Thursday, April 12, 2012

‘Superstition’ still relevant in today’s society

By Alison Haywood, Copy Editor

Anthropologists avoid the word “superstition” as though it’s a curse.

In a discipline based on understanding human behavior, the word “superstition” implies an egotism by belittling others’ beliefs.

“What I believe is religion, what you believe is irrational superstition,” said Associate Professor of Religion and Culture Suzanne Crawford- O’Brien.

Instead, anthropologists attempt to examine these behaviors from an objective perspective to understand the reasoning behind them. Why do humans, even in a society of modernity, still practice these seemingly irrational beliefs?

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Steven Thomson said he suspects it has to do with the shortcomings of science and statistics in providing a satisfactory explanation for events that occur. “Magic— in general, everywhere— explains why particular events happen to particular people at particular times,” he said.

Thomson used the example of catching a cold. Science may say a person got a cold because of exposure to viruses; statistics may say that everyone catches a certain number of colds per year; but magic, superstition or spiritual beliefs might say getting sick was a result of getting in a fight with a neighbor.

Many religious beliefs, whether mainstream or marginalized, also encourage people to do good things.

For instance, variations on the belief of the Evil Eye exist throughout North Africa, the Mediterranean and Latin America. These center around the idea that if a person looks at an item of value in a certain way, whether it be a nice house, expensive belongings or a healthy baby, that admiration will curse the item and a ritual must be performed to keep harm from coming to that item.

Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth Brusco said these beliefs are mostly found in poor areas and are caused by people worrying about their neighbors envying them. By creating a social taboo around envy, people are discouraged from eyeing others’ belongings. This social construction encourages people to be content with what they have.

Thomson pointed out the irony in rejecting, for instance, an African shaman divining from the innards of a chicken who tells his followers to be nice to people, yet accepting the same advice from a priest who says to do it because Christ said so.

“You got to exactly the same point, but on one side you call that superstition, on the other side you call that being a good Christian,” Thomson said.

Although modern society values rationality, Thomson said humans are irrational beings and Friday the 13th provides an opportunity for us to talk openly about the things we are not rational about.