I’m about to teach and then fly to D.C. to do some of that wonderfully fun government work that we are occasionally called upon for. But I couldn’t leave before pointing out an interesting story by Benedict Carey in today’s Science Times.
Titled “Do You Believe In Magic?“, the story details common superstitious beliefs and the behaviors that accompany them. It is a lead in to discussing a fascinating set of experiments on inducing such irrational beliefs in people, carried out by Princeton and Harvard psychologists. The article is well worth a read, and presents a number of plausible arguments for the origin of our appetite for belief.
My only quibble is that it is a little inconsistent when treating religion. There is a disclaimer near the beginning that I think is far too broad and dismisses how much simple superstitions have in common not only with religion, but with how we stay hooked on it.
These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history.
This seems to be thrown in so as not to offend the religious, although it seems to me that, while the caveats mentioned certainly exist, the mechanisms discussed have, on the contrary, a great deal to do with religious faith.
Despite the disclaimer, later in the article we read
It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”
… they often link two events based on nothing more than coincidence: “I was just thinking about looking up my high school girlfriend when out of the blue she called me,” or, “The day after I began praying for a quick recovery, she emerged from the coma.”
But there is one place in the article where the author is clearly not referring to religion, at least as practiced by quite large numbers of people
Reality is the most potent check on runaway magical thoughts, and in the vast majority of people it prevents the beliefs from becoming anything more than comforting â€” and disposable â€” private rituals. When something important is at stake, a test or a performance or a relationship, people don’t simply perform their private rituals: they prepare. And if their rituals start getting in the way, they adapt quickly.
OK, so I couldn’t resist a little religion-bashing, since I do think the press has far too hands-off an attitude to it, but I really did enjoy this article, because we desperately need these issues discussed more frequently and openly in society. Not because it matters if someone goes out of their way to avoid walking under ladders, but because it might help people to explain why they do that, and then question other beliefs which are far more damaging to society.