There is a scene in the movie “The Matrix” where the main character, Neo, is visiting a so-called oracle. As he waits to see her, he looks at the other “potentials” that stay with her. These potentials, all children, are able to manipulate objects using what appears to be telekinesis.
At one point, Neo leans down and talks to a small boy who has several bent spoons sitting in front of him. He picks the last normal one up, looks at it, and it starts to bend, almost as if it is made of liquid. The young boy apparently controls the shape of the spoon and is able to return it to its original form. He then looks at Neo and hands him the spoon. As Neo inspects it, the boy speaks.
“Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible,” he says. “Instead, only try to realize the truth.”
“What truth?” Neo asks.
“There is no spoon.”
Neo looks at the metal dinnerware in his hands, and asks, “There is no spoon?”
Understanding the question was rhetorical, the boy finishes his thought, “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
At this point, Neo, who has already had the truth about the Matrix revealed to him, looks at the spoon. With a bit of concentration, he is able to bend it using only his mind.
This rather mystical scene is obviously meant to show that the world of the Matrix is an illusion, but I believe it can also be interpreted as an allusion to atheism. The most obvious example is the phrase “there is no spoon,” spoken by the boy. This simple line appears to be the epiphany of the scene and the moment. There is a clear parallel to this phrase and another well-known phrase: “There is no God.” It is important to note that people who might say this phrase aren’t necessarily being antagonistic. For many atheists, it is a simple statement about what they believe to be reality.
However, it does make me wonder if the creators of the film would be so blunt about something like atheism. After all, the majority of their audience is not atheist. To make a clear parallel to atheism might not go over very well with the audience, so they would’ve had to mask it, or tone it down a little. Because I didn’t write the story and I haven’t read anything about their motivations (The third movie isn’t out yet; I’m not about to spoil it), I am obviously just speculating. I just think that it’s fascinating how these movies walk the fine line between religion and non-religion. For example, so far in the movie series, there are numerous references to faith, beliefs, prophecy, but there are no direct references to any particular deity or religion.
Every reference to religion in these movies is masked, which is to say that it is in plain sight (literally and figuratively) but covered so as to conceal its identity. They are either hidden in layers of context or represented visually through the use of artifacts and costumes. I find it a nice touch that they show all of these people still adhering to certain religions even after they discover their whole lives were a projected reality. It shows a commitment to their religion that is not based in concrete historical or quasi-historical facts, a truly spiritual understanding. Most notably of these lingering religions is the presence of people in Buddhist-like outfits. One of the ideas Buddhism teaches is that if the world changes, the adherents must not fear it but embrace it. It doesn’t affect their basic philosophies. So, if a Buddhist is released from the Matrix, and they realize that they have never actually sat around and meditated all these years, it doesn’t matter.
Right after the young boy hands the spoon to Neo, he says, “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible.” These sentences can certainly be interpreted a number of ways besides the face-value idea that it is impossible to bend the spoon. What I mean by bringing the spoon into this is to refer to it as the argument over the existence of deities. I’m not talking about either side; I’m talking about the argument itself. People can come up with “proof” that deities exist, or they can come up with “proof” that deities don’t exist. By “bend[ing] the spoon,” we are trying to shape our arguments to fit our reality. And when the boy says it is impossible to bend the spoon, he is right. Given the restrictions of reality in the Matrix, it is impossible to bend a spoon with one’s mind, just as it is impossible to warp reality to fit our argument. The problem of doing this is that both sides appear to have evidence in their favor, so which one is correct? How about neither? From the perspective of most people plugged into the Matrix, they know nothing of the real world because the Matrix has provided one for them. But for those “enlightened” few, who have seen what the Matrix really is, they have a completely different perspective on the world. They know it is impossible for an individual to break the laws of the Matrix, just as we know it’s impossible for an individual to break the laws of physics.
Everything that people see and experience in the Matrix doesn’t actually originate in their brains. They are plugged into the vast network of other minds and computers. The “reality” actually exists on the computers that create the Matrix, and the restrictions imposed upon the people inside the network are based in the computers. One major flaw in the design of the Matrix is that mind control works best when the mind is not aware of it. Once a person is “awakened” to the truth, their mind (at least) has the capability to step back and see the Matrix for what it is. That is why the rules of the Matrix are designed to prevent these realizations.
It’s somewhat like a chat room. Anyone with the right equipment can log in, but they can’t break the laws specified by the host computer. This isn’t lawbreaking of the moral or ethical kind, but of the fact-of-the-matter kind. You can’t, for example, go into a typical chat room and start speaking to people using your own voice. It’s not that such a thing is impossible, but rather that the basic structure of the chat room doesn’t allow for it.
So the Matrix is kind of like a big chat room in which we are born, live, and eventually die, all while being plugged into this machine. We are not asked to log in because we are automatically logged in at birth, and part of the restrictions of the Matrix is that the idea of logging out will never occur to us. “Unfortunately,” says Morpheus, “no one can be told what the Matrix is.” The idea that we are not allowed to log out is probably the most frightening aspect of being locked into the Matrix. The only way to escape it is by being forcefully logged out, which isn’t likely to happen very often. The humans aren’t just enslaved out of evil deeds. The machines are feeding on life just as all life does, we just happen to be on the bad end of it. One way a person can free themselves from the Matrix is by “realizing the truth,” the very thought of which is restricted (very literally) according to the rules of the Matrix. This kind of awakening is a clear parallel to the idea of the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” Another way of forcefully logging out of the Matrix would be by unplugging yourself (literally) from the machine. But, since the brain is under the control of the machine, it cannot make its body move to do so. Once your brain, the organ, is free from the connection, your mind, the consciousness, is also freed. And the rest will follow.
Now, I realize it seems that I’ve forgotten something, namely, how Neo was freed. He was neither directly enlightened nor physically unplugged (except by the machines, which were apparently dumping him anyway). He was “hacked” out of the Matrix by people in the real world. They say they planted a homing beacon in him (the red pill), but it seemed to simply be the way to find where his body was. As for what they did to convince the machines to release his mind, I don’t know. The first movie wasn’t very clear on how this was accomplished, so I’m hesitant to guess. But, I didn’t want to leave it out completely.
Once Neo has repeated the epiphanal line, “there is no spoon,” the boy continues his thought by saying, “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” In this context, he clearly means that the spoon represents the false reality, and Neo’s conflict (if it can be called that) represents an enlightened mind. But, on a deeper (maybe too deep) level I believe the spoon represents the argument about the existence of deities, which people try to bend and twist with their minds in a vain attempt to change reality to fit their argument. The reason Neo is able to do what he wants with the spoon is that he recognizes the need to step away from the argument entirely. The whole discussion hinges on facts that can never be reconciled, like a singularity of ideas.
Gods either exist or they don’t. That’s the simplicity in binary thought. But, it’s too dichotomous and artificial, much like the now-famous line, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Sure, there is a yes or no answer, but the statement itself it too limiting. It doesn’t allow for any other ideas or perspectives and so it forces us to focus on which side of the fence we stand. The same stands for deities, of which the answer can be simplified into a yes/no answer. But, it seems that many people ignore the fact that this whole argument just might be a contrived idea in the first place. Clearly, they cannot be logically resolved, and that is why there has been a healthy (and bloodily unhealthy) debate on the subject for thousands of years.
Of all the religions that dominate human consciousness, how many of them are correct? Is it, as atheists are inaccurately accused of saying, that none of them are? What if they’re all right and conflicts only surface because we try to bend the spoon (the argument) to fit our beliefs? If we remember there is no spoon, that the argument itself has been contrived in our minds, we will then be able to step back and observe the argument from above instead of becoming entrenched in it.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the purpose of that scene was to say that there is no God. It just seems like there’s more to it than simply the moment where Neo learns to bend spoons. A lot of the philosophy in the Matrix series is ambiguous, and I believe that is just to keep from singling out any particular belief. But, the moment does give us a way to reflect on the idea that—just maybe—the whole discussion of the existence of deities is just like the metaphorical spoon.