I ceased to be a believer late in the year 2000, and in many ways the decade and a half since then has been a struggle to understand how to relate to my past. Or rather, how to relate to those who still hold the same beliefs and practices I did during all those years that started with “19–.” My first approach was nastily adversarial. Jesus, or his designated representatives, had deceived me for most of my adult life, and I was pissed. I made believers uncomfortable, and I made myself uncomfortable, and to be honest I was rather relieved when that phase passed. I wasn’t happy being the angry atheist.
And yet, neither could I be comfortable with the more tolerant alternative. I find it hard to hold my tongue when I hear people say things that I know are wrong and/or hurtful. I couldn’t just go to church and keep my thoughts to myself. Suffering in silence isn’t my thing. I’ve compensated somewhat by writing blog posts, which helps, but even that tends to get repetitive and unsatisfying after a while. And I still have to live and interact with believers, some of whom are in positions of authority over me.
I feel like I’m getting closer to a livable principle, finally, and it’s based on my understanding that religion is essentially a degenerate game of make believe.
By “make believe,” of course, I mean that participants are living in a pretend world where wonderful characters and events exist by virtue of story-telling and belief. Believers incorporate elements from the real world into their make believe world (aka their “worldview”) in order to pretend that their make believe world exists and interacts with the real world. It’s a “degenerate” game in that participants have lost the ability to distinguish between reality and make believe, in this context.
Understanding religion as “The Game” gives us some insights into how we can and should interact with those who are part of it. In many respects, we can be tolerant: it’s a game that many people enjoy greatly, and in some circumstances it’s no different than, say, football, or any other game that people enjoy. Then again, due to the degenerate nature of the game, there are many ways in which it can become intrusive, oppressive, and frankly harmful. These aspects of the game, both the innocent/innocuous and the intrusive/harmful, have some significant implications in terms of how we should interact with believers, and what results we can reasonably expect.
Starting with the more innocuous aspects of The Game, then, we can expect that people will continue to play it. Those who try to counter religion by saying, “Just don’t do it,” will meet with the same success as those who attempt to convince football fans that they should simply lose interest in football. Likewise, those who try to replace The Game by merely imitating its conventions and institutions are likely to be as successful, in the long run, as those who try to eliminate football by persuading people to go sit in stadiums and sit around watching people not play football. People are attracted to The Game because they enjoy The Game, and they’re not going to be impressed by opportunities to stop having fun.
By the same token, of course, it’s entirely reasonable for the rest of us not to play The Game, and to set boundaries on the degree to which The Game is allowed to intrude into our personal lives. We have the right to be given the same respect, by players, as other players receive, i.e. we have the right not to be marginalized or demonized just because we happen not to play the game. We have the right to criticize The Game and we have the right to point out the ways in which The Game is not reality. We even have the right to mock The Game, just as we have the right to criticize football and even mock it. It’s just a game.
If someone is hurt or offended by what we say about The Game, then we should give them the same deference we would give to a football fan who was offended by what someone said about their favorite sport or their favorite team. We owe The Game no more deference than that. It is, after all, just a game. By the same token, however, it’s possible to go beyond the boundaries of criticizing The Game (or the sport), and to mock something a person loves as a means of harassing them and making them suffer. The pretend nature of The Game gives us no more license to use mockery as a blunt instrument of torture than the nature of any other thing beloved by the victim. Just as we owe The Game no special deference, our non-participation bestows on us no special privilege. It is just a game.
That’s in the context of the innocuous practice of The Game. When The Game starts to become intrusive, obstructive, burdensome, and harmful, then we do have the right to draw boundaries and to defend them unapologetically. The same would be true of football, or D&D, or any other game, though those are less likely to be a problem since participants are more likely to remember that it’s just a game.
Thus, when The Game tries to inject itself into politics, education, science, or what have you, and to generate special privileges for players, or to deceive people, or to oppress those who are not players or whom The Game has categorized as belonging to an “enemy faction,” then we have the right and even the responsibility to draw the line, and tell players, “You can enjoy your Game all you like, but you have to stay on your side of the line while you do it, and leave people on the other side in peace.” It might even be a reasonable strategy to criticize or mock The Game itself, although that’s a double-edged sword that often motivates players to play harder, and for higher stakes. There is no question, however, that as enlightened citizens in a free society, we are all obligated to defend the boundaries that keep The Game from becoming a tool for ignorant and superstitious oppression.
And of course, I think we are always entitled to educate those who haven’t decided yet whether or not they want to play The Game. Due to its degenerate nature, it’s better for people not to get hooked on it, and if we can provide them with the information they need in order to escape from its perverse and addictive influence, then we’re doing a good deed for both the people and society in general.
The most important thing to remember about these guidelines is that they are situational and realistic. The Game means different things in different contexts, and we’ll be happiest and most effective when we adapt our approach to each situation, recognizing that The Game is a complex issue with complex social ramifications. Tribalistic “them vs us” thinking, as a one-size-fits-all approach, is going to be frustrating and less fruitful. Yes, sometimes we need the flamethrowers and barbs, but other times those approaches do more harm that good. If we recognize that we are setting and defending appropriate boundaries for The Game, then we’ll know when to use the big weapons, and when not to.