Monday, September 04, 2006

From superstition to the supernatural & far out hats

Once an idea has been planted in your head you can't really get rid of it, ignore it in a relevant situation, or not think of it at a moment when you are contradicting it, or are tempted to.

I consciously try to avoid superstition but sometimes I can't help it for various reasons. One of these reasons is that I don't want to contradict other people's superstitions if other people are watching. I don't want to upset other people, be offensive or draw attention to myself.

I was walking up the road the other day and some decorators were working on the outside of a pub with a ladder leaning up the front of the building, its feet on the outside of the pavement. My brain had several quick thoughts: the ladder is blocking the pavement; the two painters are standing on the ground smoking and I will walk right past them; there is no danger to me from higher up the ladder, it's empty; no traffic is coming so I can step off the pavement and walk around; what if there were traffic coming? Would I walk under it? And my last thought, or imagining, was that if I walk under the ladder then those two guys will be watching me challenging fate, ignoring the folk wisdom and kind of insulting them. They must watch this little superstitious charade countless times in their line of work. Do they keep a running total? Do they remember faces? Will they take it personally? "Look at that twat! He thinks our ladder's not worth walking round! Bastard! Come on John, let's show him some bad luck!"

Some people have problems with spotting an 'unlucky' solitary magpie, others have all sorts of other little rituals and so on. A lot of these centre on a perceived risk of bad luck, or conversely are to do with bringing good luck.

In the news article below the researcher doesn't extend this line of enquiry to religion explicitly, beyond implying that religious beliefs tack themselves onto this bit of neuronal hardware. Typically, the journalist can't resist stretching the hypothesis with his eye-catching headline.
The Guardian: Humans "hardwired for religion"

The battle by scientists against "irrational" beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today.
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force......

He [said]... that the standard bearers for evolution, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennet, had adopted a counterproductive and "simplistic" position.

"They have basically said there are two types of people in the world," he said - "those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious.

"For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds. Conversely, many people are disgusted by an object if it has associations with 'evil'."

In his lectures, Prof Hood produces a rather boring-looking blue cardigan with large brown buttons and invites people in the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. As you may expect, there is invariably a sea of raised hands. He then reveals that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan. Nearly everyone puts their hand down......

I've been to about a dozen Christian mass services over the last few years as a wedding guest. Whilst not praying or chanting the incantations doesn't make one particularly stand out, not kneeling onto the praying ledge does. I've learned to move my arse forwards on the uncomfortable bench to avoid being jabbed in the back by the clasped hands of the person behind me as they kneel forwards and rest their wrists on the back of the pew. I've covertly looked about during the praying a few times - I'm generally a bit bored, no big deal: everybody's praying with their eyes closed, except the last time when I notice the priest eyeballing my brazen, obviously heathen face. Why wasn't he praying then, eh? At least there's little chance that he'll come chasing after me with a can of paint.

I wonder if either of those two painter guys walk under other people's ladders, in some kind of gang defiance, or is it sacred doctrine to them and window cleaners? The Ladder Testament of the Divine Bucket.

My sister, an atheist like myself, once remarked that she hated jackdaws and crows, a few specimens of which were nearby; "they're evil" she explained. Now I wouldn't want one as a pet but a crow is just... a crow. Ravens can be intimidating I'll grant you, they're big fuckers, but evil? What does that mean? I don't think it "means" anything, it's just a learned superstition. A relic of medieval rationalisation. Flat world psychology. At least with ladders there is a modicum of common sense, something might fall onto your head. Some people won't walk on cracks in the pavement, the list goes on, spiralling into ever weirder behaviour until you get the paranoid psychopath who only strangles old ladies if there isn't a letter R in the day of the week. Because his beloved father was called Reginald, may his soul rest in peace. "He talks to me everyday, you know".

I think that the link between the superstitious and the supernatural lies not not so much in the possibility that god-bothering has hijacked the bit of brain concerned with irrational predictions of good or bad outcomes, but that it may have more to do with perceived consequences of conforming or not-conforming to irrational but established group behaviours. Once you've got men in dresses and advanced headgear telling you that it's either a bit of mumbling and chanting (and some cash) or burning pain, hell and evil forever, then there's no point sticking your neck out, is there? Put in its medieval context of the men in dresses (men in dresses was a power thing then) being the only people who could read those magic books written by Superman in the sky, and it really was game, set and cash (I mean match) as far as the peasant masses were concerned. The popes and their mates had a great laugh about it while they spent the peasants' cash on palaces, drunken orgies and really far out diamond-studded hats.

And more controversially, perhaps, I'll stick my neck further out and suggest that the habit of prominent and powerful (on the tv) Americans never being seen without the ubiquitous patriotic lapel-pin, or middleclass houses without their own flagpole and enormous flag, is part of the same psychology of conformity and power.

Patriotism and religion are natural adjuncts of tribalism, we've evolved to incorporate them into our brains because we're more successful in groups. And in a combat situation (real or contrived) you need a chain of command to be clearly identifiable (suit-pin-flag-god). I belong to the non-religious, un-nationalistic, non-pin-wearing group (and I only wear a suit to weddings because... my girlfriend makes me!). If I were the only one to behave like this some mob would've burned me to death on instruction from, or to please, the men in dresses and hats.

Right, I'm off to the Fred West garage sale to get a cheap suit, whose coming?


Tim said...

A slightly different take: I think that Hood (and others) are confusing "belief" and "compulsion".
I'm an OCD sufferer and have plenty of irrational compulsions, but I'm fully aware that that's what they are and that if I refuse to follow them that disaster isn't imminent. I will stare at a switch for a minute or so to make sure it really is off despite knowing that it was off to start with. Perhaps this is something we all have to a degree; a sort of checking mechanism, a redundant survival method.
I've never had any irrational beliefs in mythical deities though...

The man with no hat said...

What is it to "believe"? There are things I think I know, via my senses, including thoughts. There are things that I accept via people telling me. Some people (experts) have spent decades thinking about certain things and although they may be talking about things that I don't have decades to study myself, I then feel like I know something: medicine, astronomy, mathematics, biology etc
And then there are ongoing debates where different experts present contradictory information and all I can do is know that there is a debate and maybe have an opinion: history, environmental issues, nuclear power, etc

I have no religious faith. I have no reason to think of 'extra-terrestrials', including the notion of a god as akin to a (super) being, as being anything other than metaphors. The rest of most faith is doctrine, and then lots of religious people present the most fanciful ideas as being fact: resurection of the messiah who is the child of the superbeing that makes planets, and that child conceived by a human woman without sperm or sex involved, etc, etc.

The fact is that there are so many ways of looking at questions like "why am I alive?" because, as the poet Henri Michaux put it, there are so many different selves, we are multiple, self is just a state of equilibrium.

An idea I accept, by observation, is that if my parents - and thus lifestyle and activities - had been of a particular practised and taught religion then I would probably be a follower of that religion.

So I am "free of faith" and ignorant about lots of things that are maybe just unknowable anyway.

Stay cool
Le Dingue

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