Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Dangers of Superstition

I remember back when I was in grade school the teacher showed a short film on superstitions.  This film showed "bad things" that can happen when people take foolish actions based on those superstitions.  The one "bad thing" I remember (there were quite a few, but this is dredging up a 40 year old memory) concerned a middle-aged guy avoiding cracks in the sidewalk.  He could not "step on a crack or he'd break his momma's back", so he was not watching where HE was going, only where his feet were stepping.  Two workers carrying a 2x4 across the sidewalk clotheslined the guy, much to the comic delight of the children watching.

Other superstitions growing up were the traditional ones:  The number 13 is bad, and Friday the 13th is REALLY bad (well, I guess if you are a Templar knight, it is really bad);  If you spill salt, toss some over your left (right?) shoulder or you will get bad luck;  You must give somebody who sneezes good wishes so that their soul will not leave their body with the sneeze (or to prevent the devil from entering the body);  Cross your fingers to bring on good luck!

Think about those superstitions...
13:  It is 1 greater than 12 and a baker's dozen is better than a regular dozen.
Friday the 13th:  Some folks think that since one bad event happened on a Friday the 13th over 700 years ago, all subsequent Fridays the 13th should be feared.  In 700 years there have been approximately 1,200 Fridays that fell on the 13th.  Many of them have been perfectly fine days, and can even mean MONEY!  (When I was paid weekly or biweekly on Friday, the date did not matter - I got paid.  Now I get paid semi-monthly, on the 15th and 30th/31st.  If the 15th is a Sunday, I get my money on Friday the 13th.).
Spilled Salt:  I think throwing away more of an item you just spilled and wasted is just silly, regardless of which shoulder you toss it over.
Sneezing:  Your soul leaves your body when you sneeze?  If it does that, then can you imagine what it does when you fart?  But nobody ever says "gesundheit" when you fart.
Step on a crack...:  Sorry, mom - I've never paid this one much attention.  Of course, you've never had back problems, either.

Superstitions are created when we give individual events or small sequences of events too much weight.  It's part of being human to find patterns wherever we look, so if we wore our red t-shirt while watching our football team beat the hated rival, then we will find a connection, a pattern.  A superstitious person will wear that same red shirt during the next game.  This will continue until: the wearer finds something with MORE connection to 22 men playing in a stadium 1,200 miles away; or the t-shirt falls apart; or the wearer realizes that nothing he does in his living room can affect the success or failure of 22 men playing in that stadium 1,200 miles away.

I was listening to the BBC Newshour on the way to work the other day.  One of the reports they aired concerned children, I believe in Africa, being beaten and threatened for being witches.  Witches.  Yeah, let's beat the children because they might just be witches.  What is the thought process behind these beatings?  Well, when something happens, there has to be a reason.  When a farmer's animal dies, there has to be a reason for that death.  If one of the local kids happened to be hanging around near the animals the day before, doing something the farmer could not see.... WITCH!

So these folks accuse kids (and each other, I imagine) of being witches.  When the accusation is made, others in the village gather around to beat the witch into submission.  What evidence do they have?  Sadly, the question becomes "what evidence do they need?"  Even more sad, that answer is "none".  One of the people interviewed stated that the government officially does not recognize the existence of witchcraft, but that a friend of his, a lawyer and official in that same government, has accused his own children of witchcraft.

But what is superstition except faith in something that has no basis in reality?  I've known folks from all walks of life laughing at other's superstitious acts, such as crossing fingers, wearing hats inside out (rally caps), or the wearing of that red t-shirt.  But those same folks have no problems making crossing themselves when walking by a cemetery, or wearing a piece of jewelry in the shape of a cross, or stopping the constructive activity they were involved in 5 times a day to kneel towards a place across the globe.  Religions are simply organized groupings of superstitions.  Watch a superstitious person with OCD for a while ("Monk"), then watch a "holy person" perform his or her duties.  Then tell me what the difference is.

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