15 December 2005
I was thinking about our discussion on supernatural belief, the one where you said there was an evil force in the world, and I said I didn’t believe it for 1 second. I am still waiting for that book I mentioned, but here are a few thoughts.
First, it seems that supernatural beliefs are natural for 99.99999% of the human race. This does not mean they are true, beneficial or praiseworthy, however. But they do provide answers to why things happen: Why did someone do wrong? “They were weak in their faith so they were corrupted by the evil power that seeks to ruin people.” End of story. Next question.
I was also thinking there are so many supernatural beliefs that no single person could believe more than a very small fraction of them. I was also thinking that people believe absolutely in the supernatural beliefs they have come to accept but think all the others are absolutely ridiculous – even dangerous! For example, I doubt you believe:
• The sun moves across the sky because Apollo is pulling it with his chariot.
• That you should pay homage to Neptune before a sea voyage.
• That you can read the future by watching the flight of birds, looking at animal innards or using a tarot deck.
• That touching your wife during her period – even just shaking hands! – is an abomination to god.*
• That god dictated the Koran to Muhammad in a cave: This is the absolute core belief of more than 1 billion people!
• That Joseph Smith was visited by angels who told him that when god looks down he sees his church and his kingdom nowhere, that “all men are believing in wrong doctrines.” That’s what started the Mormon belief system, the fastest growing religion on the planet!
• That everything in the heavens is pure, perfect and unchanging. That was Catholic doctrine until Galileo saw the moon through his telescope, noticed the craters, figured out that some were much older than others, and realized that things do change in the heavens.
• That “proper” communion consists in symbolically partaking of bread cubes and grape juice in memory of Jesus. Which is to say that the Protestant world sees one of your core supernatural beliefs – the miracle of the Eucharist – as ridiculous, barbaric and even sickening. “The very idea!”
• That no one stops to make the connections between the Mass and the ancient idea – developed by the early hunting cultures – that one should kill and eat the god to absorb his spirit, his power and to do him honor. You do this every Sunday. Of course, going to church on Sunday is “wrong!”
• That Christmas is wrong!!!! That “true” Christians should not celebrate Christmas, eat pork or shellfish, go trick-or-treating or have any yeast particles in their house during Passover. And that they should attend church on Saturday! In short, it all hinges on their supernatural belief that god wants them to be clean-eating, Sabbath-keeping kosher Christians, that normal Protestant Christianity – and especially Catholicism – is error and has been for 2000 years. That Santa is really a version of Satan (note, same letters!). And they “know” this and believe it just as much as you “know” and believe your supernatural beliefs. Those beliefs provide them just as much guidance, solace and explanatory power as yours! Do you believe colored lights on your house are an abomination unto the lord?
• I even know someone who drove 700 miles because she believed an Internet shaman could put her in touch with the spirit of her dead father! That computers, the World Wide Web and shamans can exist at the same time and place shows the power of supernatural belief! May we say that supernatural belief is a natural form of insanity? What else do you call it when people believe absolutely in absolutely crazy ideas?
*Orthodox Jews believe that one is not to touch his wife in any way – not even accidentally brush up against her during sleep (so they have special beds) – during her period or for seven days afterward, and not until she has a ritual bath to restore her “purity.” I have a wonderful documentary on this topic, which shows the struggles of various orthodox women. One has gynecological problems that result in her being “unclean” most of the time. She can only hug her husband about two days a month. She’s coming to the belief that this purity rule comes not from god but was thought up by some rabbi. And it’s making her crazy.
There’s another woman who has a different problem. She started THINKING about the situation, and concluded it was a ridiculous rule, so she did not take the ritual bath. Know what? Under Jewish law her husband was allowed to divorce her and take the kids because until she took the bath she would be “unclean” and he could not touch her. Because she could not in good conscience participate in something that seemed utterly bogus, she alienated everyone in her life.
We might say, “Well, she should have just done it,” but none of us want to engage in what we see, for strictly personal or cultural reasons, to be absurdities. And this is why some people believe in one set of supernatural beliefs and others belief in another set – or why some people seek natural explanations for how to act or why things happen.