Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Game Show Theory

I was speaking with a friend the other day, who happens to be involved in an inter-religious dialogue group. She told me that the theme for this year's gathering would discuss pluralism, and that (among other things) one of the participants was looking to write a sketch based on the game show Let's Make a Deal. That got me thinking....

Now, I don't pretend to understand "game theory," and I expect I'm taking the concept behind Let's Make a Deal in a wholly different direction than is intended by the participant in the inter-religious dialogue, but thinking through the mechanics behind the show, I'm working on a concept that I'm going to call "game show theory."

Using Let's Make a Deal to illustrate the concept of pluralism, the subject ("contestant" just doesn't sound right, even considering the whimsical nature of this enterprise) begins with a certain belief system. We'll call this "Religion Number 1." Monty Hall now gives the subject the option of keeping the belief system he/she already has, or trading it in for another belief system, which we'll call "Religion Number 2." The subject does not know the intricacies of this belief system until he/she has decided to choose it, at which point the subject may decide whether or not the new system (assuming it was chosen) is right for him/her. The subject may choose to "walk away" and keep his/her present belief system at any time, or the subject may hope that Monty Hall will make an offer for a "Religion Number 3." This process may repeat for as many times as the subject wishes, so long as Monty Hall keeps making new offers. However, at some point the subject dies, at which point no new offers can be made.

Alternatively, pluralism might be likened to Deal or No Deal. There are many religions to choose from, and the subject chooses one. That religion is the subject's to keep, unless he/she decides to make a deal for another offer. The subject then learns about some of the religions that were not chosen. As these religions are eliminated, the "banker" proposes a deal for a new religion, using the information learned about the eliminated religions in an attempt to make the deal more appealing to the subject. The subject may then accept the deal, or continue to eliminate other religions in an attempt to get the best possible final result. However, the subject may come to regret his/her choice, as the options-not-chosen are revealed and eliminated.

Of course, there are a number of flaws to both of these analogies (not least of which being that these games don't enable a person to go back to a religion he/she once abandoned, which of course happens in real life all the time), and I don't really think that matters of religion are as simplistic as "just choose one." These matters are tied up in cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and (dare I say it?) the calling of God. But the fact that there are all these competing belief systems out there is a fact of life that believers of all stripes must deal with.


  1. As a former student of theology in college, and as an atheist, I've always been amazed by how many people treat their chosen religion as, basically, an all-in gamble. They're gunning for salvation they're hoping that the current religion they're betting on is the right one. For these people, criticisms of and doubts about their religion are often met with anger because you're effectively telling them they've made a bad bet.

    Of course, this is in opposition to people who have a particular spiritual connection to their religion regardless of the expected afterlife reward.

    Still, the degree to which reward plays into religion, both for the genuine believers and for those simply seeking immortality insurance, has always been suspect to me. But then I'm one of those people that sympathizes with those who argue that atheists who act morally without a spiritual backdrop are in some ways more pure than their spiritual counterparts.

  2. Actually, as a believer, I've been somewhat of this opinion, too (i.e., religion as gamble), which is part of why I put this post together, even while saying that I don't think it's that simple. It's a major criticism I have of "Pascal's Wager": it acts as though "getting into heaven" is the main (if not only) reason one should follow a particular religion.

    As a believer, I certainly do not dispute the appeal of such heavenly reward, but I do definitely maintain that if our faith means anything, then it needs to mean something in the here and now, and I fear that many believers ignore that.

    I also agree with your distaste at the attitudes with which believers treat non-believers or doubters (you've probably noticed this if you've read my immediately previous post, although the "us vs. them" mentality I wrote about there is admittedly slightly different).

  3. Your effortless melding of Rawl's Original Position, the Prisoner's Dilemma and Interfaith dialogue makes my head spin. In an awed sort of fashion.



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