DO WE REALLY NEED SUPERSTITIONS?

April 6th, 2012

Some delusions we can do without.

One of the things I always find interesting is the persistence of spiritual/magical thinking* in Western culture, even – or especially – among people who no longer formally practice religion.

I’ve argued, for example, in an old (2010) post titled “My Sweat for Your Sins,” that the ancient spiritual logic of sacrifice survives nowadays in seemingly secular public events such as endurance runs or bike rides for charity – and even in medicalized behaviors such as anorexia.

I’ve noted too, in last year’s “How We Have Changed,” that our ways of public grieving (with flowers, candles, images and relics of the deceased) hark back to ancient sacrifices and sympathetic magic, now more than ever.

What I haven’t done is to render a judgement on this trend. That’s partly because it seems to be an automatic, atavistic substitute for that old opiate, religion: Certain soothing religious rituals now are missing from our lives — perhaps even culturally frowned upon — and so we unconsciously fill the gap with more ancient, less troublesome stuff. We self-medicate, and we feel better.

But it’s not that simple, is it? I was reminded of that today when the NYT ran an op-ed by some guy promoting his book on superstition.

… without [magical thinking], 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.

Reading that I thought: How pat and comforting. How prettily packaged for all those modern mass-market readers (women, mostly) who spend small fortunes every year on homeopathic pills, astrologers, palmists, gurus, crystals, acupuncturists, tantric consultants, and various other superstition-based products and services. They all must be nodding smugly now at the thought that they are, after all, not stupid, ignorant or crazy (as skeptical loved ones may have averred) but merely human.

And by this “merely human” logic, of course, those of us who try not to follow superstitious practices are in some way inhuman.

I don’t wish to make more of some fake book than it deserves, but its central idea that self-medicating with bullshit makes us happy seems pervasive now, and yet it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Most instances of magical and superstitious thinking, even if they are somewhat comforting, are not just incompatible with a modern, scientific culture — they are unnecessary. We grow out of immature habits of thought (e.g., racism) all the time, personally and culturally. Why not also for this stuff? Do we really need to cling to the belief that “13″ is unlucky, and pretend that the 13th floors of buildings are really the 14th floors? Do we really need to believe in the power of relics such as celebrities’ autographs? And as for the specific themes I’ve discussed on this site: Couldn’t we organize public charity events that don’t so closely resemble flagellants’ processions? Could we not, in our grievings for the dead, dispense with candles and flowers and other primitive-minded props and offerings?

We may not be able to  grow out of such habits all at once (and in my previous post I suggested that there is such a thing as growing up too fast). But ultimately we do need, in the words of St. Paul of all people, to put away childish things.

Unfortunately in our marketized culture, with its customer-is-king ethos, it pays to encourage people to do precisely the opposite.

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*By superstitious or magical thinking I don’t mean belief in the paranormal per se; I mean everyday beliefs that derive from ancient magical logic (“I always wear my lucky red shirt on game days”) and that we know, intellectually, are silly, but practice anyway.

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