The Matrix is one of my favorite movies of all time. I just rewatched it recently, but this time I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before: Neo waking up from the matrix is a great analogy for a theist waking up from religion.
Of course, it all depends on one’s perspective. When the movie first came out, there were Christians who actually thought the Wachowski Brothers were trying to convey a Christian message. For example, the main character’s first name is Thomas and at first he has doubts. His last name is Anderson which means “son of man.” A character says to him, “Hallelujah! You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ.” Morpheus says he was prophesied to save humanity. He is betrayed by a friend. He dies and comes back to life. And at the end of the movie he ascends to the heavens (read more).
But the Wachowski Brothers are most definitely not Christians, and the sequels pretty much destroy the idea that Neo is a messianic archetype, anyway. As I said, it all depends on your perspective. The Matrix could also be thought of as a Buddhist film, or just a philosophical film. And since I’ve been thinking a lot about atheism and religion lately, from my perspective The Matrix seems like a film about deconversion.
This is not meant to be a scholarly essay on this topic, and I’m not going to analyze the entire film. I just want to share some things I thought about while watching it. (Sorry, but I’m not going to bother with the second and third films; I didn’t like them as much.)
Follow the white rabbit.
In one of the first scenes, Neo sees this message on his computer. Shortly thereafter, he sees the tattoo of a white rabbit on a girl who is going to a club, so he decides to follow her there. Because of this decision he meets Trinity, who introduces him to Morpheus, the one who tells him about the matrix.
For future apostates, the first step on the road to atheism is the choice to investigate something that casts doubt on their belief system. It could be something they read online, something they heard from a friend, or something they thought of on their own. These things are white rabbits. Most theists either don’t notice or choose to ignore white rabbits, but future apostates follow them.
Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically this is not far from the truth… Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
At the point where Neo meets Morpheus, he has been trapped in the matrix his entire life. He still believes he lives in the real world, but he feels like something is wrong with it. He just doesn’t know what.
Before theists lose their faith, they usually have the same sort of feelings. As far back as they remember, they’ve been taught that god exists and that their religion is the way to salvation, that they are characters in a story about the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
They accept this because it’s all they’ve ever known, but it doesn’t seem real. As Morpheus says, “You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up.” Because it doesn’t seem real, they are willing to ask questions, and they are willing to hear answers.
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Religion is everywhere in our society. We see it on the television, we hear about it at work, and it seems like there are churches on every other street corner. But the things taught in church have no basis in reality. They are nothing but stories that prevent people from discovering the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
Children who are born and raised in religious homes are also “born into bondage.” They are told to take things on faith before they reach the age of reason, leaving them saddled with cognitive biases and errors that affect the way they think about the world (this is why religious people are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories).
They are slaves to their beliefs, and their minds are imprisoned by dogma. And unfortunately, there is no way to tell them the truth about religion. It doesn’t matter how logical or reasonable you are; nothing gets through the prison bars of faith. They have to figure it out for themselves.
Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
The blue pill represents the choice to reject reason and evidence. Theists take the blue pill every time they say things like, “I don’t care about facts; I have faith” or “I know that I know that I know.” They are so frightened by the possibility that they could be wrong, they reject it out of hand.
The red pill represents the acknowledgement that one could be wrong. When theists take the red pill, they accept the possibility that there might not be a god and investigate the matter to see whether their beliefs are justified. They want to know if their beliefs are wrong, and that’s because they care more about truth than about being right.
Morpheus: Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
God can seem very real to the believer. So real that it can be difficult to distinguish the presence of God from ordinary human emotions. Atheists experience the same feelings as theists–awe, joy, peace–but they understand that these feelings come from within themselves, not from some imaginary spirit.
Or take the Bible. If theists were to read a novel that featured talking animals, water turning into wine, fire falling from the sky, people rising from the dead, and so forth, they would quickly recognize it as a fabrication. But when it comes to the Bible, theists can’t tell it isn’t real.
So when a theist finally realizes the Bible is just a book of legends, it makes sense to say to them, “Welcome to the real world,” as Morpheus said to Neo.
Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?
Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.
The first few months after becoming an atheist can be very overwhelming. You have to rethink everything you thought you knew about philosophy, science, history, psychology, and ethics. That last one is the most difficult. Most theists don’t think very hard about what’s right and what’s wrong; they just consult the Bible, their church, or their favorite religious website.
Since atheists don’t have any moral authorities, they have to construct their own moral code. For new atheists, this can be exhausting. Having to reevaluate so many issues (both personal and political) can be confusing, frustrating, and could even tempt them to ask, “Why does my brain hurt?” To which the appropriate response might be, “Because you’ve never used it.” If all of your opinions were decided by the home and/or church you grew up in, you’ve never really used your brain.
Morpheus: What is The Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this. [Morpheus holds up a battery.]
Neo: No, I don’t believe it. It’s not possible.
Morpheus: I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.
What is religion? Control. Religion is a human generated dream world that feeds off the hopes and fears of believers. Because of their deep-seated desire for life after death and cosmic justice, theists often invest significant amounts of time and money into maintaining the church so it can recruit new believers.
When ex-theists realize they’ve invested so much time, money, and emotion into a fantasy (one that slows down the progress of humanity, no less), sometimes they’re so horrified that they try to convince themselves “it’s not possible.” But as Morpheus says, “I didn’t say it would be easy.”
Neo: I can’t go back, can I?
Morpheus: No. But if you could, would you really want to?
Many apostates have asked each other these questions. For some of them, escaping religion can be liberating. But for others, it can be terrifying. Some even try to believe again. But once you see the Bible for what it is (a book of fairy tales), you can’t make yourself believe it again anymore than you could make yourself believe in the tooth fairy again.
As Cypher says, “Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Later he says, “Ignorance is bliss.” Perhaps. But ignorance also keeps us from making the world a better place.
Morpheus: I feel I owe you an apology. We have a rule. We never free a mind once it’s reached a certain age. It’s dangerous. The mind has trouble letting go. And for that I’m sorry.
One of the reasons for the rise in secularism is the Internet. For example, just twenty years ago it was difficult for atheists to explain why they think the Bible is full of contradictions. Now they can just send people links like this or this. As a result, atheism is on the rise.
But as the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This is why the majority of new atheists are young people. They are not set in their ways and are therefore more willing to reconsider their beliefs. And when they do, it is not as damaging psychologically. Sometimes the older you are when you become an atheist, the harder it is to deal with.
Morpheus: As long as The Matrix exists, the human race will never be free.
And as long as religion exists, the human race will never be free. Humans are capable of solving almost all their problems with logic, rationality, and the scientific method. Unfortunately, religion tends to resist these things because it relies on faith, irrationality, and dogma.
Fortunately, humanity has made great progress in spite of religion. But until religion is gone, humanity will never reach its full potential. And if religion begins to spread again, the human race could be wiped out by a war with religious motivations, or it could sink into another dark age.
Neo: What are you trying to tell me, that I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
The agents in the Matrix represent evangelists, and the bullets represent threats of Hell. These threats serve two purposes: To convince unbelievers to convert, and to keep believers from deconverting. The former doesn’t usually work, but the latter can be very effective.
Even after deconverting, many new atheists still have a deep-seated fear of Hell. It might seem illogical to fear something you don’t believe in, but emotions are not always logical. Emotions are the result of conditioning, so it can take lot longer to change them than it does to change beliefs.
At the end of the movie, Neo finally sees the matrix for what it is and realizes he can control it. So when the agents shoot at him, Neo simply holds up his hand and stops the bullets stop in midair. For the new atheist, this is the moment when he realizes the idea of Hell doesn’t frighten him anymore. This is the moment when he is truly free.
There are many other Matrix quotes I could comment on, but these are the ones that really stuck out to me. I want emphasize that this is just my interpretation of the movie. I seriously doubt the Wachowski brothers intended to convey any of these messages. But that’s the great thing about art: it can mean different things to different people. To me, The Matrix is about deconversion and atheism.