Superstition in a (supposedly) rational age


The writer G.K. Chesterton is quoted as having said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they become capable of believing in anything.” In fact, he did not say this. Rather, his hero, the detective Father Brown, in “The Oracle of the Dog”, said to another character: “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are.” A commentator on the book then paraphrased it by saying: “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything”.

Of course, Father Brown would have been referring to the Christian version of God, but I’m sure that people with other gods would think the same, although about their god or gods. So then, all a bit nonsensical: in fact like most aphorisms - it sounds good, but is devoid of real meaning.

It is though possible to come not to believe in god by at least three routes. There are those who will reject god as a result of some tragedy. Others, having thought about it in some depth may decide that it simply makes no sense. And there are some who were brought up in circumstances where god didn’t really feature in day to day life and so was an irrelevance. In that instance, there being little need for critical thought on the topic, they may I suppose be more open to other beliefs i.e those which, to a good Catholic, would be ‘anything’.

In times past many people looked at prayer to their god as a way of trying to protect themselves or their family members from some danger. Their prayers therefore mattered to them very much. However, with the decline of organised religion it seems that many people now experience an increasing feeling of powerlessness in terms of making meaningful change in their lives.

In the West at least, the god of the Abrahamic traditions has been in slow decline and does not seem to be making much of a come-back. So, granted our apparent need for ‘something’, some people are finding other alternatives. It seems that many are now turning to what is loosely referred to as ‘spirituality’, or what Chesterton would have thought of as superstition. The most popular ‘belief’ is actually a belief in fate, which is hardly a Christian concept, except to Calvinists. It is followed at number 3 by premonitions. And witchcraft has had a very improbable 21st-century revival. The witch-finders of 17th-century Salem would be appalled to learn that, more than 300 years later, we have still not got to grips with the problem to which they dedicated so much terror and so many ducking stools and stakes. There are now more than a million witches in the United States, compared with only a few thousand at the beginning of the 1990s. Belief in aliens is growing. So is belief in Atlantis.

The most influential conspiracy theories concern not merely collusion between the powerful to keep us in our place, but the operation of supernatural forces. Adherents of the QAnon cult are dedicated to deciphering the prophecies of “Q” and believe that blood-drinking paedophiles control the United States.

According to the last IPSOS survey I can find, from 2007, just over half of people believed in some sort of God and a third of British people claimed to believe in ghosts. We don't know if that group also all believed in God. Significant numbers of people actually believe in guardian angels, telepathy and touching wood. And after a few years blocked by Covid regulations, Stonehenge can now once again welcome those wishing to celebrate their Pagan religion at the Spring equinox with mistletoe, chanting and Druids. For many, we live not in a time of reason, but through our mythologies.

In fact, a mythological mood seems to have taken hold more generally. A 2014 study by the National Science Foundation in America found that more than half of 18-24 years olds believed astrology is scientific. Tarot is also very fashionable amongst the young - though it is a mark of sophistication to couch your interest in ironic or ambiguous terms, just as elite men and women in the Middle Ages understood that romances and chivalric legends invited allegorical as well as literal interpretation.

The controversial ‘intellectual’, Jordan Peterson, teaches a symbolically structured self-help philosophy. It is organised according to a tarot-like scheme of mythological archetypes: “the virtuous hero”, “the great father”, “the goddess of destruction and death”.

I’m guessing that he is influenced in this by the Jungian idea of archetypes, the universal, primal symbols and images that he said derived from the collective unconscious – whatever that is - which it seems prefigures and directs conscious behaviour. Jung also consulted his patients’ horoscopes. So not very scientific, but so much more interesting than our mundane, ordinary lives...

Archetypes are also very profitable in the cinema. They are the basis for superhero films. They feature men and women who transcend the banal limitations of biology by flying, being virtually indestructible or shooting webs from their fingers to swing through the sky-scrapers of New York. More are coming out this year, ‘Ms Marvel’, ‘Thor, Love and Thunder’ and ‘She Hulk’, all featuring Marvel characters. Yes, they were part of the comic book culture amongst children in the 20th century, and, very popular with the rather nerdy characters in ‘Big Bang Theory’. We did not though normally expect adults to read them or make them the biggest grossing of all film categories. And all computer games follow the same pattern, equipping their protagonists with superhuman speed and resistance to being attacked with bombs or death rays.

Of course, organised religions gave plenty of space for narcissism. How else to explain all the dressing up and the donation of money by the rich for the construction of churches and temples, in an attempt to preserve their name in perpetuity, as well as to move their souls to safer waters in the next life.  As discussed before, even the Christianity of the super-churches in America is now essentially a means of saying to god: “I’ve given you money, now give me what I want - because I’m worth it”.

But the replacements for the old certainties also often appeal directly to narcissism. The new spiritual systems do not just try to explain a chaotic universe, they offer means of controlling it.

Jeff Ayan, the guru of the Twin Flames movement, teaches his followers that they are supernaturally destined to find romantic fulfilment with a “twin flame”. Twin flames are the flames of the same soul, in two different bodies. When Twin Flames reunite, apparently the Universal energy shifts, due to the strong vibration emitted by the two souls feeling again as One. And so the disinclination or repulsion of one’s counterpart flame should be no discouragement: that person can be bent to your romantic desires by feats of will and persistence.

A similar narcissistic logic underpins the vogue for “manifesting”, which means imagining your goals and chanting mantras (e.g. “everything I do yields results”) in order to will your preferred life into being. This is praying, not to God, but to yourself.

But why has this all happened? Religion once told us that we were involved in a supernatural drama of good and evil. It also gave us an inflated view of our position in the universe. We were ‘children of god’. Then Darwin’s take on how the flora and fauna had really come about rather punctured our egos. Earth had already been demoted from being the centre of the universe to only a tiny speck in it, but now humans were not distinct from the rest of nature either. It seems that, as a result, we are desperate to imagine ourselves in a parallel universe where we can play out our fantasies. In the modern world, reason requires not only a belief in the scientific method but, perhaps more challengingly, an acceptance of our insignificant place as humans in the universe. We should perhaps use our efforts to learn to live with the disappointing fact that we scarcely register in the cosmos, that we do not have any superpowers and that we’re not witches. Really.

Paul Buckingham

9 May 2022

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