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Supernatural thinking can be deadly

A horrible story from France reminds us yet again why it’s always a bad idea to jump to supernatural conclusions.

Thirteen people were watching TV in a flat, when one of the men heard the baby crying. So he got up to get a bottle for the baby. Apparently he wasn’t wearing any clothes at the time.

“The man got up to prepare a bottle for the baby when his wife, seeing him, screamed ‘It’s the devil, it’s the devil’,” she explained.

In the confusion following this apparent case of mistaken identity, the naked man’s sister-in-law stabbed him in the hand and he was ejected through the front door of the flat. When he attempted to get back in, panic erupted.

“The other occupants of the flat fled by jumping out of the window,” Faivre said. According to police, one man jumped with the two-year-old in his arms and crawled two blocks away to hide in bushes, screaming: “I had to defend myself.”

The two-year-old died in hospital, another victim of superstition.

If you’re trying to explain something, you can go with natural explanations or supernatural ones. Natural explanations are always better. For one thing, you can check them out. And if you have two natural explanations for something, it’s possible to figure out which one is better experimentally. But how do you distinguish between two supernatural explanations? Who made the world, Elohim or Zeus? Or perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

But supernatural explanations are extremely tempting. They’re easy to come up with and they don’t require understanding anything at all. Saying that a god made the world is easier than understanding biology and cosmology.

In my Mom’s final days, she would sometimes call out the names of deceased family members. My family tended to favour a supernatural explanation for this: the spirits of these people were in the room, waiting to take Mom to a heavenly world. (That they were waiting to take her to Hell didn’t seem to occur to them. Observation: People only arrive at supernatural conclusions that support whatever narrative they buy into.) But there are many natural reasons why she might have called out names. Perhaps she was seeing hallucinations. Perhaps she was calling out lots of names at random, and we only noticed those that were dead. I noticed that she also called out the names of living people, as well as the names of people not in the family. (There was ‘Warren’ — we don’t know a Warren — as well as Charlemagne.) It took a bit of thought and knowledge to come up with these natural explanations, but in general my family liked the supernatural ones better.

The idea of spirits is a very pervasive one, but imagine the implications. There are unseen beings which could possibly be all around you. They might be watching you (yes, even in the bathroom), listening to you, and forming opinions on the things you’re doing. It would be easy to see how this belief could lead to a kind of paranoia. How could it do otherwise? Why wouldn’t you jump out of a window to avoid an evil supernatural enemy?

Supernatural thinking does nothing to advance our understanding. It’s the kind of thinking that kills people.

6 Comments

  1. *facepalm*

    If I thought there were spirits watching me in the bathroom and whenever I get naked, the last thing I'd want to do is die and have to meet them face to face.

  2. Great post. This kind of thinking infuriates me whilst simultaneously evoking pity.

    Btw, a little typo:
    "easy to see how this could[sic] belief could lead to a kind of paranoia"

  3. I think even believers can objectively see that this type of supernatural thinking is not good (that it causes unnecessary pain and suffering). But when supernatural thinking is used and the outcome is not bad (good or not discernable), then the believer has no problem.

  4. Okay, the thing that seems incongruous here is that this devil-fearing family was watching TV together naked… just what brand of theism were they into?

  5. French people seem to love getting around naked (think Seinfeld episode w/naked baking, newspaper reading…. naked everything!). My sis found this out the hard way when her French boyfriend's mother came to stay w/them.

    The next thing I thought when I read this was, were they on drugs? and were they watching a horror movie whilst using a ouija board? because that was some serious over-reacting.

    T's granddad is in hospital and will probably pass on soon. There are some serious conflicts going on between the believers and the non-believers. Just when respect and kindness are most needed there is a disturbing amount of manipulation and innuendo going on. Very disappointing, and awkward!

  6. Hey Daniel, have you seen this story yet?

    It's about an LDS couple who used intrauterine insemination to get pregnant, and then when they were told they were carrying six babies and needed to reduce, they decided to instead consult the "church elders" and pray, eventually deciding to "let God do what he's going to do". Predictably, they were delivered 14 weeks premature. Three died painful deaths shortly thereafter, one is pretty much almost dead (who knows by now), and the other two have permanent health problems.

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