Sunday is perhaps the best day do get some good old-fashioned thinking done. Empty wine bottles and last nights memories are overtaken by a day in which the coffee reigns. Thoughts today have been turned on to the topic of superstition, and our species enthrallment of it. It seems we are open to the possibility – if even only on a most basic level – of chance, of fate or of a higher power. You see it every day, engrained into our speech patterns and actions. Many non-believers still utter the terms ‘Thank God’, ‘Bless You’ or ‘God Forbid’. These expressions have passed down from the natural passage of language, and even though they do not in any way lead to evidence of any creator, more and more you hear the argument that on some level we are easily influenced by the supernatural explanations for everyday occurrences.
The prevalence of this is usually high in sport, when some viewers will feel that they personally can have an effect on a game by going through certain rituals; the illusion of control, of possessing ‘charms’ that will have a positive effect on outcomes. Some of us will salute a certain type of bird when we pass them. Some may hang dreamcatchers on their beds, others will think that picking up a penny will provide the finder with good luck. The list of superstitions is vast, and every community, country or culture will have unique examples. Be it Friday the 13th, the seven years of bad luck induced by breaking a mirror, crossing your fingers as a causal factor in the reception of good luck, cats possessing nine lives, or the very common belief that praying has any outcome at all.
Recently, the NY Times reported well on the subject in an article titled ‘In Defense of Superstition’ that argued that we should not fear the subject, but rather the opposite; it defines humanity.
Which isn’t to say magical thinking has no downside. At its worst, it can lead to obsession, fatalism or psychosis. But without it, the existential angst of realizing we’re just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us.
So to believe in magic — as, on some deep level, we all do — does not make you stupid, ignorant or crazy. It makes you human.
Are we that easily persuaded by the supernatural answers that claim to fill in the gaps of science, rationality or understanding? It would certainly seem so. On reading about the subject (albeit through the natural and self-induced haze that only occurs on a Sunday), I stumbled upon another article written by a Christian that used to be influenced by all sorts of notions, but has rejected all her previous superstitions by placing her faith in God.
I now leave it to God who determines everything in this world. I remember one verse in the Holy Book that says that God shall not change anything unless we try to change it ourselves. Let’s just believe in God and do not listen to superstition. Instill confidence that we are the ones who determine our lives—not superstition.
Which is interesting – and perhaps ironic – as I would argue that God is just one more folk story to add to the long list. The notion of God meets all the criteria:
There is a degree of scientific explanation on the subject which could help explain why the ‘tendency to falsely link cause to effect‘ can be explained by Evolution. New Scientist reports [via research undertaken by Micheal Shermer] that “Our brains are pattern-recognition machines, connecting the dots and creating meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B, and sometimes it is not,” he says. “When it isn’t, we err in thinking that it is, but for the most part this process isn’t likely to remove us from the gene pool, and thus magical thinking will always be a part of the human condition.”
So perhaps it isn’t so shocking that we have picked up superstitious traits. We seek it, and they’re easily found. For many, it seems that if gaps in knowledge exist then it is easier to fill them in with extraordinary explanations – rather than no explanation at all.
However, this does not mean that we should adhere to superstition as a worthwhile explanation for any event. To do so would be just as bad as those that blame freak weather patterns on homosexuality; misguided and dishonest. Certainly, some beliefs are worse than others, for example not wanting to spend the night in a hotel room marked 13 is not as extreme as wanting to treat your cancer via homeopathic ‘medicine’. Holding the belief that if you wear the right shirt when you watch a football match will provide a win for your team is not as bad as thinking that the planetary alignment cares about dreams for love or a recent job promotion, and so on.
On the subject of superstition, we the public can be gullible beings. Astrology and homeopathy are big business. This is where I would disagree with the NY Times article; sure, believing in a God or deity may give you confidence in certain situations. On the other hand, when faced with reality, supernatural belief is largely detrimental.
While even on an evolutionary basis, superstition can be explained, we as a species should reject all claims that are not based on evidence and reason, criteria that no amount of water based medicines or born again baptisms can meet.
Words: Jason A Murdock