Christian Realism v. the Simulation World
Elon Musk thinks we’re living in the Matrix. “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, games will eventually be indistinguishable from reality,” he told Joe Rogan in 2018, before somehow concluding: “We’re most likely in a simulation.” In an interview with NBC, Neil deGrasse Tyson said there’s “better than 50-50 odds” that Musk is right. “I wish I could summon a strong argument against it, but I can find none.”
This belief, known as simulation theory, is increasingly common in elite circles. These are the same intellectuals who plead the Fifth when asked to define the word “woman.” The brain-trust responsible for training our political, military, economic, scientific, and cultural elites think we’re living in a huge video game where men get pregnant and women have penises (get over it, cishets).
Meanwhile, the rest of us are asking, “When did smart people get so stupid?”
Actually, this is nothing new. Modern historians have tried to convince us that the last four hundred years saw pure Reason overthrow the tyranny of myth and superstition, but in fact the most benighted habits we associate with the distant past are all the result of “progress.”
We say the Reformation freed Europe’s conscience from bishops and kings, yet the “divine right of kings” evolved in England beginning in the reign of Henry VIII and only spread to France about a century later. Meanwhile, witch burning (or hanging) was extremely rare in medieval Europe. The majority of witches were executed in Lutheran Germany and Puritan Massachusetts.
We say the Renaissance banished squalid theologies in favor of science and philosophy, yet virtually all the great men of that age, like Francis Bacon and Paracelsus, dabbled in ritual magic, astrology, and alchemy. After all, man’s power over nature seemed limitless. Why shouldn’t he be able to change the weather or read the stars?
As Dominic Green observes in his new book The Religious Revolution, the late 1800s saw a renewed interest in the occult, for all the same reasons. Given all the recent advances in human knowledge, from Darwin’s theory of evolution to Marx’s scientific socialism, traditional Christianity was clearly untenable. Meanwhile, imperial adventures in Asia and Africa were exposing the West to bold new ways of thinking.
Enter the Theosophical Society. Its foundress, Helena Blavatsky, blended Western science with Eastern religion to create a “scientific spiritualism.” During her seances, ancient Hindu priests and Renaissance Neoplatonists would appear to her and dictate her books. “Ideals and faith have been lost almost everywhere,” Madame Blavatsky observed. “People in our century demand a scientific bulwark, scientific proofs of the spirit’s immortality. Ancient esoteric science will give it to them.”
From 1875 until the middle of the 20th century, everyone who was anyone read Blavatsky. Really, the modern world is a Theosophical conspiracy. The movements for women’s suffrage, animal rights, trade unions, vegetarianism, homeopathic medicine, and cremation were all dominated by Theosophists. Adherents rose to the highest levels of politics (Henry Wallace), the military (Abner Doubleday), literature (Arthur Conan Doyle), music (Gustav Mahler), psychology (William James), and science (Thomas Edison). Even Gandhi was a Theosophist. He famously kept a picture of Blavatsky’s successor, Annie Besant, next to his portrait of Jesus.
For the global elite, this was all perfectly normal—until it wasn’t. When Theosophy fell out of vogue, it went right down the memory-hole.
This is the real history of the last four centuries. It’s a cycle of bizarre fads. First some real advance in human knowledge—some major discovery or rediscovery, it might be chemistry, or India, or computers—then the most powerful members of society decide that this knowledge actually explains the entire cosmos. Suddenly, computers are literally everything. Finally, the fad becomes gauche, as all fads do. Historians kindly wipe the records, to help the elites save face. Then a new fad begins, and the whole cycle starts over again.
As G.K. Chesterton (almost) said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything”—but, ah! I can already see eyes beginning to roll.
Chesterton belongs to a group of writers I call the Greater Inkling movement. Its members are well-known Christians like George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. They’re known for their gentleness, their wit, and their huge powers of imagination. Each enjoys a large popular following, sometimes because of their Christianity but just as often despite it.
And yet Inklingism has its critics, especially among elite Christians and conservatives. I don’t use the word “elite” derisively here, or anywhere else. I mean educated, cultivated, well-informed, and well-to-do, the sort who read magazines like The American Conservative.
They say the Inklings are for hobbit-fanciers and tweed fetishists. Tolkien and MacDonald are all right for children. So is Lewis, of course. Kids love his Narnia books. Mere Christianity has helped some people come to Jesus, which is a good thing. Same with Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. And his Father Brown is up there with Sherlock Holmes and Poirot. (Well, Poirot, anyway.) Still, fairy tales and detective stories won’t save Western civilization.
They’re just a little too cozy, too detached from the modern world. How could they ever speak to an age formed by Marx, Freud, Bernays, Sartre, Foucault, Steinem? What do they have to say about transgenderism, or globalism, or critical race theory? A few clever anagrams; a smattering of novels. Their philosophy, like their fiction, is escapist.
Inklingism would hold that there’s nothing unique, or even especially interesting, about the age we now live in, nothing special about the heretics and heathens we’re contending with. The genius of the Inklings was their refusal to indulge the modern pretense. They refused to act as if the advent of the modern world “changed everything,” because it didn’t. In fact, one of the main problems with modernity is that it’s so self-consciously modern. The beauty of being a Christian, as my old friend Thomas Howard once said, is that one is “free from ever having to temporize.”
The Inklings refused to temporize, which is why they continue to win more converts than any evangelist alive today. They refused to either accommodate modernity or (what’s equally dangerous) to define themselves against it. They remained absolutely fixed, not on fashionable errors, but on permanent truths.
And what truths are those? It’s what we might call Christian realism, which boils down to three main principles.
- God is the absolute reality. He is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—the standard by which truth and goodness and beauty are measured. For instance, if man is defined by his relationship with God, then he is fundamentally the imago Dei: a creature made in God’s own image and likeness. He created us to serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. That’s what man is. That’s why man is.
- The universe is basically reasonable or intelligible. You can basically trust your senses. Everything is more or less as it appears—even when it isn’t. Take miracles. Because God is the creator of everything, He’s able to “break” his own laws, just as an artist is able to alter his own painting.
- Man is governed by certain unalterable laws, which he knows intuitively. (His conscience is one of those trustworthy “senses.”) Obedience to these laws is known as virtue. Virtue is conformity to the good. Evil is never expedient, because God, who created these laws, is the source of all goodness. Man can’t flourish by defying Him any more than a boat can sail away from the sea.
Put simply, “realism” refers to followers of Plato and Aristotle. They’re a minority in ancient Rome, though their numbers include great thinkers like Cicero. Realism only becomes the dominant Western philosophy during the Christian era, thanks to the efforts of figures like Justin Martyr, Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm. Realists fight among themselves a bit during the Middle Ages, with some (like Aquinas) favoring Aristotle and others (like Bonaventure) favoring Plato. But later Christian realists like Erasmus, Pascal, and Newman rarely keep up the old divisions.
“Realism” was originally used in reference to the problem of universals. I’m using it a little more broadly here, because Christians have lately found themselves defending commonsense things against pointless doubts. We believe the external world is quite real—unlike Descartes, with his radical doubts. We believe that a rose is really beautiful—unlike Hume, who thought beauty is simply a matter of taste. We believe that some practices, like pedophilia, are truly evil—unlike Foucault, who thought of them as mere taboos. We believe that God is real—unlike Marx, who called Him a delusion, or Freud, who said He was a complex. And we believe He’s very much alive—unlike Nietzsche, who’s quite dead.
We may be wrong. But if we are, then so were the vast majority of human beings throughout history. Common sense may be wrong, but isn’t it funny that, especially in modern times, Christians are the great champions of common sense? Before the year 2010, it would have been obvious to 100 percent of human beings that men cannot get pregnant. And yet the only real pushback against transgenderism today comes from Christians.
Chesterton and Lewis were the great representatives of Christian realism in the 20th century. They have no equal in English or any other language. They are easily as intelligent as any German historicist or French existentialist—as shown by their absolute refusal to credit either historicism or existentialism. Their writing seems simplistic, in part because it contrasts so sharply with the fatuous obscurantism that dominated philosophy of that era, but also because most of the heavy lifting had been done centuries before. They refused to reinvent the wheel.
So why is Christian realism so unpopular? Why does our intelligentsia keep popping out these ridiculous new errors, rather than accepting the plain truth of Christian realism? Let’s ask Chesterton. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting,” he said. “It has been found difficult and not tried.” (Well, he didn’t quite say it. But it’s the kind of thing he would’ve said.) You’ve probably come across this quote on the internet, and you probably thought it was trite. Actually, though, he’s right.
None of the reasons that historians give for the decline of Christianity hold water. The Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars—none of these have made Christianity less plausible. Anselm’s ontological arguments and Aquinas’s logical arguments haven’t been refuted. Hardly anyone has even tried. There’s been some sort of unspoken pact, a silent conspiracy, to ignore all Western letters from the death of Epictetus to the birth of Descartes.
As a matter of fact, the conspiracy used to be rather outspoken. During the Renaissance, the word dunce was coined as a play on the name of John Duns Scotus. Needless to say, Scotus wasn’t a dunce. He’s the only medieval philosopher who might be considered Aquinas’s equal. He’s certainly the only one better versed in Greek philosophy. But he was extremely dense, had no ear for good prose, and—worst of all—felt the Thomists had put a little too much stock in human reason.
For this reason, Scotus enjoyed a reappraisal in the last century thanks to philosophers like Heidegger who challenged modern philosophy’s deep rationalism. But during the Renaissance, that rationalism was just coming into its own. So, of course, Scotus had to go. Rather than refute Scotus—probably because they couldn’t—the great Renaissance humanists just mocked and forgot him.
Yes, Chesterton was right. We’ve succumbed to a fallacy: the belief that, “if a thing has been defeated, it has been disproved.” And even then he goes too far. Christianity hasn’t been defeated—Christianity itself hasn’t even been attacked. No one has the guts.
Man is fickle, especially in religion. “I find a mere change of scene always has a tendency to decrease my faith at first,” Lewis admits. “God is less credible when I pray in a hotel bedroom than when I am in College.” Every sincere Christian knows exactly what he means.
That’s why the Inklings were so fond of fairy tales and fantasies. Men have always used grand narratives—myths, legends, and epics—to communicate fundamental truths. Look at the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Iliad, or the Aeneid, or Beowulf, or Le Morte d’Arthur. They combine morals and moods, working on both sides of our brain at the same time.
The usual complaint about these kinds of stories is that they’re childish. They’re too black-and-white. They lack moral nuance. But that’s the whole point: there’s no such thing as moral nuance. There’s moral confusion, of course. There’s moral cowardice. But in the final analysis there’s no real gray area between right and wrong. If a woman flirts with a married man at the bar, he only has one option: walk away. It doesn’t matter if the woman is beautiful, or if his marriage is loveless, or if his wife is a cheater. And if on his way home he finds a woman being attacked in a dark alley, he only has one option: get involved. It doesn’t matter how many attackers there are or how the woman is dressed. As a man, he has a duty to defend the defenseless.
Of course, these other factors (the cheating wife, the number of attackers) make it a little more understandable if he does the wrong thing. But explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong.
Modern men have trouble grasping these very simple truths thanks, in no small part, to highbrow novelists like Hemingway and Lawrence. That’s why we need children’s fables, like the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. “The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane,” wrote Chesterton. “The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.”
To this day, the great majority of Americans claim to believe in God. And yet we take no interest in Him. I’m sure it’s always been that way. A society can be “religious” even if its members aren’t especially pious. But piety was still held up as an ideal. It wasn’t treated as a slightly embarrassing hobby like stamp-collecting.
If we were talking about an atheistic country, it would be another matter. Yet only 4 percent of Americans call themselves atheists. The rest of us should understand, at least vaguely, that our happiness has something to do with God. We should at least think about religion the way fat people think about exercise: It’s probably good for us, and people swear they enjoy it (after a while), but I just can’t be bothered. Again, this is an explanation but not an excuse.
What’s really tragic, though, is that our sloth doesn’t lead to joy. It doesn’t even lead to comfort. It leads to misery. “Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humor, and frankness,” Lewis observes. It has nothing to do with Christian or unchristian: “For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary.”
And as Cardinal Newman (the Grandfather of Inklingism) pointed out, what’s true of the lower goods is also true of the higher goods. “The very notion of being religious implies self-denial,” he said, “because by nature we do not love religion.” Here we come back to Chesterton’s point, that we’re too lazy to be Christian.
Still, the point remains. Any believer—however vague his beliefs—must agree, at least in theory, that there can be no happiness without God. Here, too, Lewis put it best:
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
Really, though, I think the reason so many of us reject the Inklings is because they’re not political enough. They don’t have much to say about national conservatism, or Catholic integralism, or any of the other –isms popping up on the right like mushrooms.
But this, too, was intentional. Lewis, for his part, refused to read newspapers. He said it was how he kept “unspotted from the world.” (That’s a reference to the Epistle of St. James: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”)
Chesterton was even more forthright. “We tend to make politics too important,” he declared. “We tend to forget how huge a part of a man’s life is the same under a Sultan and a Senate, under a Nero or St. Louis.” The real danger to the modern news junkie—especially if he calls himself a Christian—is that he’s apt to forget what’s really wrong with the world. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Trump or Biden. It’s not Russia or NATO. It’s not evangelical Christians or secular atheists. No: “What is wrong with the world is the devil,” Chesterton wrote, “and what is right with it is God.”
We don’t like people who talk this way. The beauty of politics is that I’m always the hero. (At least, I’m never the villain.) It’s always the socialists/fascists/libtards/Trumpkins who need to be sorted out, not me. In religion, it’s just the opposite. Christianity is always banging on about sin—“a fact as practical as potatoes,” as G.K. called it. And if the problem is sinners, then the problem is me. Again, we turn to Chesterton: “The answer to the question, ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’”
Once you start to digest that fact, you also begin to see that even our political problems aren’t really political. Take abortion. Pro-lifers say that if Americans would only follow the science, they would see that life begins at conception. But everyone knows that an unborn baby is alive, at least in the way a dog or a fly or a shrub is alive. They just don’t believe that his life is worth as much as an adult’s.
Actually, the Christian idea that we attain full personhood at the moment of conception is a minority view in history. Most cultures have thought of weak things (including babies) as disposable. That only changes when the God of Israel reveals to His people that man is the imago Dei. Every life is therefore equally and infinitely precious. “For you created my inmost being,” wrote King David; “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
At bottom, the reason abortion is so prevalent is because we don’t value human beings as we ought to. But this can’t be fixed through magazine articles or op-eds. It takes a conversion of the heart.
Or take same-sex marriage. I think most of us would agree that Obergefell v. Hodges marked the end of social conservatives’ sway in the GOP. But even before 2015, it was clearly a spent force, and the “traditional marriage” it defended was a farce. There was only ever one real argument against gay marriage, and it was the one they refused to make. It went like this:
Gay rights activists claim that two men can love each other just as much as a man and a woman. And they may be right! But that’s irrelevant, because marriage isn’t about love. The reason marriage exists as a civil institution is because, once upon a time, the West was Christian. We believed that sex was only appropriate in the context of a lifelong union between a man and a woman. This is the Christian virtue of chastity. The Christian princes of Europe enshrined that ideal in law by declaring that sexual activity was prohibited except between couples that had received the Church’s sacrament of holy matrimony.
The law was rarely enforced. Yet, as we know, virtue is necessary for human flourishing. Vice can destroy a man’s life; it can also bring whole civilizations to ruin. The State therefore has a vested interest in promoting chastity. Civil society can only exist insofar as men restrain their libidos and abstain from licentiousness. That’s why, until man is made perfect, he’ll always need traditional marriage.
That argument is as good today as it was in 13th-century France. But in order to make it, conservatives would also have to take a stand against divorce, pornography, and possibly even contraception. That would be hugely unpopular, even with most Christians, which is why they didn’t do it. Instead, they muttered something about men marrying dogs and then breathed a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court rendered the whole thing moot.
The point is that the Christian princes were right. Chastity is worth promoting, because unchastity is a threat, not only to ourselves and our neighbors, but to the entire social order. But that means we can’t just blame the “destruction of the family” on the Democrats, or the LGBT lobby, or even the Sexual Revolution. A little bit of the blame lies with everyone who’s taken advantage of our new “permissive society.” It’s also my fault. And it’s probably yours, too.
Some call this “escapist.” Really, I think it is the political men who are the escapists. Just one more podcast, one more op-ed, one more conference…One more meme, one more Facebook post, one more Twitter brawl…One more election…Then everything will be put right.
Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. You have to put it right, and start by putting yourself right. That’s the message of the Inklings. It’s not escapism: it’s Christian realism. It doesn’t ask us to stick our head in the sand, but in the clouds. After all, as Lewis says,
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Around the year A.D. 33, Roman authorities executed a Jewish preacher. Three centuries later, the Emperor officially declared Him to be the Incarnate God. Today, about one of every four human beings worship that preacher. Yet we say religion is impractical, and then buy a Tesla. That must be the devil’s greatest trick.
Michael Warren Davis is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021) and The Times Are Wretched (Sophia Institute Press, 2024). Subscribe to his newsletter, “The Common Man,” on Substack.