Saturday, January 27, 2007

Magical thinking and religion

Science Times from last week (1/23/07) had an interesting article on why all of us are susceptible to superstitious thinking ("Magical Thinking: Why do people cling to odd rituals" by Benedict Carey"). There are two comments in the article that are somewhat related to science & religion:
Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
But religions certainly exploit many of these tendencies and mix them up with larger moral questions. One example is "Insha-Allah" (by the will of God). Growing up in Pakistan, we were told that we always have to say Insha-Allah for a future event. For example, I will be going to a conference next month - Insha-Allah. The point here is that everything is run by God and so by stating your own plans and not acknowledging God can be perceived as a challenge to God's omnipotence. In some odd ways Insha-Allah can be thought of as an equivalent to "knock on wood" - you have your plans but you want to add this extra bit without much cost. So when superstition is tied-in to larger issues then the line between religion and superstition gets quite blurry.

The article also talked about the development of religious beliefs amongst children:
Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. "The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer," said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they're just losing faith in the efficacy of that."
From this it appears that we impede the development of rational thinking in kids by replacing one set of magical thinking with another. On a related note, Paul Bloom gave a lecture at Hampshire College last October as part of our Science & Religion lecture series, and he talked about how young kids have a dualist view of the world that later then transforms into religion. Check out his excellent article Is God an Accident? from the Atlantic Monthly (Dec 2005).

6 comments:

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

When issuing statements on any particular subject, one needs a complete understanding of that subject. Science and Islam is a subject that demands complete understanding of the current knowledge of both rather than linking bits-and-pieces of information. Much have been commented on Science and Islam by scientific bigots (sciencists) with no formal understanding of the latter. They base their "rational thinking" and "reason" on the bits and pieces of information they have. They believe what they want to believe labelling this as "reason". Any argument regarding science and Islam can only be substantiated by full command on both. How many people, do you know, are in such a position? As far as the question and the quest for reason is concerned, why we are not able to answer the most basic questions - how universe came into being? and why the laws of nature are so complicated, yet so complete? What is nature? We can't answer because we don't want to. The rest, we are most ready to discuss.

Salman Hameed said...

Re: comment 1
I think you are absolutely right that the question of "how" the universe came into being has not yet been answered. This is indeed a very hard question. But it doesn't mean that we'll never be able to answer that. The fact that we have unsolved questions is exactly the reason we do science - and there will always be mysteries to solve. But having unsolved questions says nothing about religion - one way or the other.

We can also look from the other side. There have been many questions that have been resolved quite emphatically. For example, formation of the Earth used to be a 'big' mystery. Many religions provided the "how" explanation for it. But now we know very well how the Earth was formed and no one uses God to explain the formation of the Solar system. But again, this doesn't say anything about God, one way or the other - only that the Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago as part of the gas cloud forming our Sun.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

When the formation of universe (time, space, matter, and energy) is considered, the favourite escape phrase is that the our understanding of the Universe is not very advanced, and there is so much we have to know and explore. On the other hand, when the issue of God is discussed, our undestanding of the universe is considered to be ever so complete. This is what I call bigotry. At the best of our understanding at the moment, isn't the formation of the Universe is "superstitious" when we cannot escape the only logical conclusion that it came from nothing and from nowhere? Doesn't it defies the most basic laws of conservation of matter and energy? Then we try to take refuge in highly speculative ideas like string theory, multiple universes, big-bang occuring again and again since a time infinite, or matter-anti-matter conversion, and so on. Let me guess how much we know about the universe which is spanning billions of light years, and containing billions of galaxies, and several millions of billions of stars...we don't even know whether we are the only living planet or life exists on other planets in this universe, let alone solar system or the Milky Way.

l. sizer said...

Is Mr. Hussain suggesting that scientific theories that attempt to explain features of the universe and its origins are akin to superstitions? String theory may be a lot of things but it is not an 'irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear' (wordnet). What would be superstitious is if we believed these theories based on anything other than the weight of the evidence in their favor, or if we did not pursue such explanations for fear that they would somehow upset or challenge the grandeur and beauty of the universe.

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