Saturday, September 28, 2013

ANS -- Is religion broken?

This is a really provocative idea.  I don't know how useful it is though.  Given that it's from UU World, the comments are well-thought out and non-combative. 
It's about the purpose of religion and how it can fulfill that purpose without insisting you believe something you aren't comfortable with. 
Find it here:   

abandoned rural church in Oregon US

Is religion broken?

There's a movement that attracts millions of people and encourages them to become their best selves­but it's not a church.
By Doug Muder

It provides awe-inducing experiences for its participants and creates environments in which they can "become the best version of [themselves], the most likely to help at a moment's notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long as it takes, to get back up after failure and try again." It encourages them to reorient "toward intrinsic reward" rather than the "global hedonic treadmill" of "money, fame, and beauty," and provides them opportunities to meet and form relationships with others who share these values in order to cooperate on projects of enormous scale.

If only my church could do all that!

And if we're talking salvation-by-character, again I feel outshone. Those who pursue this path diligently­and tens of millions do, clocking more than 20 hours of participation a week­become "super-empowered hopeful individuals" by developing these four "superpowers":
  • Urgent optimism, "the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success."
  • Tight social fabric. The group activities promote trust "that [other participants] will spend their time with us, they will play by the same rules, value the same goals" with the result that participants "build up bonds and trust and cooperation."
  • Blissful productivity. "We know . . . that we're actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work."
  • Epic meaning. "[We] love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions, to planetary-scale stories."

If you're not envious yet, consider who this movement is attracting: predominantly (but not exclusively) the young, precisely that "none-of-the-above" generation that every religion seems to have a problem with. The teens and 20-somethings you're not seeing in your pews may well be participating in this movement on Sunday mornings, and many of the children in your religious education programs­maybe even your own children­are wishing they could be.

If you can't imagine what I might be talking about, and you're wondering how you missed such a widespread faith that generates so much participation, you're looking in the wrong direction. I'm quoting game designer Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken, whose TED talks have been viewed by millions. She's not promoting a church, she's describing the culture of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, Halo, or Guild Wars, and detailing what lessons physical institutions can learn from their popularity.

Computer-generated virtual worlds are so attractive, McGonigal explains, because reality is broken.

The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

Fulfilling human needs, teaching, inspiring, engaging, bringing people together­that's what churches are supposed to do, isn't it?

Religion is conspicuously absent from Reality is Broken­it has no index entry, and I don't remember seeing the word at all. But as religion and popular culture scholar Rachel Wagner put it:

[McGonigal] refers only occasionally to religion, but the main interest here is how she suggests, without saying so directly, that gaming can work like religion today, and may already be doing so.

In the chapter "Becoming Part of Something Bigger Than Ourselves," McGonigal discusses meaning ("the belief that our actions matter beyond our own individual lives"), awe ("what we feel when we recognize that we're in the presence of something bigger than ourselves"; such an emotion "doesn't just feel good, it inspiresus to do good" and is "a call to collective action"), service ("every effort by one player must ultimately benefit all the other players"), and reverence ("the expression of profound awe, respect and love, or veneration").

In her 2012 TED talk, she tells a personal story of healing from the lingering effects of a concussion. The constant headaches and fogginess left her unable to do any of the things that had made her life enjoyable, until she bottomed out with the thought: "I am either going to kill myself, or I'm going to turn this into a game." The result was SuperBetter, a simple game to create a context for recovery and to engage herself and her loved ones in a narrative of progress.

Within a few days of starting to play, that fog of depression and anxiety went away. It just vanished. It felt like a miracle. Now, it wasn't a miracle cure for the headaches, for the cognitive symptoms; that lasted more than a year and it was the hardest year of my life by far. But even when I still had the symptoms, even while I was still in pain, I stopped suffering.

Again, the language of religion: miracle, and the sermon-worthy distinction between pain and suffering.

Reality is Broken may not have been written as an overt critique of contemporary religion, but the dots are easy to connect. If large numbers of young people (and many of their elders) are going to virtual worlds to find meaning, awe, service, reverence, and miracles, and if the corresponding online communities are where they feel most empowered to become the best versions of themselves, then religion is broken.

Scattered through McGonigal's book are fourteen "fixes"­lessons that real institutions and organizations can learn from games. They are easy to find and not hard to translate into a church context. Fix #1 builds on a definition of game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" and says, "Compared to games, reality is too easy." This corresponds to the frequently-cited observation that churches can gain loyalty by demanding more of their members rather than less.

Rather than go through McGonigal's fixes one-by-one, I'll take a step back and ask a larger question. On the surface it may seem absurd that online gaming could rival religion, because the two don't even belong to the same category. But if online gaming actually does compete with religion, have we misconceived what religion is and does?

Traditional religion presents itself as a description of an objective reality invisible to the five senses. Particularly in fundamentalism, the actuality of the teachings is paramount: God is real, Heaven is real, and something objectively real is happening in rituals and sacraments. Believing in this unseen reality is the core of the faith. Conversely, disbelieving that unseen reality is the core message of fundamentalism's most vociferous enemies, militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They agree that the debate is about reality, and that religion is done for if its reality claims can be defeated.

By contrast, everyone knows that World of Warcraft is made up. The avatars you meet there may represent real people, and the adventures you have with those people are intersubjective­they have reality within the game and to the people who were "there," in other words­but no such place as Azeroth exists, and whatever treasures you gain or wounds you suffer there don't follow you back to your real life.

You could imagine meeting a Warcraft fundamentalist, who believes the game provides a window into an alternate dimension as real as this one. Perhaps that belief would make his experience of the game more intense, but it seems like unnecessary baggage; for the vast majority, the game works fine without it. The fundamentalist's opposite, a Dawkins-style unbeliever, would convince no one to leave the game, because the reality of Azeroth has never been the point. Azeroth functions quite well as a virtual world, a setting for groups of people to test their abilities and have memorable experiences together. Its reality is irrelevant.

If games can rival religions, then you have to wonder to what extent heaven and hell have been functioning as virtual worlds all along. Perhaps they are best understood as the setting for Christianity's backstory, the cosmic war for souls that gives the quests of present-day believers their epic scope. If that's so, then arguments against their reality are not going to convince anyone to stop playing the game.

Those who find such comparisons offensive may imagine that I am being flippant or unserious. So let me apply these ideas to the most serious subject I can think of: death.

In the past four years, I have seen both of my parents decline and die, and my wife has survived a life-threatening illness. Both my parents believed in heaven. After Mom died, Dad took comfort in the belief that they would be together again someday, and was correspondingly disturbed at the idea that, given my lack of belief, I might not join them.

During this time I have been highly motivated to re-examine my beliefs about death and an afterlife. The longer I considered the topic (some of which has played out in previous essays for UU World) the more my attention flowed away from questions of the reality of an afterlife (where there is so little evidence there's not much to think about) and towards the human needs that visions of the afterlife serve. What was terrifying about death, I realized, wasn't the possibility that I might cease to exist. Instead, the terror came from the possibility that the looming presence of death might suck all the meaning out of the stories that animate my life here and now.

In other words, what I missed from the belief system my parents had taught me as a child wasn't the reality of heaven, but the virtuality of it. I needed to replace the role it had played in the stories I tell about my life. (I've discussed that re-narration process in detail elsewhere.)

So in addition to all the specific fixes our religious institutions can borrow from game designers, competition from computer games can help us reframe what religion does: we are not competing with science (or other religions) to describe reality. We are trying to give our members the best possible platforms on which to construct the stories of their lives. We "win" when members envision their lives in ways that are fulfilling, meaningful, and engaging. Everyone wins when our members are challenged and inspired to become their best selves.

Maybe that's what religion has been about (or should have been about) all along.


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  • Share Avatar   getz 5 days ago
    It hinges on people actually believing what they're told. While the literal beliefs of individuals may differ, the only people who don't literally believe any religious claims are the ones who literally aren't religious.
    You can promote a philosophy of helping people envision fulfilling, meaningful and engaging lives, but if it disregards the connection to reality, the only association it has to religion is equivocal. If the literal beliefs are kept with the notion that they help provide meaningful and engaging lives, then it's just rationalizing deception. The only people who would give credit to any religious phenomena would be those who were deceived.

    Anyways, religion doesn't leave gaming. People just come up with new in game superstitions that established religious organizations can't capitalize on. Kind of like how religions haven't capitalized on the repeated underwear use of athletes, so they settled for convincing people to pray before, during and after games. Which custom is older? The sacred article of clothing, or the gestures to sacred beings? Which will last longer? Chances are both have outlived plenty of religions and will still be around once the modern ones have been warped beyond recognition. The beliefs are still there, and in the same way the modern religions have outlived their old competition, in the future we might find people have traded strong feelings about visiting a certain place after death with strong feelings about who should enter a building before a raid. Maybe a new real world sect will emerge around that time, and the gamers will get to lament the fact that the silly beliefs that colored their entertainment experience are spilling out into the "real" world. see more
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  • Avatar   vinsb 5 days ago
    I focus upon "We are trying to give our members the best possible platforms on which to construct the stories of [our lives]" I wonder whether "best possible platforms" does the job of describing our task. I am now close to 83 years old. I do not think that it was a platform that saved me from nihilism and atheism.
    I think that it was a model of Divinity whose purpose I could strive to be in harmony with. That model was provided by Alfred North Whitehead's process vision of Divinity. Here is a living God. A God who provides a lure for an embryonic event to shape its becoming and who - once the event has reached completion - prehends the best of that event to make it part of God's becoming.
    With this faith I know that my salvation is to be a co-creator with the best in the universe. Herbert F. Vetter - Minister at Large, 'Emeritus', First Parish in Cambridge, MA - ends the chapter on Whitehead in his 2007 book "Is God Necessary ?" with these words from Whitehead :
    ""God is in the the universe, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether ,water, earth, human hearts.......In so far as we partake of this creative process do we partake of the divine, of God and that participation is our immortality ........Our true destiny as cocreator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur ,"
    A number of times each day I pray that my becoming may be open to the Spirit. In addition after giving thanks at the end of the day, I pray that my children and again myself may be open to that Spirit.

    Vinson Bronson
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  • Avatar   DanielNoel 5 days ago
    Do not forget the possibility that playing the game may have a spiritual meaning. After all, most religions, unlike Christianity, teach that non-human entities have spiritual connections to their souls. Many religions invite their adherents to adopt specific body positions or mindsets to establish some spiritual connection. It stands to reason that intensely playing some game may do that too. Maybe the 21st century is initiating a spiritual revival through machines. Go figure... Love,
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  • Avatar   Caleb Ewing 2 days ago
    I agree. i can see how online-gaming supplies interest and meaning. I think it has to do with the scale of the created worlds and the significance of one's actions within them. I recently abandoned my UU congregation because it wasn't meeting these important was way too inward-focused and parochial. Not what I signed up for as a Unitarian.
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  • Avatar   shaktinah 2 days ago
    As someone who plays online games I think the author is right in his characterization of how players behave online, but I don't know how applicable it is to the real world. The reason why I like these games is precisely because they're limited. It's a small world, only as big as the game developers have created, where I have the illusion of control. So even if the monster defeats you and/or you fail at a quest, you can get up and try again *knowing* full well that it *is* possible to triumph eventually, because the game is designed to allow you to do that. You know that it's possible for "good to overcome evil" if you only try. There are no such guarantees in the real world. That in itself will discourage "urgent optimism," I think. (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)
    I believe the limited nature of online gaming also helps to promote "tight social fabric" and "blissful productivity." I real life I often get overwhelmed with the number of obligations impinging on me. So I retreat to a game where there are only a limited number of goals to achieve at any given time. In-world, the identities that separate us in this life - race, class, gender, nationality, religion, etc - do not matter. What matters is that players are the "good guys" and we're fighting the "bad guys." That shared identity bonds players so that they behave more selflessly. But it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly *for members within your perceived group.* And that feeling of unity only exists because of a common enemy provided by the game developers. Moreover, in the real world the "good guys" aren't always totally good and the "bad guys" aren't always totally bad. In the game, I do not stop to ponder whether the bad guys are really just "misunderstood" or how it is that they got to be how they are - monsters are just monsters to be slain - whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this world. Such moral ambiguities tend to dampen "epic meaning."
    We can try to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality, and I'm actually not against that - it might be a good thing to do - but there will always be these huge differences between the in-world of games and this world.
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  • Avatar   James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    Emerson writes, "There is a crack in all that God has made." Yes, reality is broken. the religious community and all its people are broken, too. Nothing ever was without cracks.
    The purpose of games is to provide a virtual alternative reality in place of the cracked world. Is it too harsh to call this a life distraction?
    The purpose of the religious community is to bring people together to address the cracks in the world, including their own and their community's cracks.Its purpose again and yet again is to seek to re-create, re-form, and trans-form the cracked world, its cracked peoples, and their own cracked community toward serving deeper loving relationships, greater justice, and more compassion. James Luther Adams calls this "the holy thing in life."
    As a religious community this is our common covenant, discovered in our promises to one another, to others in the world, to our entire inter-related Earth community, and to the Fount from which all being arises and flows. This is no game!
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  • Share › Avatar Guest James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    James, you comment makes the most sense to me of all the comments. Thank you. Linda
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  • Avatar   Linda Hoffecker James A. Hobart 2 days ago
    James, your comment makes the most sense to me of all the comments. Thank you. Linda


Book to note: 'Muhammad: The Story of a Prophet and Reformer' New book for children shares stories from the life of Islam's founder. By Michelle Richards 9.16.13

Belief is the enemy of faith A new interfaith, multifaith spirituality is struggling to be born. By Peter Morales 9.16.13

Resources for exploring your animal contradictions An annotated guide to books and other resources. By Kimberly French 9.9.13
Recently I've been reading about a movement that, as a church member, I envy.

Photograph (above): Abandoned rural church in Oregon, USA (© See sidebar for links to related resources.

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