Wednesday, March 7, 2012

No Time For Superstition

Two robbers are ransacking an apartment. They hear noises at the door. The first thief says, “Oh no! The police are here. Quick! Jump out of the window!.”
The second thief says, “You’ve got to be kidding. This is the 13th floor.”

The first thief says, “Come on. Move it. This is no time to get superstitious.”

My theme is superstition; the good, the bad, and the lucky. Are you superstitious? What are your quirky superstitions? What do you see as both the value of superstition, and the downside?

I don’t know about you but before I get out of bed in the morning I cross all my fingers and toes, clutch my rabbit’s foot and thank my lucky stars that I’m not superstitious. Then I reach down for my left slipper, knock on wood, turn the handle on my bedroom door counter clockwise, walk down the hall way avoiding all the cracks to preserve my mother’s back and get on with the day. Thank goodness I’m not superstitious. It’s bad luck to be superstitious. In all seriousness, while I see the reasons behind superstition, I don’t think this is the time to be getting more superstitious. This is the time for honest enquiry, personal responsibility, common sense and a direct experience of all the beauty and meaning that is here and now. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is superstition? There tend to be two aspects to superstition; meaningful patterns and a belief in supernatural cause and effect.

1. Meaningful Patterns

Part of superstition is the tendency to find patterns or create cause and effect connections between an event and a consequence. For example if I walk under this ladder, something awful will happen. If I see a black cat, it will be bad luck. Touching wood, blessing people after they sneeze, and the number 13 are all examples of enduring superstitions. Did you know that 80% of elevators around the world do not contain a button for the 13th floor?

What are your superstitions? When I was a kid, I believed there were monsters under the sheets at the end of my bed. I also believed that if I pedaled as if I was riding a bike that the monsters would never get near me. This was generally working for me, but I wasn’t sure what to do about going to sleep. So I added a new rule. I decided that pedaling had a cumulative effect. So for every pedal the monster was pushed back a step. If I pedaled really hard and fast for several minutes, I could create enough pedal credit to keep the monsters at bay for hours.

The cumulative effect of superstitions is that the longer you believe them, the more evidence you have that they are working. To this day I have never been attacked by a monster in bed, aside from the occasional restless leg outburst from Meg. This is the power of the human mind to join the dots between experience and meaning. If I HAD been attacked by a monster in bed, I could just as easily conclude that it was because I was pedaling my legs. So then I could create a new superstition to stay very still and see if that was more effective.

The point is that the human mind is creative when it comes to superstitions, experience and meaning. As British author Daniel Tammet, who incidentally has autism and savant syndrome, wrote,

Moment by moment throughout our lifetime, our brains hum with the work of making meaning: weaving together many thousands of threads of information into all manner of thoughts, feelings, memories, and ideas. (from Embracing the Wide Sky, 2009)

As an adult, I no longer believe in monsters. But I still have my superstitions. When flying, I ALWAYS tilt my armrest upwards during takeoff as if I’m actually helping to fly the plane. The pilot can’t do it without me. The incredible thing is that to this day, hundreds of flights later, it has worked every time. I have never been on a plane that has failed to take off.

2. Supernatural Agency

Once we join the dots in our mind, the next tendency is to draw conclusions about the wizard behind the curtain; who is the masked man, woman or super power behind the mysterious connectedness of the universe. So the second aspect of superstition is that there is usually someone pulling the strings of superstition. Do you remember the 1980’s cult movie The Gods Must Be Crazy? A primitive Kalihari tribe believe that everything that happens is directed by the gods. When they hear the sound of thunder but see no clouds, they assume that the gods have eaten too much and their tummies are rumbling. When they see the trail of airplanes, they believe that the gods have flatulence.

Is it even possible to be religious without being superstitious? Is it possible to believe in God without being superstitious? We’ve all seen superstition in extreme forms of religion, for example Mitt Romney’s family reportedly arranging for his dead father in law to be baptized into the Mormon faith…posthumously. Romney’s father in law, Edward Davies was a prominent atheist in his day. As Bill Maher said, he was probably hard to baptize because he was squirming in his grave. This is part of a fairly widespread practice of baptizing the dead souls of people of other faiths or no faith, including Holocaust survivors. It’s extremely offensive in its implications and superstitious to the nth degree. This is an extreme form of religion. What about more moderate religion?

As someone who was raised in a moderate, evangelical, Christian tradition, I was taught to be very skeptical about superstition. I was taught that superstition is a tool of the devil and not to trust any paranormal, or new age, spirituality. Evangelicals say that the only reliable revelation from God is in the Bible. This is highly superstitious to imagine that an unseen being zapped the words of the Bible through the minds, mouths and quills of ancient authors, as a divine mandate for all time. So evangelicals use their superstitious worldview to critique new age superstition. The moderate religious perspective is full of its own superstitions.

It seems to me that the whole notion of a religious worldview is based in superstition. The belief in God or spirits, the belief in an afterlife, the belief in prayer and divine intervention, and a divinely inspired Bible, are all superstitions. What many people mean by spiritual is also based in superstition. The beliefs that there are unseen spirits, or communication with the dead, or that humans have souls, and that the universe is alive with unseen powers guiding our lives, are all superstitions.

Why am I writing this? My intention is twofold;

1. Challenge those who hold religious worldviews to consider the role of superstition in your beliefs. Because there is no scientific way to measure the “truth” of religious beliefs, the best measurement of a religious belief is its fruits. Does it make you a better person? Does it encourage you to take personal responsibility for your choices? Does it make you a more peaceful person, inside and out? Does it build love and goodwill in the world? Does it unite people and work for the betterment of all?

2. Articulate a non religious worldview that inspires high levels of integrity and satisfaction, meaning and morality, without the need for superstition. Personally, the main reason I’m interested in a non religious worldview is to rid my life of the fear and paranoia of superstition. I trust my mind and common sense to fill my life with meaning and optimism and to live my life with compassion and integrity, without imagining that there are any supernatural being(s) or creator behind it all. You only need open your eyes and mind. Everything you need is here and now.

In some upcoming articles, I will dig a little deeper into both the advantages and dangers of superstition, and finally propose that we emphasize intuition in place of superstition.

As Ataturk, or Mustafa Kemal, the first President of Turkey said,

We do not consider our principles as dogmas contained in books that are said to come from heaven. We derive our inspiration, not from heaven, or from an unseen world, but directly from life.

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