Debate Magazine

Fantasy Religions

Posted on the 10 March 2012 by Cris

CultureLab has posted an interview with sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, who in the past has done a great deal of work on religions in general and “cults” in particular. He now focuses on virtual realities and gaming. To research his most recent book, he spent 2300 hours playing World of Warcraft (WoW).

Fantasy Religions

When asked about the relationship between religions and WoW, Bainbridge noted that WoW religions aren’t taken seriously, which led him to this:

The horrendous question that always troubles me is, what if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being? What does science do then? Could there be some other stage of development in which we express ourselves through a kind of protean self in numerous realities with different levels of faith or suspension of disbelief appropriate to each of them?

This is an interesting way of putting things. Bainbridge seems personally troubled by the possibility that religions are factually false. Why else would it be “horrendous” and “troubling”?

There is a long tradition of considering this possibility and asking what it would mean if religions are false. Greek philosophers pondered the question and came to different conclusions. Plato favored illusions. Marx was untroubled by them. Nietzsche was much troubled by religious falsity or the death of God.

I also find curious Bainbridge’s question: What would science do if religious were false? My sense is not much. We needn’t speculate much about this because most scientists have already reached this conclusion. Humans routinely harbor all kinds of false beliefs, which science acknowledges and studies. Religious beliefs shouldn’t come in for any special treatment or dispensation.

Later in the interview, Bainbridge comments:

The difference between faith and fantasy might not have been very distinct in ancient times, and it’s possible that we will move towards a time when instead of religion, people’s hopes can be expressed in something that’s acknowledged to be a fantasy but also, on some level, sort of real. WoW might exemplify that kind of post-religious future.

It seems fairly certain there was no distinction between faith and fantasy in the past. These ideas hadn’t even been formulated. The very concept of “faith” is historically recent. Although the history of “faith” is complex, the idea that religion is a matter of belief or non-belief arose conjunction with the realization that ideas could be demonstrated to be either true or false, and that there were competing belief systems.

Once it was realized that ideas about the supernatural can be true or false and that not all these ideas can simultaneously be true, belief-choices had to be made. Hence the origins of “faith.”

In yet more ancient times, before the Neolithic transition, the supernatural wasn’t a matter of “belief” or “faith.” It was a way of (falsely) perceiving and (beneficially) making sense — what Nurit Bird-David aptly calls relational epistemology.


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