Sunday, October 28, 2007

Magical Thinking: a Common Spell

One of the most prevalent spells that afflict humanity is that of magical thinking. Atheists are familiar with the spell of religion, which they reject, and magical thinking is very much a part of religion. But it goes beyond religious thought and belief. There are even atheists who are guilty of magical thinking!

Before going further, perhaps it would be helpful to define what magic is in order to understand what it means to think magically. Magic is the use of techniques whereby a person expects to exert supernatural power without any assistance from a supernatural being, often a perceived psychic emanation believed to affect or influence the natural world.

The obvious example of magic is the witch, who casts spells or “psychic emanations” to affect health or property of self or others either positively or negatively. In some societies there are those that believe themselves to be witches with abilities to produce magic and the book shelves of the local Barnes and Noble can attest to this fact with titles like Moon Magic and Summer Witchcraft, targeted to western adolescent girls.

Other societies believe that witchcraft exists in others and that being a witch is something to avoid being accused of at all costs. Those accused of being witches in African nations like Mali or Uganda stand a fair chance of being murdered by a frightened and superstitious public.

But neither the suburban, middle-class witches of the Starbucks culture in the west or the West African witches who are alleged to ride banana leaves and abduct people who wander away from the village at night are actually conducting “magic.” The only spell that can truly be at work in either case is that cast by brewing delusion in the cauldron of superstition.

The degree by which believers of either culture’s witches actually perceive witchcraft as real could be debatable, but at least no one in recent times has been publicly executed or lynched for practicing witchcraft in Woodland Heights –or any other suburb of the United States. The same cannot be said for Uganda, where there are actually laws restricting witchcraft practices.

To recognize the more subtle forms of magical thinking, it’s important to first examine some of the main types of magic:

Imitative Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle that like produces like. IN other words, if you wish to achieve a certain result, you should do something which resembles it. Conversely, if you wish to avoid an undesirable result, you should avoid doing anything that resembles it. If you want rain, for instance, you imitate a thunderstorm by beating a drum; to avoid going into early or complicated labor, a pregnant woman should avoid standing in doorways or lying crossways on a bed.

Contagious Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle of contact. After two things or a thing and a person have been in contact, whatever happens to one will have a similar effect on the other. AN example might be the use of a voodoo doll, created with an article of clothing or lock of hair from the intended victim –sticking pins into or burning the doll is expected to harm the victim. Another example is wrapping an arrow which wounded a man in damp leaves with an expectation that it will also care for the man.

Incantation Magic:
This is the belief that by reciting the proper words in the proper order will “give power” through chanting, praying, singing or simply saying.
Repetitive Magic: If something worked before, it’s simply repeated. An example might be the “good luck” rituals and talismans of sports figures who always eat the same foods before a game or wear the same underwear.

Written Letters and Words
: these include nonsense words like “abracadabra” and such magical beliefs are used with practitioners of Kabala. Ancient examples might also include the book of the Dead prayers and incantations inscribed into eh tombs of ancient Egyptians.

Magical thinking is most prevalent among ordinary people during situations involving chance and uncertainty. Studies of “baseball magic” revealed that magical thinking may help control anxiety since most use of rituals and “good luck charms” are found among the pitchers where there is the least control over the results of their own efforts and the most complexity, uncertainty and chance involved with their tasks. Outfielders, on the other hand, have the least instances of the use of rituals and chances. They also experience the least complexity in their assigned tasks and exert the most control in the results of their own efforts. Clearly there are several types of magic at work (or at least perceived) in sports like baseball. The repetitive magic of eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and tapping the home plate a certain number of times with a bat are prime examples.

There are even taboos within baseball that are silly when examined closely, such as mentioning a “no-hitter” is in progress or crossing base ball bats (on bat might “steal” hits from the other, implying that there exist a finite number of hits in a given bat!). Even the most skeptical and rationally-minded persons involved in a game won’t violate these taboos, perhaps for fear of having the eventual end of a pitching or hitting streak blamed on the violator. Statistically speaking, all streaks end just as surely as they are predicted to occur.

But lest we leave this post thinking that magical thinking is a spell of over-paid athletes and wannabe Sabrinas of Suburbia, consider the number of people who:

  • find Friday the thirteenth unlucky;
  • avoid walking under ladders;
  • believe bad things happen in threes;
  • that things happen “for a reason;”
  • believe that it always rains when they wash their car (my mother used to say when she hung out the laundry);
  • think that a bride must wear: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

Even atheists cross their fingers, wish on stars and pennies tossed in mall fountains, and speak directly to traffic lights to make them change!

It is important as an atheist blogger for me to do my part in spreading rationalism while standing up for scientific naturalism and critical thought. But I find it helpful to remember that magical thinking is a human trait and, very likely, one that is evolutionary in its origin.

Related Posts

  • The Scientific Study of Religion

  • Five Stages of Religious Evolution

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