The title of this post owes a hat-tip/finger-wag to David Mamet, who popularized this term-of-art in movies such as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. The long con is an elaborately set up confidence game, where an entire false world is set up, the mark is pulled in slowly, and eventually stripped of his assets. Mamet delights in telling stories involving con men, which makes it rather ironic that he's just published a very bad book, aimed at "apostate Jews", urging them to rejoin their tribe's 4000 year old collective game.
Religion is one of the oldest games in the book, and the interesting question for me is just what is the nature of it? Obviously it has elements of a con game played by memes on minds, and/or by priests on the laity. But is it a pure con, simply a parasitical trick that sponges off of honest human cognition and society? Or is it a vital symbiont, something that was indispensible in forming human civilization?
The militant atheists (Dawkins, PZ Myers) tend to be those who view religion as wholly parastical, but that's always seemed much too simplistic to me. Religion might have its roots in trickery but that trickery enabled the creation of civilization, which depends on the ability to extract surplus value to support classes of people who aren't engaged in a subsistence economy. While I'm no fan of priests, pharohs, popes, or aristocrats, I don't think we'd have a technological civilization without them. (Of course, whether we still need them is a separate question).
One difference between religion and a traditional con game is that the con never stops, there's no sting, no blow-off. The relationship is long-term, even unto death. A religion gloms onto a society, enables the creation of a priestly class, but hopefully doesn't choke the life out of it. If things go well, it makes that society grow and thrive.
To further mix metaphors, you can compare religions to infectious agents. Some are virulent and destructive, like Ebola. Death cults are like this, they do tremendous damage but are inherently short-lived. Other religions (Abrahamic monotheism) seem to have a more beneficial relationship with their hosts, actually increasing their fitness for the most part. Those are the ones that resemble long (actually infinite) cons. Keep the mark on the string and tithe them slowly.
[This post was inspired by a long discussion on the adaptivity of religion at Pharyngula, taking off from this interesting talk by Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky was talking about the relationship of religous tendencies and adaptive forms of mental illness, but I seem to have veered into a rather different area.]
[Update: as if on cue, just after I posted this reddit coughed up this story about a family of pastors in Canada who are living high on the hog while their congregation scrapes together pennies to do charity work. Ho-hum, I'm surprised it's considered news. Under my above typology, if a church gets too greedy and gets in the news by skimming too much off the congregation, they are moving from symbiote to parasite status, and the news media are trying to be the immune system...]