehow have the only key to the door.

    But hey, what do I know? I'm just a nice Jewish boy who is going to spend eternity in Hell.


  11. Robots building robots. Hello, Skynet…….

    Is is possible, through advancements in artificial intelligence, that robots could be developed that build other robots? Maybe, but artificial intelligence isn't exactly scientience and I suspect sentience is a fairly important quality, one that's necessary for development into completel new areas.

    So far, it looks like the "smartest" "thing" on the planet is IBM's Watson; maybe we should call Armonk and find out how many offspring Watson has generated.

    On the god issue, god is one of two things: a) a concept in the minds of men, a totally fabricated fantasy, or; b) an actual entity, whether physical or metaphysical, that exists in reality, possibly a reality which may be too complex to be sufficiently comprehended by the limited mental abilities of humans.

    Which it is, within the confines of human existence and experience, is irrelevant. If one follows the tenets of one's religion, and for purposes of argument let's pick Christianity because even in all its different flavors it's convenient and widespread, would such a follower change their behavior, attitude or outlook were it conclusively proved that god and all that extends therefrom was merely a completely artificial mental construct?

    Then again, this whole thing could be a simulation of some sort, and we're all living in some extremely advanced 14-year-old's computer game (that discussion could fill dorm rooms and bars for centuries….).

    Which, when brought back to that "human existence and experience" thing, is also irrelevant, at least as long as whatever system the thing is running on doesn't crash (if there's some sort of galactic version of Bill Gates behind it all, well, it's been nice knowing you…..).

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