The Matrix, Religion, and Philosophy

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The Matrix, a wildly popular film that was followed by two very popular sequels, is often regarded (well, except for some critics) as a fairly "deep" film, tackling difficult subjects that aren't commonly the focus of Hollywood's efforts. Is it, however, also a religious film - a film embodying religious subjects and transcendental values?

Many people believe exactly that - they see in The Matrix and its sequels reflections of their own religious doctrines. Some perceive Keanu Reeve's character as analogous to the Christian Messiah while others see him as analogous to a Buddhist bodhisattva. But are these movies genuinely religious in nature, or is this common perception more maya than reality - more an illusion created by our own desires and prejudices? In other words, is the story of illusion in The Matrix creating its own illusions in an audience that's eager to see validation for what they already happen to believe?

The Matrix as a Christian Film
Christianity is the predominant religious tradition in the United States, so it's hardly surprising that Christian interpretations of The Matrix are so common. The presence of Christian ideas in the films is simply undeniable, but does this allow us to conclude that they are therefore Christian movies? Not really, and if for no other reason, because so many Christian themes and ideas aren't uniquely Christian - they occur in other religions and various mythologies all around the world. To qualify as specifically Christian in nature, the movies would need to exhibit uniquely Christian interpretations of those themes.

The Matrix as a Gnostic Film
Perhaps The Matrix isn't a specifically Christian film, but there are arguments that it has stronger connections to Gnosticism and Gnostic Christianity. Gnosticism shares many basic ideas with orthodox Christianity, but there are important differences, some of which are arguably present in The Matrix film series. However, there are also important elements of Gnosticism, which are absent from the film series, making it difficult if not impossible to conclude that it's any more an expression of Gnosticism or Gnostic Christianity than it is an expression of orthodox Christianity. So they are not  Gnostic films, strictly speaking, but understanding the Gnostic ideas expressed in the films would be useful in better understanding the films as well.

The Matrix as a Buddhist Film
The influence of Buddhism on The Matrix is just as strong as that of Christianity. Indeed, some basic philosophical premises that drive major plot points would be nearly incomprehensible without a little background understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist doctrines. Does this therefore mean that the film series is essentially Buddhist in nature? No, because once again there are a number of other important elements in the movie which are contrary to Buddhism.

The Matrix: Religion vs. Philosophy
There are good arguments against The Matrix movies being essentially Christian or Buddhist in nature, but it remains undeniable that there are powerful religious themes running throughout them. Or is it really undeniable? The presence of such themes is why many believe that these are fundamentally religious movies, even if they cannot be identified with any particular religious tradition, but those themes are just as important in the history of philosophy as they are in the history of religion. Perhaps the reason why the films cannot be associated with any particular religion is because they are more generally philosophical than theological.

The Matrix & Skepticism
One of the more important philosophical themes of The Matrix films is skepticism - specifically, philosophical skepticism which involves questioning the nature of reality and whether we can ever actually know anything at all. This theme is played out most obviously in the conflict between the "real" world where humans are struggling to survive in a war against machines and the "simulated" world where humans are plugged into computers to serve the machines. Or is it? How do we know that the supposedly "real" world is, in fact, real at all? Don't all the "free" humans accept it as blindly as those who remain plugged in?