Thursday, October 10, 2013

On Superstitions

For how many more generations must we put up with superstition?

A superstition is an illogical belief that an effect was created by a supernatural cause, or to put it more plainly, it is a desire to believe in nonsense.

There is a very real reason for superstition to exist, it is probably something that helped us evolve, it also seems to be inherent in our being, although mostly socially engineered. When we were primitive humans, huddled together near our grassy plain, living in caves, (or whatever,) it made perfect sense to be leery of rustling grasses, for we may soon be eaten by a lion. Some have argued that those who were more superstitious may have proven more likely to survive, for if you simply ran away every time you heard the grass rustle, you will have likely survived the odd hungry lion, for the multitude of times it was the wind creating the sound. (Do cowards live longer than the brave?) So then you would have taught your offspring to fear the rustling grass as well, which in turn would keep your cautious genes going, whereas the less cautious would have, at least part of the time, gotten eaten by the hungry lion. So the inherent, evolutionary fear crosses over into social engineering.
Moving forward in time now, through the various societies, religions, institutions and ideas that have prevailed, we discover that most superstitions are entirely socially engineered and not at all based in reality, (although some are.) Let us take a look at common modern superstitions, where they came from and what we believe about them. (And let us not talk about the biggest superstitions of them all, Gods and religions.)

Knocking on Wood: If you're not familiar, the basics of he apparent phenomenon are as follows: If one has the urgency to utter a proclamation with disdain for the manifestation of the utterance, one has the opportunity to nullify it by touching wood, especially when used in conjunction with the proclamation, "touch wood." So our argument is that if we touch wood and we say "touch wood," the thing we said just previous will not come true. Our belief however is that we somehow have both the magic power of conjuring what we say and the magic power of taking such conjuring away, provided there is wood handy. (I'm excluding the American version of this where one knocks on one's head as if it were made of wood.) Some would argue that this is just a social habit, a form of courtesy we offer as apology for saying such dreadful things, but superstitious people are not actually thinking about what they are doing, when the do such things, despite our desire to wish no harm to anyone, (we hope.) Although it remains unclear as to its origin but there seems to be a consensus that it stems from pagan tree worshipers who would knock on trees, or stumps, after taking some or all of the wood. This would allow the souls of the trees to escape freely, rather than be trapped in the remaining tree, or stump, which would keep evil spirits or other mythical creatures from being attracted to the tree, hang around and cause you bad luck.

Friday the 13th: There are countless references going back centuries to the unlucky nature of the number 13. Mathematically, 13 is an odd number, it's prime, it's also a bit unusual if only because of the fact that, at least on Earth, 12 is an extremely common number. 24 hours in day, 12 months in year, roughly twelve weeks in a season, we even sort our eggs and doughnuts in dozens. (How come nobody considers a "baker's dozen" (13) to be unlucky?) But nobody is talking about the unlucky nature, (in literature, history or otherwise,) of the number 13 until after the popularization of the Christ tale. (So it is, at the least, a superstition of a superstition.) The fact that it was attached to the idea that Friday is unlucky, (Christ was crucified on a Friday, sailors didn't want to depart at the end of the week, preferring to start journeys at the beginning,) is probably just the compounding of unlucky concepts into a superstitious double-whammy. When you take into account that the unlucky day tends to be cultural, (Greeks and the Spanish think Tuesday is unlucky, because Constantinople fell twice on a Tuesday, to two different empires,) it's easy to see how the unluckiness of the date is arbitrarily attached to a day when something bad happened to you or your people, a long time ago. For instance, on Friday the 13 of October 1307, King Philip IV of France had every member of the Knights Templar arrested on charges of heresy. It mattered then, to them, it doesn't now, to you. Today, Friday the 13th is the safest day to travel, because people who believe in such things stay at home. This makes it, at least in terms of traffic accidents, a luckier day than average.

Lucky charms: No, not the cereal, but things like a rabbit's foot, or perhaps a charm you wear around your neck, maybe of your favorite saint. These things have been around as long as charms have. Perhaps even primitive human's would wear a string of lion's teeth around their neck to communicate to the universe this or that belief. We know the ancient Egyptians would wear and provide to their livestock, amulets of Ra, or Isis, in the hopes of drawing out the luck of such deities, rather than suffer their wrath. Historically, such charms have a fairly precise track record of working fifty percent of the time.

Saying "God Bless you" when someone sneezes: This is one that I stopped doing once I stopped being a child. Now when people sneeze I say nothing. Sometimes, even in the time and place I live, I still get slightly dirty, expectant looks, as if to say, "Well, aren't you going to say God Bless you?" Instead I say, "Get much on ya?" (Well, sometimes.) If I sneeze and someone offers "Bless you," I'll usually just say nothing, maybe "thanks," but often I say, "I'm not sure you're qualified." Sneezes are not caused by demons trying to escape my body. There's no need to combat that demon by attempting to manifest the will of God. (Why would you do that in the first place? Even if it was the middle ages... I'm flattered that you think God has time to worry about my allergies, but...)

There are about a million more superstitions that are still commonplace, in various forms around the world. They're usually completely harmless, a habit we picked up from our parents, or like a fun bit of belief that we feel increases the chances of things going our way. It's a pretty rare occasion for people to suffer because of them, although this does take place. Consider the compulsive gambler who honestly believes he only wins when he wears his lucky shoes, then loses those shoes. He is going to suffer because of his beliefs, but it's his own damn fault. When one looks at most superstitions, they stem from some ancient idea we had about the world that has since been proven to be ridiculous, often from a socially engineered intention, usually due to religion. (We need this idea in, this idea out, so let's get people to think thus.) However, superstitions come from the same place as ideas that we have abolished, for various relevant reasons, such as: slavery, racism, sexism. Yes these things still exist, but they are frowned upon and rightly so. Superstitions are certainly less harmful that these counterproductive ideas, but they are made of the same stuff. I'd like to continue thinking for myself and communicate in the world without being embarrassed by what my fellow humans continue to needlessly believe. There's still mystery in the universe. I, for instance, believe in God, despite having no particular proof of existence. (See my essay, "Existence doesn't matter to God.") I don't believe in superstitions because we have proof that they are useless in our time and place. There are still many unknowns, you can still enjoy the mystery and you're entitled to believe whatever nonsense you like, but you had best be careful when your beliefs lead you to action. Believing in the pointless is counterproductive. This, however, does not make the concept of God any less of a superstition, it's just the ultimate superstition, due to it pointing at the ultimate causality.
What superstitions do you "use?" We can talk about them in the comments below, if you like.

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