The Wonderful World of Magical Thinking

30 01 2007

The new year is upon us, and it is time to inaugurate a new regular column. Actually, all I’m doing is re-labelling an old one so as to broaden its scope. Over the past year or so, “This Is Your Brain on Dispensationalism” has kept you up-to-date with the latest and wackiest in religious irrationalism, particularly where it intersects with politics and the continuing efforts by theists to breach that wall of separation between church and state that is so central to the notion of a healthy liberal democracy. And as long as the theocrats persist, you’ll continue to hear about it–but there are many other forms of irrationalism worth noting that can, like fundie irrationalism, be amusing and alarming in equal measure. Take, for example, flag worship (lampooned mercilessly at Tim Dunlop’s blog). Welcome to The Wonderful World of Magical Thinking!

Magical thinking, according to Wikipedia, is “non-scientific causal reasoning.” The kind of reasoning according to which if one’s mother incurs a spinal injury, it is the result of one’s having inadvertently stepped on a crack in the pavement. Or the kind of “thinking” that would lead a wingnut idiot mother to scrupulously file through the clothing racks at Target lest so as to preclude the possibility of purchasing a garment bearing the faintest trace of devil, a skull and crossbones, or the Evil Eye. There are, according to the anthropologist James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough fame), two key principles of magical thinking: the law of similarity, “the notion that things that resemble each other are causally connected in some way that defies scientific testing” (Skepdic), and the law of contagion, which is the belief that “things which were once in physical contact maintain a connection even after physical contact has been broken” (Wikipedia):

Think of relics of saints that are supposed to transfer spiritual energy. Think of psychic detectives claiming that they can get information about a missing person by touching an object that belongs to the person (psychometry). Or think of the pet psychic who claims she can read your dog’s mind by looking at a photo of the dog. (Skepdic)

Most telling is the suggestion by psychologist James Alcock that by virtue of the very makeup of our brain and nervous system “we are condemned to a virtually automatic process of magical thinking.” Critical thinking is “acquired–acquired through experience and explicit education;” magical thinking is innate.

Which brings us to a blog by Deepak Chopra championing magical thinking. Aghast at an evolutionary biologist’s claim that “brain research would soon unlock the key to all of human behavior,” Chopra would remind us that

Jesus, Socrates, St. Paul and Augustine, Isaac Newton, and Shakespeare all exhibited some form of magical thinking.

To which there are two responses: (i) “And?”, and (ii) Chopra is, regarding at least some of the figures he mentions, confusing magical thinking with creative thinking. But while the former is anathema to critical thinking, the latter is not. Chopra goes on: “Writing them off categorically as evolutionary puppets of biology is more than foolish,” and later, “To call our craving for beauty, love, spiritual significance, and self-worth an evolutionary trait or the result of a genetic imprint is extremely foolish.” That, right there, is the epitome of magical thinking (so Chopra at least cannot be accused of not practising what he preaches): Chopra doesn’t have nice warm feelings about a scientific explanation, and voila! Said explanation is dismissed out of hand.

Here’s another example:

Biology for Christian Schools, a “science” textbook, published by Bob Jones University, which advises students that “If the conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.” Surprisingly, the inclusion of such textbooks on the curriculum of a Christian academy in California has prompted the University of California to refuse to admit students who hail from there.

And another:

Donnie Davies, “Reformed Homosexual.” He claims that “By letting people know that ‘God hates a Fag’ I am doing Gods work, I’m preaching.” And he thinks throwing homosexuals in jail “would benefit them greatly.”

UPDATE: More from Donnie Davies, a man of many talents . . .




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