It would be a brave writer who hazarded a guess at something that bound all the millions of readers of TIME magazine together, but here is one. Every person holding this publication, or absorbing it online, has played a game — and not one of them can accurately remember when they first did so. Play is elemental to being human. All of us, when tiny children, tossed colored balls around, or watched lights dance before our eyes, or marveled at the patterns on our mothers' skirts. All of us once threw a pebble, a stick or a ball; all of us, sooner or later, enjoyed playing with a sibling or a friend, hopscotching down a pavement, running along a dirt track. All of us sooner or later formed teams — though usually something far less formal and serious than that implies — to compete (without knowing the word or its meaning) in games of skill or chance. We have all played games; play is part of what and who we are. "Play cannot be denied," wrote the great Dutch sociologist and historian Johan Huizinga in 1938, in his magisterial book Homo Ludens. "You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play."
Sometimes I argue in my mind against the new generation of professional atheists, and the arguments go something like this. First, if 90-odd percent of Americans say they believe in God, it's unhelpful to dismiss them as silly. Second, when they check that "believe in God" box, a great many people are not talking about the God the atheists rail against—a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, who lays down inexplicable laws about sex and diet, punishes violators with the stinking fires of hell and raises the fleshly bodies of the dead. It is impossible to measure what people do mean when they talk about God—to tease their individual experiences of transcendence apart from what culture and catechism teaches them—but according to a new survey by Baylor University, just about half of Americans believe that God intervenes in worldly affairs. Less than half characterize God as "punishing." What's more, even some of those who do envisage the God described above also believe all kinds of other stuff. They chant mantras in yoga class. They believe in eternal salvation for people from faith traditions other than theirs. The problem with religion is not belief itself, which even in the most orthodox believers is inconsistent, but the (violent or oppressive) enforcing of one truth over another.