Peter Gray again on Religion as Play

Richard Dawkins in the preface to The God Delusion writes of how psychiatrists tried to persuade him not to use the word Delusion since it was a technical word. Happily he ignored them and the result is a wonderful title. For The God Delusion means literally The God from Play – a key insight.

Etymology of 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 acts 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. It is unclear when the modern technical use of the word delusion 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 conceptsIt 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 any culture. Psychiatry seeks to exclude culture and religion from it’s definition of delusion even though both are delusional systems in the sense that they are based on playing falsely.

Religion as a competitive game.

Browse the Internet and you will find many articles likening sport to religion. They all miss the point however, which is that religion is like sport. In fact religion is not just like sport; religion is a sport – a competitive game –  and the fact that it is not recognised as such is where the delusion comes in. Consider that music, choral singing, laughter, nativity scenes, myths, doll-like statues, imaginary friends, becoming and misattribution are all part of the religious experience and that they all have play elements. It becomes clear that religion consists of a series of play phenomena which are experienced as if they were real.

Peter Gray, a psychologist, has written beautifully along these lines, although he considers that competition is play which has been corrupted. He approaches religion as play, from an anthropological perspective using primitive hunter-gatherer groups as his model and he makes some wonderful points:

“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.”

“Fun, beauty, creativity, representation, imagination–these are the essences of

art, music, literature, theoretical science, and religion. These activities, which characterize our species everywhere, make us human. They all originated biologically in play. Play is the biological germ, which we inherited from our animal ancestors, which grew in us to make us human.”

“I have two main points to make …. The first is that all of religion has its roots in play. The cognitive skills that make religion possible are the skills of play,the most central of which is make-believe. The second point is that religion functions best when it does not stray too far from its playful origins. Religion that has lost its playfulness can be dangerous.”

“The truths of play are true as long and only as long as the play continues. Whenplay is over, or during time out, Suzie and Jimmy may say that they were onlypretending to be a witch and a troll; but they would never say that during play. Infact, 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 recognized 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.”

“Hunter-gatherer parents do not become upset when their children marry into another group and adopt religious beliefs and practices that differ from those they grew up with. To leave one band and join another, with different religious practices, is in this sense like leaving a group who are playing one game and joining another who are playing a different game. There seems to be an implicit acknowledgment, among these people, that religious stories, while in some ways special and even sacred, are in the end just stories.”

“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 asfictions, 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. Huntergatherers 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 humor, 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.”

“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.”


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    I   II    III  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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