Say anything related to Christianity in an online community of programmers and you’ll quickly discover how unwelcome you are. Partly this is due to the influence of secularism – there’s an implicit understanding that Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with programming and therefore you’re simply way off topic (a subject I intend to come back to on this blog). But is there something more going on? Is there something about the programming mindset that makes us especially resistant to organised religion in general, or evangelical Christianity in particular?
Faith and the Fear of Inconsistency
Michael Lopps has a brilliant summary of nerds as essentially being “systems thinkers” – we love to analyse complex systems and figure out all the rules that make it work, what’s going on underneath the surface to produce the behaviour we observe on the outside. We feel safe in the world by constructing these mental models to explain things, and when they deviate from our expectations – when something breaks one of our rules – that’s when the nerd rage kicks in and we start to panic, as though our safety net is beginning to unravel. Nerds love consistency, because where consistency exists there can be understanding, and where understanding exists there is security.
But so often faith is presented as the enemy of consistency. Programmers absolutely hate it if you ever say “I don’t have all the answers to this theological conundrum but I trust that God is good and so I’m content to believe his word on it” because it allows God to have a “get out of jail free” card that lets him bend the rules of the system whenever he pleases. If there is a supernatural world out there – a world where divine beings exist who we cannot see and therefore cannot understand, and where dead people come back from the grave – then that’s a world which defies all my mental models and lacks the consistency I crave. It’s a world I cannot control, and therefore can never feel entirely safe in.
Not Invented Here Syndrome and Organised Religion
Our ability to grok an overview of a complex system also tends to produce a certain amount of smugness in your average programmer. We like to think we’ve arrived at a level of understanding inaccessible to lesser mortals, and although we’re eminently open to argument if someone wishes to present new data we hadn’t factored into our models, the idea of buying wholesale into somebody else’s model doesn’t sit easily. Partly that’s because half the fun is in the challenge of working it out for yourself, but also because the effort involved in fully understanding their solution often seems like more work than just figuring it out for yourself. It’s classic Not Invented Here Syndrome. I believe that’s why it’s easier either to dismiss organised religion as unnecessary or deride it as being motivated by factors less worthy than the pure quest for truth. We come up with further models to explain away why people believe things that to us seem so obviously false – “it helps them feel superior to others”, and so on.
But as any seasoned developer will tell you, starting again from scratch is rarely the wisest course of action. God is the ultimate geek, the systems thinker extraordinaire, and so if he’s provided documentation for why the world is at it is then the competitive advantage will be with those who pay attention to it. But more than that, he’s invited us to hang out with him at the launch party – and I, for one, don’t intend to miss the opportunity.