Very interesting perspective on play. "The religions that emerged with agriculture and feudalism have promoted horrors that would be unimaginable to hunter-gatherers." Greed, resentment and sociopathy can all lead to horrors, with or without religion. Some just use the cover of religion to act on the worst impulses. Others (Stalin, Mao, etc.) use manipulation and terror. Are perhaps our problems today stem from the loss of time to use imagination and play?

Expand full comment

I think we might also describe the Scientific Worldview as a form of Make-Believe, in that it assumes (or pretends?) that:

(1) An Objective Reality exists

(2) That Reality is patterned and rule governed

(3) It is possible for humans to have knowledge of what some of those rules are.

We could say, of course, that if we don't assume these things, there isn't much point in talking. In that case, to what could our words and sentences refer? How could we hope to understand each other?

In the case of Religion, it seems that some might make a similar point: if we don't assume a source of ethical order in the Universe, a source of Right and Wrong, then what difference does it make what we do?

While I'm inclined to think that Objective Good exists independently of the need for a Deity, it is not at all easy to verify its existence, or even to define. In fact, I think the best way to get at it is through stories. Stories which we find find compelling, which intrigue us and move us, seem to be the best way of getting at what is true.

In that sense, the story of Jesus' life is a great story. And I can relate to Tolkien describing it (in an essay "On Faery Stories") as "It's a good story, and all the better for being true".

Or as the Quakers put it "That spake to my condition."

Expand full comment

Very interesting article. If I recall correctly, a Pagan Studies scholar has pointed out that Pagan rituals are playful and joyous, and that Pagan beliefs are often tentative and hypothetical and playful — and I’ve often said that if your religion is not fun, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve also frequently said that the best religions are the ones that can laugh at themselves (the ones who tell the most jokes about themselves are Pagans, Jews, and Unitarians / Unitarian Universalists). And I have often said that Pagan rituals are sacred play.

Regarding this bit:

“But the ceremonies were clearly not rituals in the sense of strict, uncreative adherence to a prescribed form.”

That isn’t a useful definition of ritual. Ronald Grimes, anthropologist of ritual, identifies five modes of ritual: liturgical, magical, creative, ceremonial, and repetitive. Check him out-- his ideas are very much in tune with what you’ve written here.

In 2008, I attended an academic conference on ritual at Heidelberg University and there were academics of various disciplines attending and one of the things that was very clear was the creativity involved in most rituals, even “high church” liturgical ones. Humans don’t like repetition, we get bored; and everyone wants a piece of the action, so more ritual roles get added.

Expand full comment

I’m afraid your argument on faith is specious. It makes some interesting connections and may give insight into specific traditions, but it makes some leaps that are hard to swallow. I wrote you this essay to explain my reasoning. *sweatdrop*

To start: “The essence of all religion is faith.” This is a rather bold statement. Belief is important to many religions, but ritual or right living may be much more essential. Buddhism, Confucianism, or Hinduism, for example, can be practiced without holding to particular supernatural beliefs. Judaism has prominent branches that are primarily cultural practices; and many call themselves Christians out of cultural loyalty without even considering personal faith or regular ritual. Islam has a high view of faith, yet it calls for piety - the Five Pillars - much more than ascribing to detailed articles of belief. So to call faith the essence of all religion is exaggerated at best.

Now to the worst part of your argument: “To have faith is to believe without evidence. That’s the definition of faith.”

That’s… not the definition of faith. It does somewhat resemble one of the secondary definitions Oxford offers: “strong belief…based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” But the main definition is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”. That can be based on excellent evidences or it can be a ‘blind faith’; the term itself is neutral as to whether any make-believe is required. For another example, the Christian definition of faith, “the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen,” can apply to evidenced things such as confidence that 911 is coming when I call, that black holes and human imagination exist, and that Washington crossed the Delaware.

The same economic evidence is given very different causes depending on if one accepts Keynesian or laissez-faire premises. But imagine if Friedman said Keynes based his theory on a game where he just decided how he would like economics to work. “Obviously Keynes’ ideas were based on very sacred intuitions about how we ought to behave with money, and it’s a bit unfortunate that he held those views so strongly that he was unwilling to admit what he secretly knew, that his ‘evidence’ is completely irrelevant to the empirical world.”

That’s about how I felt when you excluded scientific and religious truth from mutual relevance. As an evolutionist, you can say an intelligent design interpretation of the evidence is wrong. But it’s ridiculous to say that there is no evidence about the history of existence; it’s like a bizarre cousin of gaslighting.

Compare cacti and euphorbias, from different families and continents yet indistinguishable when not in flower. One explanation is convergent evolution due to common pressures, another is parallel utility due to a common designer. One argument may be more convincing, but neither is without empirical evidence.

There are certainly religions that don’t expect the spiritual to intersect with the practical or to even be consistent with other stories, and maybe you can define that sort of faith as imagination - a game based on our decree rather than an external reality. If you are a materialist, then I certainly see the appeal. But there are a good number of philosophies that consider the supernatural as an observable reality, not simply poetic truths, and therefore to have mutual implications with the material world. Are you really going to come along and say considering such an idea means someone’s confused about how make-believe works? It’s almost as bad as the behaviorists who deny the existence of the mind.

Our worldview can always interfere with our understanding of the physical world, ancient crusader or modern social Darwinist. Using some anthropological studies to claim the only original and healthy way of viewing religion is a sacred, playful fiction and that all other views are fearful distortions of this original - well, I found it pretty awkward, and distracting from your more modest arguments. Statements like the Aztecs sacrificed to angry gods did not help boost my confidence in your neat analysis of religion- it is my understanding that the Aztecs considered their gods to have sacrificed themselves to create the world, and that their human sacrifices were typically avatars of the gods, nobly laying down their lives in an act of renewal. That sounds like cooperating with generous gods and the requirements of nature, not appeasing King Minos.

I love the way play and fantasy allows us to process our world, and I’ve seen for myself how valuable a playful approach to life is. But I have no interest in living double-minded or insisting on taking something poetic literally. Fiction can be truthful and religion can be playful - but a simplistic view of faith is not helpful in interpreting either.

Expand full comment

I agree, there's something sacred and fundamental about the act of play, which is a creative act, an act of joy and speculation and curiosity and imagination. Playfulness is a kind of love for the things and people you play with. Intercourse is a kind of play. And so is prayer, when it's an engagement with something we feel as a higher power that embraces us. You are right, play does makes us human.

Expand full comment

very like the Navajo and Hopi and their Kachina.

Expand full comment

Because most religions threaten some sort of eternal punishment as consequence of ‘not believing’ can it ever truly be considered as ‘playful’?

I suppose it could be argued that notions of heaven and hell form the greatest reward and punishment in the ‘game’ of life for those who ‘subscribe’.

Whilst some religions have tempered their treatment of non believers in general, others still mete out medieval style treatments to those who criticise their faith.

Expand full comment