13. Superstition (is/ain’t) the way (do do do do do)

If you met me when I was in college, I might have described myself as a Christian. (Or not. I was all over the place about that.) There were a few things I meant by this. One of them was, "Don’t try to convert me, I’m already as converted as I’m gonna get. Please go away now." One of them was, "Yes, I know you say that your stupid bigoted views about gay people come from the Bible, but I’ve read the Bible too, and I think Jesus would support gay civil rights. Because Jesus was a decent, compassionate, fair-minded guy. Unlike you, jerk." And one of them was, "I’m a Jesus fan. I think he had the right idea about stuff."

What did it mean, to be a Jesus fan? To believe in the ethical teachings, to respond to the metaphors and symbols of Christianity, but not to be objectively certain about the metaphysics?

In the years of my final involvement with the church, I wasn’t just wondering, "how can you be sure?," I was asking "do you, in fact, have to be sure?"

I didn’t know if I was a Christian or not, because I didn’t know what it actually meant to be a Christian. Did I have to believe in the factual truth of the resurrection, as well as the philosophical truth of loving your neighbor? If I believed it was all metaphor, but I still liked the metaphor, did that count?

I had a lifetime of being told being a Christian meant that you had "accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior," but I also had a lifetime of blank looks, or offended self-righteousness, whenever I attempted to interrogate what that statement actually meant. I eventually concluded it meant nothing. Nothing more than "you are a member of our club."

In the end, I didn’t stick around long enough to really figure it out. I quit the church again, for good this time, in disgust over the pervasive right wing politics and cultural conservatism.

There was a growing expectation that members of the congregation were naturally on the side of the Republicans in all matters. Not just on matters of social conservatism involving sexual taboos — otherwise known as gay civil rights and abortion and contraception rights — but in absolutely bloody everything. Economic policy. Foreign policy. Generalized lifestyle choices. And, most evidently, Republican politicians themselves. ("And Lord, just be with Oliver North — that great, Godly man — in his times of trouble.")

The Chickians, it seemed, had won. They had replaced the regular church entirely, like a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I was around twenty-one. My mother no longer made me go to church. I no longer went.

For years afterward, I sometimes thought about going to a different church, perhaps one with a rainbow flag in the window and a different theological take — one where the ethical teachings were considered more important than the metaphysics. But I realized, eventually, that I didn’t actually care about church. I merely had a lingering phantom attachment to the notion that I ought to care.

This is the last post in the series. I thought it was lucky to have thirteen of them. (I’m superstitious that way.) I wanted to conclude with a few last thoughts on irrational beliefs.

I think people are simply prone to have them. It’s probably a bias toward false positives in our innate pattern-seeking behavior, or something, I don’t really know, but they seem to be pretty nearly universal. I have mine, other people have theirs. Other people’s irrational beliefs can seem pretty insane to somebody who doesn’t share them, but that doesn’t mean there’s some objective standard by which a resurrected human-god hybrid makes sense and reincarnation doesn’t.

Atheism won’t save you from the fundamental irrationality of human nature.

Richard Dawkins, for example, doesn’t believe in gods, but he seems to believe some unlikely things about people — first, that it is possible to get them to stop believing in irrational things, and second, that if you did, their behavior would improve. Christopher Hitchens doesn’t believe in gods, but he believed in the Iraq Invasion. And Bill Maher — Bill Maher, who made a whole movie about the silly things that religious people believe — Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve us, Bill Maher believes the germ theory of disease is false.

I think magic and superstition hide in many things that give the appearance of rationality. Self-help books, books about how to succeed in business, diet books. (I would mention The Secret here, but that one doesn’t even give the appearance of rationality, it’s just flat-out magic. And not very elegant or ethical magic, either.)

I think the best way to cope with the human tendency to have irrational beliefs is to be conscious of it. Recognize it. Use it, don’t let it use you.

Superstitions come in two basic flavors: received and directly observed. Received is superstitions that other people tell you about. I have always been highly skeptical of those, hence my longstanding embrace of the number thirteen and black cats as omens of good fortune. A lot of my worry about religious matters as a kid was based on me not seeing religion as being in the same category as ordinary superstition. The adults around me acted like they were a different category of thing, so I believed (at first, when I was young) that they must be. That meant I didn’t feel free to do as I did with other superstitions — embrace the traditional parts that seemed right to me, invert them if appropriate, ignore the rest, and make up my own as required.

Directly observed is personal. Like, when I was nine or ten, I had these bad luck pants. My mother would never believe me that the pants were bad luck. So she made me wear them anyway. They had ugly flowers all over them, which might have been the source of the bad luck, but whatever. I thought it was kind of weird that she expected me to believe in God and angels, but she wouldn’t believe in bad luck pants. It didn’t seem fair.

I like to think that if I were raising a daughter right now, and she thought that she had a pair of bad luck pants, (especially if they were covered in ugly flowers) I would be sympathetic, and we would give them to the Goodwill, after I explained that bad luck pants were a very personal matter and just because they were bad luck for her didn’t mean they would be bad luck for someone else.

But if she came to me a second or a third time with bad luck pants, I would explain that bad luck pants didn’t work that way, and maybe there was something else going on that we should have a talk about.

The thing you have to watch out for is reality itself. Your superstitions should not displace or override everyday reality. They shouldn’t be reality-proof. And they shouldn’t ask things of you that are outside the bounds of what would be appropriate if your superstitions aren’t true. Giving money to your god is appropriate, giving more money than you can afford is not. Believing in a god that is outside of the bounds of what can be proven or disproven is appropriate. Believing in thoroughly disproven notions like creationism, and calling them your god, is not.

Sacrificing yourself on the strengths of your beliefs is appropriate. Attempting to force other people to sacrifice themselves for your beliefs is — well, not only not appropriate, it’s starting to head toward monstrous.

This Friday is a Thirteenth, and I plan to celebrate in some small way, because I do that.

Maybe a Goth House if I get my act together. Although now I worry that I’ve jinxed it by making promises I can’t keep.


  1. It’s probably a bias toward false positives in our innate pattern-seeking behavior

    That’s my theory too. Our minds look for meaning, and if we don’t find it, we make it up. There’s a guy (an SF fan) named Michael Dobson who has been writing on Facebook (or pointing to his blog on Facebook) about cognitive biases, which he describes as the unknown known (riffing on the risk assessment template most famously referred to by Rumsfield during the invasion of Iraq). It’s fascinating how many different ones there are, how many different ways we fool ourselves into thinking we know something that we don’t really know.

    1. Author

      Confirmation bias is my favorite cognitive bias.

      1. Another good one is bias blind spot, which is recursive: a bias against seeing our own biases. Also the one described by the adage, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

        1. Heh. My favorite version of that adage is: “When the only tool you have is a thermal lance, every problem looks like loads of fun.”

          1. “The MythBusters concluded using a thermal lance for safe-cracking is plausible, but impractical. Nevertheless, U.S. Patent 3,612,166 describes thermal lances as a significant threat to vault doors.”

            Oh, my!

          2. Author

            They are, indeed a threat, if you’re like Dr. Horrible and don’t care about getting the money out of the vault as long as the money is destroyed.

  2. Thank you so much for writing and posting these. It’s interesting to me that we’ve had such different experiences regarding the church and yet we’ve pretty come to exactly the same conclusions.

    Though, I suppose it probably has to do with the fact that I’ve formed my philosophies after having listened to most of my friends talk about their experiences. And I have a number of friends who come from a similar background to yours.

    1. Author

      we’ve pretty come to exactly the same conclusions.

      Which could mean that we’re completely and absolutely right about everything!

      Or, you know, maybe it doesn’t mean that.

      1. Well, it’s difficult to call it a repeatable experiment when there are so many variables at work. I don’t think I could list them all.

  3. But I realized, eventually, that I didn’t actually care about church. I merely had a lingering phantom attachment to the notion that I ought to care.

    That is so very true for me, too. I also think you’re right when you say there’s some part of people that wants to believe in superstition.

    I’d echo Fenmere’s thoughts (it was he who linked me to this series of essays that I’m just starting to read in a last-in-first-out order) that while the circumstances are different, the conclusion is the same. While I didn’t see the same conservative fervour overtake my church (Lutherans are not people of strong outward passions — and the ELCA has taken a “love the sinner, look the other way at the sin” view of homosexuality — though that varies by congregation. For reference, the ELCA caused a dramallama by proposing in August that gay people could be clergy, and many of the news articles are of a bias saying “the world is going to hell because of this”; also, they encourage “thoughtful inquiry” unlike many christian sects), I did, for the last years in the church, see Jesus, the Bible, and everything as more of a metaphor than anything else (Hell was the first part of religion to go). Who cares if he really lived or not — he had some good views about showing humanity towards others.

    But the thing I hate the most is the people who think humans have to be scared enough by something like Hell that they’ll act good — a view of human nature that paints all people as evil. Perhaps it’s an irrational view to hold, but I think people are fundamentally good, and it colours how I interact with people in my life.


    1. Author

      But the thing I hate the most is the people who think humans have to be scared enough by something like Hell that they’ll act good — a view of human nature that paints all people as evil. Perhaps it’s an irrational view to hold, but I think people are fundamentally good

      The Christian view (as I always saw it) was that people are fundamentally good, but flawed. We are all capable of both good and evil, and we can all make the choice to be good.

      That’s another one of my big ideological disagreements with the church, is that I saw it as drifting toward a self-referential view that goodness was some kind of mystical essential quality that Christians possessed, rather than a choice to behave in a certain way because we were following the example of Jesus.

      I don’t think you actually get people acting good because they are scared of hell. Ever. Fear can cause law-abiding behavior, which is not the same thing as good behavior, but I think that some religious people think it is the same. As long as it’s their laws, anyway.

      1. Perhaps I’ve been talking with too many calvinists recently. it is still true that people are motivated by self interest, but can achieve remarkable things when working together towards the pursuit of a goal (ie, the moon landings) — though, this is wandering a little off topic.

        It may be more accurate to say that “x religion thinks it has a monopoly on morality,” which is fairly blatantly wrong — especially considering that religion and its moral standards are human social constructs.

        1. Author

          “x religion thinks it has a monopoly on morality,”

          Ah, yes. That whole “special pipeline to the essential truth of the universe that other people don’t have” problem.

      1. w00!
        Too bad you jinxed it by making the fourteenth comment! :-P

      2. Oh, wait, everyone else jinxed it by making fourteen+ comments…

  4. Thanks for this series! You should totally print these up, with a few illustrations, as a chapbook. I’d buy it.

      1. Author

        Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one. My cheap chapbook supplier doesn’t work at a printshop anymore.

        Glad you enjoyed the series. It was fun to write, it prompted me to think about things in my past that I hadn’t thought about in years.

        In fact, some of the entries got multiple rewrites as I wrote one version and realized that I was getting too far ahead of myself — writing too much from the perspective of how I see it now and not accurately portraying the way I saw it then.

  5. Hi. I was linked here by a few days ago, but kept getting called away from the computer (and then forgetting to come back), so it took me awhile to get through all the essays. I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed them, and appreciate you taking the time to write them all out.

    My grandparents handed out Chick tracts to me when I was just a little kid — your essay on that sparked all kinds of memories that I’d repressed for years! It’s funny, looking back on them now, to think that I ever let them scare me so much. And it’s really interesting how so many churches now seem to embrace some form of Chickism as their theology. I’d never considered that before.

    My wife and I go to the Unitarian Universalist church now, and we freely admit it’s for the socializing; we live in Yakima and it was the only place we knew we’d find progressive people gathered together. It doesn’t fill that deep need for superstition that I inexplicably have, but the church has a social justice committee that puts its money where its mouth is and actually does more that I think could be qualified as “Christian” or “Christ-like” than a lot of the mainstream Christian churches do around here (for example, we regularly provide food to soup kitchens in addition to teaching people how to grow their own food; the Foursquare church here organized to reject Ref-71. Which activity do you think Jesus would have been doing?)

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you again for this series. I’m going to point a few of my friends over this way, if you don’t mind.

    1. Author

      It’s funny, looking back on them now, to think that I ever let them scare me so much.

      Ditto. But then, kids are scared there might be spider eggs in bubble gum.

      And it’s really interesting how so many churches now seem to embrace some form of Chickism as their theology.

      It wasn’t until writing this that it occurred to me Chickism was the unifying factor in all the church activity I hate. It’s easy to relate it to the political religious right now, but thinking back I realized the church drift seemed to predate things like the Moral Majority, which was formed in 1980.

Comments are closed.