Freethinkers commonly consider religion to be a great evil, and they attribute the popularity of religion to plain ol' ignorance. Religious adherence is considered a negative trait that stems from human vices, rather than virtues.
But I believe the budding field of gamification
can offer a far more balanced understanding of religion's appeal, and the psychological benefits it offers.
What Is Gamification?"Gamification is the use of game elements and game design techniques in a non-game context." ~ Prof. Kevin Werbach (http://twitter.com/kwerb)
In other words, gamification looks at what makes games appealing and engaging, then uses these elements in applications beyond gaming. Leaderboards, for example, are a common game element that has been used by companies and educational institutes to encourage healthy competition amongst employees and students, respectively.
The psychological influence of these game elements allows us to gain a better understanding of human emotions and motivations. What gamification has revealed is that these game elements do not have an influence on us only within a game context, but can be applied to other areas of our lives.
Religion is not the deliberate application of game elements to philosophy, but its appeal is that it implicitly contains these game elements. Religion is, therefore, much more appealing than philosophy in making sense of the world and our role in it.
Game Elements In Religion
The essential elements of religion as a "game":1- A simple, comprehensive worldview (Game Environment):
There's just too much detail in the real world for the human mind to grasp, and for millennia the human race didn't know a whole lot about the world. This often leads to anxiety and feelings of insecurity. That's why old maps used to have "Here Be Dragons" in uncharted areas: it gives us comfort making sense of things we don't yet understand.
Religion offers a simplification of the world that makes it much easier to navigate. Religion provides answers and promises certainties when philosophy raises questions and cultivate doubts.2- An instruction manual:
Most (if not all) religions come with a set of instructions or commandments, either from scripture or the teachings of a religious figure. They help individuals (players) make sense of the world and what they need to do with their time on earth. Religion offers guidance and can help cultivate a sense of purpose and build confidence. Trying to figure out what the world is like on your own can be extremely intimidating and "if only life comes with an instruction manual"
is a common grievance in modern society.3- Clear goals (Game Objectives):
This is essential for productivity and general human well-being. You need to know what you want to do and when you've done it. You won't feel satisfied with your life if you lack goals and the sense of accomplishment.4- Progression (Game Levels):
Human happiness is strongly tied to progress. We get bored by routines and always aspire for greater things. Religion helps feed this need with rituals to perform, as well as lots of scriptural knowledge to acquire. 5- Challenges:
Although many religious folk complain about temptation, life would be extremely dull if the good was easy to acquire. Temptation is a challenge. It makes life harder and, therefore, more exciting.6- Good guys and bad guys:
Saints and sinners. Believers and heathens. These labels help develop one's identity, give expression to values, develop role models and guide one's actions. Morality isn't about abstract principles, but the application of these principles in human form by human agents.
Religion offers an easy way of classifying people, whether by their beliefs or their actions. It makes it easier to know what to do and what to avoid, who to associate with and who to distance ourselves from.7- Rewards and punishments:
The path taken within a game is largely defined by the rewards offered and punishments meted. They help condition player behavior and assist decision making. Religion relies heavily on rewards and punishments to control human conduct. The advantage to adherents is that it simplifies decision making. X is an obligation, Y is a sin. It becomes a lot easier to know what the right decision is.
You can probably tell that all these elements are valuable for life on earth, whether you choose to experience them through religion or a secular philosophy (that may heavily rely on art and storytelling to compensate for the myths and rituals found in religion).
The point of this article isn't to overlook the dangers and damage religion can cause to individuals and societies. There is ample evidence that religions often have negative consequences. But rather than trying to convince the religious to think for themselves, consider different philosophies and question their religious beliefs, it might be useful to gamify freethinking so that it can be equally appealing to religion.
Besides, freethinking should not be about abandoning religion, but the promotion of individual thinking and open-mindedness. In the same way games can be deconstructed to the elements that form them, and using some elements to promote positive behavior, religion should be deconstructed so that the positive elements are cherished and the negative elements are challenged.
What are your thoughts on the appeal of religion and ways to promote freethinking?