Explanation of Religion

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins muses about the origins of religion. (p174)

” If, then, religion is a by-product of something else, what is that something else. “

The answer to this question is simple. The ‘something else’ is Play. In fact to talk about religion and in the same breath, not use the concept of play, is to miss the point entirely. Religion consists of a whole series of play phenomena.

I list below, some of the play phenomena which are found in religious experience.

Death and Resurrection – Take as an example a group of boys playing at cowboys and indians. One “shoots” the other, and shouts “you’re dead.”  The other plays dead then after a few seconds puts his head up. “You’re still dead,” says the one and the other puts his head back down again. Then after a suitable interval the one says, “All right, you can come alive again.”  The ‘dead’ child becomes resurrected but never has to wait for three days.  The whole idea of Death and Resurrection comes straight from the boy’s playground.

Trinity – The idea of Trinity can be understood by thinking of a kitten playing with a leaf. The kitten is playing with the leaf as if it were a bird or a mouse. Leaf, bird and mouse are three in one. Another way to demonstrate the Trinity is to take a remote control device in your hand and say, “In play this could be a piece of wood. You hold it like this and it is a pistol, like this and it is a rifle barrel, like this a rifle butt, like this and it becomes a hand grenade. It could even be – a TV remote.”  There you have six in one where you only require three. You then pick up a wine goblet and say, “Fill this with red wine and the wine becomes blood.”  Pick up a biscuit and say, “And this becomes a piece of flesh.”  Playing the Mass has one further rule, namely that this is not a game. At the ting of a bell, The Real Presence is signified and the whole proceedings are to be understood as real. The only thing that is real about the Mass is that it is a game.

God – An imaginary friend as played with by 3 year olds.

Prayer – Talking to an imaginary friend.

Supernaturalism – Remember that in Play anything goes. Thus supernaturalism is natural so long as one understands it as Play. Take it seriously, then who’s deluded? Somewhere on the ‘net someone defined Christianity thus:

The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

Even this makes perfect sense if understood as Play.

Laughter – features strongly in some evangelical services where it is sometimes known as ” The Toronto Blessing.”    Laughter originated in primate evolution to signal play fighting, to signal that it is not real.

Delusion – The word delusion derives from the Latin de meaning from and ludere meaning to play. If you are playing and don’t know that you are playing, then that is delusion. If you are playing and think that it is real, then that is also delusion.


According to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) the words delude and delusion date from around 1420 when they were used in the sense of to play false. If I play you false then I seek through my words and actions to delude you into thinking that what I say and do are true and real. The word delude was used in the transitive sense of I delude you. I seek to pretend to you, to mislead, deceive, misinform, betray and cause you to believe falsely, hence delusion. Delusion was first used in the sense of madness, in 1552. Delude is used in the KJV of the Bible and in Shakespeare and always in the sense of betray or misinform causing a false belief.

Psychiatry and delusion
This was the case till more modern times when psychiatry tried to hijack the word delusion for it’s own ends in order to describe the false beliefs that occur in certain mental illnesses. It is unclear when this occurred. The word psychiatry first appeared in 1846 and schizophrenia in 1912. Psychiatry defines delusion as “A false personal belief that is not subject to reason or contradictory evidence and is not explained by a person’s usual cultural and religious concepts.” It is those last two items that obscure the diagnosis.

That culture and religion are delusional, because they are based on play, was demonstrated in 1938, by Johan Huizinga, the Dutch cultural historian, in his classic Homo Ludens (Playing Man) A Study of the Play-Element In Culture.

Culture and religion are both delusional systems, even though they are considered normative within the culture. So here we find ourselves in the modern psychiatric era, where the technical term delusion specifically excludes delusionary beliefs (which are based on play) that form part of our culture. Hardly surprising I suppose that the whole business is elusive in the extreme, since the word elusive also derives from the Latin word ludereto play.

Other writers have added to the theme. Peter Gray, the psychologist, puts it succinctly when he says;

The essence of all religion is faith. To have faith is to believe without evidence.

To believe without evidence is to make believe. To make believe is to play.

Possession – No problem with this. Just watch the actress Toni Collette in United States of Tara play the part of a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder. She is of course acting, but this is a case of art imitating life, as this is exactly what the MPD case is doing. The doctor who diagnoses this condition is dafter than his patient and the patient knows it, because even she, (it is usually a she) like any child at play, does not really believe it. She is make-believing or playing.

Peter Gray again:

“The truths of play are true as long and only as long as the play continues.             When play is over, or during time out, Suzie and Jimmy may say that they were only pretending to be a witch and a troll; but they would never say that during play. In fact, it would be impossible for them to say that during play, because the very act of saying it automatically stops the play and creates a time out. Religion, for the devout, has no recognised time out; so the devotees may have no opportunity to say that their religious beliefs are make-believe, even if at some level of consciousness they know that that this is so.”

“If children playing that they are witches and trolls did not know that they were just pretending, we would worry. We know, for children, that failure to distinguish

imagination from reality can be dangerous. We should know that this is even truer in the case of adults and religion.”

Mis-attribution – This is a characteristic of play as seen in Ouija, and also of religion. In a case of religious possession attribution is to the spirit and not to the real cause which is the possessed or the patient  or parishioner.

Dolls, figurines and statues – Little girls play with dolls. Dolls are also used in nativity plays and as figurines and statues for adults. Adults do not seem to recognise them as dolls.

Plays – Nativity plays combine many of the aspects of play: Dolls, dressing up, role playing, but they do not work well as play because of adult supervision.

Pilgrimage – consists of visiting the site of, say, where the Bible stories were played out in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Compare this with the young visitor who, upon arrival in Australia, makes a beeline to Ramsay Street where Neighbours is filmed.

Trance includes aspects of role-playing and misattribution. Time progression leads to  prophesy and revelation. Time regression leads to the living Jesus.

Playing the Eucharist – This is a game in which the idea is to pretend that one is at a meal with Jesus. However the particular rule of this game is that this is not a game. At the ting of a bell the Real Presence is signified and one is expected to experience this as being real and not AS IF this were real. Thus does play become delusion.

Imitation – The Imitation of Christ is a book which encourages the faithful to pretend to be like Christ as defined of course by Thomas à Kempis.

Competition could also be considered a byproduct of play. It adds a horrid dimension to religion. It seems that, when pure child-like mystical play is corrupted by competition, problems arise. Peter Gray (and Nicholas Wade in his book The  Faith Instinct) describe how early religion in hunter gatherers was child like and non competitive (Intrinsically religious). It was only when groups became larger and dependent on agriculture that a competitive system arose leading to the extrinsically religious who usually form the elite of society. Just as ball games form a spectrum from childlike play, all the way across to professional sport, business franchises, big money, power and politics, so religion follows the same path. Where power, money, control and political influence are the purpose of the game the people who are involved are extrinsically religious. It seems to me that play, considered across this spectrum, in toto, can form a complete model for religious experience including the paranoia, hate, murder and politics that go together with organised religion.

Stories – It may seem too great a leap to say that stories are a form of play, but such is the case. Margaret Meek Spencer has written about words and stories as play:

“You can understand it if you ask yourself, ‘When I read a story, where am I?’ I am not in the novel, not in a space ship, nor in the town where the author has set the story. But I am not in the real world either, for all that I am sitting in a chair. We agree to the illusion of being somewhere else. Successful early readers discover that the story happens like play. They enjoy a story and feel quite safe even with giants and witches because they know that a story is a game with rules.

Dennis Dutton in The Art Instinct (2009) puts it thus:

The same capacity for pretend-play we instinctively developed as children is exercised every time we pick up a novel or sit down to watch a television drama: we then enter into an imaginative set of coherent, internally related ideas, including ontologies and rules of inference, that make their own world.

In recent years there has been much vitriol directed against religion. Much of it is justified. Read Christopher Hitchins’ God is Not Great : How Religion Spoils Everything and you will find a smashing refutation of all things religious that leaves one breathless. What is not addressed however, is what is going on. Much of the world’s population must understand the world in terms of a story or narrative. A story is a form of play which is told throughout the land and these stories form the basis of our culture. They explain how things are, how things work and what to do in certain situations.

Their are several kinds of stories: gossip and rumours which are about real people, fiction which is about invented people and events, and religious stories which are invented stories of people and events which people take to be true. These stories are used not to escape from, but to confront and cope with the dangers and difficulties of a life that is not always easy.

The New Testament seems to be more like an historical novel combining an occasional real person e.g. Herod and an occasional real event e.g. plagues of locusts.

Prophesy and Revelation – These are simply stories of the future, reflecting the tortured imaginings and dreams of early Christians. No one can tell the future (bar the seasons and this afternoon’s weather) but imagination can make it so. Since play is involved, anything goes. A story well told, taking place in the future, can be perceived as real. Thus prophesy and revelation have gripped the minds of men and led to compelling delusions which are acted upon.

Tolerance of incongruity – Children when playing come up with the daftest of ideas. An understanding adult understands this and                                                                                                                 tolerates it. So it should be with the children of god.

Music – Features greatly in church services. A friend Marie writes on music as play. She knows her scales intimately and I suspect that this is what allows her to play with them.

“How do you remain forever young, mentally retain eternal youth?  The secret lies in maintaining the ability to play throughout life.  You don’t become childish, but childlike. As an adult this characteristic becomes more and more difficult – time constraints, embarrassment, life’s woes, other pressures.  But the necessity of play helps keeps one human, maintains a sense of humour, eases interaction with other people, ensures lightheartedness and a happy escape from reality.  I ‘play’ the piano, I ‘play’ music, you ‘play’ the jukebox’, you ‘play’ a disc, your itunes,, ipods. I listen to music being ‘played’.  Music has the ability to transform you, to transport you, to take you out of yourself, to other realms, to dreams, to raise you up, lift the spirits and the imagination.

Music tells a story.  ‘It is the lingua franca spoken by angels.’  (I think that’s a quote!).  It is said that architecture is frozen music. All the arts are a form of play, to keep the masses amused, to keep ourselves amused, to raise us from the mundane.   It needs to be fun. Music can be funny, serious, sad, tragic.  Think Victoria Wood, George Formby, think “Ode to Joy’, think ‘When I Grow Too Old to Dream, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘When You Go Away’, “If Ever You Should Leave Me’.  We laugh, dance, ponder, cry, even become depressed, depending on how involved we ‘become’ in the game. 

Music has the same qualities as children’s play:  you lose track of reality, you soar to the heights of the angelic chords, you become involved.  And then it’s over.  Reality.”

Singing – The same friend writes:

The Choir  –  At play

I’ve been in choirs most of my adult life, still am, and I can assure you it’s the best game in town. We, the choir, are all ‘would–be singers.’  We sing our lungs out at any venue we perform at, no matter how humble it may be.  We ‘become’ singers. We are Nellie Melba, Pink, Lady Gaga, Pavarotti, no shyness, no holding back, no “Ooh, I can’t really do that.”  We play at it.  We pretend.  We reinvent ourselves for a couple of hours, imagining that we are performers of the highest calibre.  We can’t really hear ourselves.  If you recorded us individually, you’d probably be in for a shock, a rude awakening, or at least we would be.  But, hey, it’s just fun, it’s a game, it’s to be thoroughly enjoyed.  Real singers WANT to hear themselves – they’d be miffed in a choir, couldn’t ‘play’ properly. So, we make a game of it, become singers, sing in front of an audience, sometimes imaginary, we perform, act, we do it, just like the real thing.  Who needs talent  – don’t spoil the fun.

When a performance is over we’re flat as a tack, game over, reality check, back to the mundane, to our ordinary lives.  So, for a couple of hours each week, choir practice becomes time off, game time, existential living, we ‘become’ children again.  No prizes, no winning, no tests – just fun.  A game.

You might as well tell a man who likes to play with himself, to stop doing it because it is not real. Many religious people are in the same category. They like being religious because it is fun and they gets a lot of pleasure from it. I even know of atheists who like to sing in church choirs.

In conclusion

• People who are religious are playing.

• They don’t know that they are playing and that is why they are deluded.

• The words delude, delusion, delusory, illusion, illusory, elusive and ludicrous, all derive from the Latin words de meaning from and ludere meaning to play.

• The God Delusion means the God from Play.

• The origins of the word delude in English give a clue to what is really going on.

• Religion forms a part of culture and is therefore playful.

• Pure child like play (intrinsic religion) becomes corrupted to competitive play (extrinsic religion).

• Religions did not evolve. They are the result of competitive success which can easily be mistaken for evolution. Each organised religion is playing it’s own version of Monopoly.

It seems to me that since clergy are illusionists, they should be subject to the same restraints and the same code of practice which apply to professional illusionists. These are enunciated and articulated by The Magic Circle, and one of the rules is that no professional magician shall hold himself out as performing real miracles. The audience is to understand that even though they do not know how a trick is performed, it is after all only a trick and is to be regarded as entertainment. This was why the magician James Randi pursued Uri Geller, because Uri had broken the code and was claiming that he had supernatural powers when he bent spoons. Unfortunately Randi did not show us how the trick was done because to do so would have broken another rule, namely that you must not tell the public how the trick is done. Others are not so fastidious and several TV programs have done just that e.g. Penn and Teller. I once saw a Chinese conjuring show where it was demonstrated how a man appeared to levitate on a stretcher. Presumably the authorities had calculated that it was better to be a spoilsport than to have the public believe it was true. Still, the destruction of the illusion is saddening.

Were it simply a matter of child like play, there would be no problem. But the consequences of allowing illusionists to delude large sections of the community, and to set one group against the other, are so dire that it is time that something was done about it. I propose that all religionists be required to submit to such a code.

Finally, a quote, again from Peter Gray:

“Religion, properly conceived, is a grand and potentially life-long game in which people use the basic structures of the game–the story outlines, beliefs, and rituals–along with their own creative additions and modifications, to make sense of their real world and real lives. The stories and beliefs may be understood as fictions, but they are sacred fictions because they represent ideas and principles that are crucial to living in the real world and they may be held through all of life.

It is not surprising, from this view, that religious stories and beliefs everywhere reflect and elaborate on ideas and themes that are crucial to the society in which the devotees live their real lives. Hunter-gatherers depend on principles of equality and sharing, and so it is natural that their deities are not rulers but equals, who contribute and sometimes fail to contribute, as they will. Hunter-gatherers also depend, every day, on the whims of nature, which they cannot control, so it is not surprising that their deities are whimsical. The best way to deal with unpredictability is through humility and humour, and their religions foster those traits. Their task is to embrace nature, not to control it, and their religious play with the spirits of the natural world help them to do that.

With agriculture, religion changed. Agriculturalists attempt to control nature, and so the gods of agriculture are controlling gods. With agriculture, and with the land ownership and accumulation of wealth that accompanies it, egalitarianism lost its sway and concepts of lords and masters, and of servants and slaves, emerged. It is not surprising, then, that hierarchical concepts of the spirit world emerged in post-agricultural religions–peaking in the Middle Ages, in the dominant monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity. At a time when most people were servants, it was only natural that religious stories and beliefs would focus on the value of servitude and duty to lord and master, and that God would be understood as the supreme master, the king of kings, lord of lords. Such beliefs gave meaning to a life of servitude and helped the rulers to justify their power.”

Those who are interested in following this up, could begin at:

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) is available online at the University of Glasgow.   

Peter Gray’s essays on play may be found at       IV       V         VI

My own musings can be found starting at page 8 on my home page and take it from there.

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