Is religion broken?

Is religion broken?

There’s a movement that attracts millions of people and encourages them to become their best selves—but it’s not a church.

Doug Muder
Abandoned rural church in Oregon, USA

abandoned rural church in Oregon US



Recently I've been reading about a movement that, as a church member, I envy.

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 diligently—and tens of millions do, clocking more than 20 hours of participation a week—become “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 programs—maybe even your own children—are 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 together—that’s what churches are supposed to do, isn’t it?

Religion is conspicuously absent from Reality is Broken—it 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 intersubjective—they have reality within the game and to the people who were “there,” in other words—but 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.

Photograph (above): Abandoned rural church in Oregon, USA (©