The previous essays in this series have explored various ways in which human beings appeal to the supernatural to solve our problems. We seek out oracles to tell us the truth without doing the hard work of seeking it out through study and experiment; we dream up heavens to provide us with a perfect world to live in without the sweat and toil of creating it ourselves; we invent commandments to show us morality without the intellectual labor and uncertainty of reasoning it out; we look to the skies for messiahs to lead us without the falterings of democracy and the tedious effort of consensus-building and compromise.
But all of these are symptoms of a more general condition: humanity is suffused with magical thinking. More than anything, we desire easy answers, and all these different types of supernatural belief stem, ultimately, from that desire. When life is difficult and troubled, we want miracles that will fulfill our needs and supply our wants in a supernatural flash, without the work otherwise needed to get what we want; and when life is truly disastrous and our sorrow and suffering seem too great to bear, we want miracles to reverse the irreversible and make possible the impossible.
The longing for miracles extends throughout every religion ancient and modern, as people throughout history have sought to fulfill their wants and control the world through magic. The list is extensive: Native American rain dances and shamanic healing rituals; modern Wiccans who think they can use spells to attract love, luck, or good fortune; ancient Jews and Greeks who thought that sacrificing animals would placate the gods and bring peace and prosperity; faith healers who think all disease can be prayed away and all mental illness is caused by demons; witch doctors who brew potions that they claim will make the imbiber invisible or immune to bullets; Pentecostals who handle snakes and babble in tongues, Catholics with a predilection for saints that in practice is little more than polytheism under another name, and Christians of all stripes who appeal to guardian angels and think to make God obey their will by repeating their prayers constantly, much like the various magicians and sorcerers through history who attempt to invoke and control the supernatural through the use of the right magic words. For example, here is a quote from a group of fundamentalist Catholics who evidently believe they can control the world with magic:
With all of the Rosaries, Masses, and sacrifices offered to God, why is the number of abortions not decreasing?
Magical thinking leaks into our lives in a wide variety of ways not directly associated with religion as well. There are the great numbers of people who carry supposedly lucky charms – horseshoes, rabbits’ feet, or whatever else. There are numerous household superstitions about breaking a mirror, spilling salt, stepping on sidewalk cracks, or letting a black cat cross one’s path. There are gamblers who erroneously believe that the cards or the dice can be “due” to turn up a certain way, actors who fear to wish each other good luck before the performance, and sports players with an endless array of superstitions about, for example, not shaving or washing one’s clothes before the big game, lest one wash one’s luck away. There are even hospitals whose 13th floor is instead labeled with some other number. How ironic it is that such superstition turns up in the very places that should be the strongest testaments to the value of evidence-based thinking!
Like other examples of magical thinking, these are all based on spurious perceptions of correlation between unrelated events. The human brain is very good indeed at perceiving causality – so good that it often perceives it even where it does not exist. But to a mind not trained in critical thinking, it is all but impossible to separate the legitimate perceptions from the faulty ones. When a prayer is ineffective, the “natural” thing to do is to say it again, just in case God was perhaps not listening the first time; and if it still does not come true, why, it surely cannot hurt to say it yet again. By this means, people are unconsciously led to repeat their prayers over and over until, by chance, the thing they desired may happen – at which point they frequently decide that the exact number of repetitions they used must be the most effective, and transmit this knowledge to their fellow believers.
Similarly, a person who happens to be holding some item touted as a lucky charm, or who has recently practiced some supposedly magic ritual, who then experiences a streak of good fortune, will almost certainly conclude that magic was responsible for their success. People who obtain the charm or repeat the ritual and do not experience similar success are apt to overlook the failure, or blame it on themselves in some way – until their luck changes in even some small way, as it inevitably does, which they conclude to be true and undeniable evidence in favor of their particular brand of magic.
In reality, when such fallacies are disregarded, there is no evidence that such superstitious practices are or ever have been effective in any way. In our world, magic does not work. Our problems cannot be solved by the wave of a magic wand; misfortune cannot be repelled by crossing one’s fingers, drawing mystic circles or chanting in the moonlight; and no amount of prayer, be it ever so heartfelt, will move an inconveniently placed mountain by so much as an inch. Appealing to the supernatural is effective only insofar as it increases the confidence of the practitioner and improves their chance to achieve their goals by their own, non-supernatural effort and ability.
The appeal of magic is that it promises easy answers, easy victories, easy achievement of our goals with little effort and toil. But this is, and always was, a childish dream. Through cooperating with each other and studying the world around us, we can learn to better control our circumstances and improve our lives, but such improvement will always take labor and work. The lure of easy answers is an illusion; there are answers, but they are difficult to obtain and always were. Yet that does not make them worth any less. On the contrary, it makes them even more precious, and should increase our appreciation for what progress we have brought about and our resolve to make further progress in the future. The childish things we cling to have held us back and distracted us from this difficult, but worthy goal for too long. As our species comes of age, it is time to put them away once and for all and have the courage to view the world in the light of reality. Though this worldview promises us less, it ultimately offers us far much more.
Other posts in this series: