One of the claims often made about a religious practice by those outside of the practice is that it is merely “superstition”. With all apologies to practitioners of the so-named religions of Haiti and Louisiana, the most common term in the American vernacular for a collection of superstitious beliefs and practices is “voodoo”. When I refer to “voodoo” in this piece, I am using the vernacular, not referring specifically to the active belief systems of these people, except where noted.
Recent observations on my life have been bringing this idea up in my mind, that we all have a certain amount of voodoo in our life. We do chants and dances to make things happen in the faith that it may have the desired effect without having a very rational explanation.
“To get the car to start I have to turn off the radio and pump the gas twice”
“If I change lanes then that lane will stop”
“It’s Okay, five second rule”
Some of these thing s come from experience directly, forming a correlation in our mind, and often even triggering a rationalization where we make up a story about what is happening. An example from my past comes to mind. A couple of decades ago, if an office was sharing a printer for multiple PCs, there was likely a print server that the printer was connected to , and the PCs would connect to the print server and the jobs would queue up there. The Novell print server would only let a client connect once, and would verify that the connection was still active by checking every 30 seconds, and only drop the connection after 3 tries, so if your PC was shut down, it would be 90 seconds before it could establish a new connection, but a 286 or 386 could generally reboot in about 45 seconds (if you had Windows it was an app on DOS back then). As an IT guy at the time, I marveled at the colorful voodoo dances people would describe for “what you have to do to get the printer back” that all essentially just caused a retry after longer than 90 seconds, and therefore worked every single time. After I wrote a batch to load the printer client that looped until it connected, my life was a bit less amusing. But here is the point: the dances “worked”. These were empirically developed practices that had the desired effect even though the belief structure around it was self-perpetuating nonsense.
Doctors get upset with me when I point out that 90% of medicine is “voodoo” in this sense. They have explanations and descriptions for why things work, but only a tiny fraction has ever been subject to the kind of experimentation that determines actual cause-and-effect. The rest just works often enough that it does not matter that the dance is just a ritual to invoke an event. A drug trial is “this seems to work, let’s try it on more people”. Yes, there is some drug research that is scientific and theoretical, but only on expensive synthetics. Nobody bothers to find out why aspirin works, it just does. It’s like magic. The Doctors get upset at the notion that their magic is “just” superstition (the word “just” in this context has no logical meaning, it is a word we use to avoid fair comparison), but being a more effective and useful voodoo does not mean it is not voodoo. If I had to choose between a Haitian witch doctor and an American Medical Doctor, I would go for the MD every time, because he has a much better book of spells.
I like to brew beer. The basic rules of brewing beer are pretty simple. You want the right bacteria (yeast) to thrive in the sugars you extract from malt, and you want them to do it in a way that tastes good. From the time you start to extract the sugars to the time you open the bottle or tap the keg, there are all kinds of steps where you could make the wrong bacteria thrive, or make the right bacteria sick or dead, causing the resulting stuff to taste bad. So, what you boil, what you bleach, what you rinse, what you rinse with, all become one step in a ritual that when followed perfectly, results in great beer every time. Having rituals that work to effect the results we want in our lives can be very important. The way we remember the ritual is much less important to the result than whether we follow the ritual. When the proven ritual drives the story, the results are predictable and positive. If, however, the story drives the ritual, then the results may be hit-and-miss, depending on how well the pattern of the story lines up with the reality behind the success of the ritual. A long tradition of successful ritual may tend to develop a story that is so consistent with the effects of the ritual that for all intents and purposes, the story is true, just like wheel that spins smoothly without perturbations is true.
We have many “ancient” belief systems. The quotes are around the word because the beliefs may have originated in the far past, the nature of the beliefs as practiced today scarcely resembles those origins. Every generation adopts and adapts the living version of the stories to fit their current world, and the rituals also drift significantly over time. There are some rituals that bear quite a bit of similarity to their ancestors, but as often as not, the story was maintained and the ritual gathered new steps and enhanced old ones. Some rituals lose their relevance. Let’s try a fable:
Once upon a time, there was a tribe of people that settled a land near a sea. Each family had a farm. There was enough land for each family to have one farm, so it was important to each family to maintain that one farm. Splitting the farm up between the kids made the farm too small to be effective, so the farm passed to one child and the others could stay and work the farm with that heir and be fed and cared for, or they could go off to war to be a merchant in a city somewhere, but the farm stayed in the family. To keep peace, there were rules about how that heir was chosen, and they made it hard to cheat. So, for example, if the Eldest Son got the farm after he married, but died before he had kids, then the next in line son had to try and impregnate the dead son’s wife so that the line continued through the first son, and this kept the kids from killing each other to get the farm. No system is perfect, so the legal system also said that if we catch you trying to do something to mess with this inheritance, we’ll kill you. That means girls who risk getting pregnant before they are married into the inheritance structure: dead. Boys who would rather be with other boys than produce an heir: dead. Those who tell their parents that they should not be the head of the structure: dead. Those who are supposed to produce an heir for their dead brother and pull out before the shot: dead. While we are at it, those who eat stuff that may kill them and leave the farm without help, or cook stuff that sometimes makes the whole family deathly sick: dead. Those that lead the young away from this model by dressing differently and talking about how cool the city kids are with their other ways: dead. They told the story that this is the way that works and always has worked, and it comes from back when God himself took the time to explain things to us. Centuries later, many of these rituals are not relevant for the many people who do not have tribal farms, but the law, or parts of it, still persist for the descendants and those who are inspired by them. The End.
That was a fable. Like many, it is mostly an over-simplified fantasy scenario to illustrate the forces at work, not describe history. Other versions of the story would have a lot behavioral rules that remain relevant today, such as:
Don’t get so hung up on material things that you put them ahead of spiritual health
Don’t pollute your spirituality by invoking it for ill purposes
Set aside time for your spiritual health
Respect the wisdom and experience of your predecessors even when you do not understand it or agree with it
Do not take another person’s life.
Don’t cheat on your spouse or with someone else’s spouse.
Don’t take what belongs to someone else
Don’t lie about people
Don’t dwell on what others have that you do not.
These rules grease the wheels of social harmony as well today as they ever did, and they do it well. Follow them and you will be a better person. Establish habits and rituals around them and it will be easier to follow them. I especially like the fourth one, because it is the underlying theme of this discussion. There are rituals and rules in our life that have proven their worth over the ages whether the story behind them still seems to be consistent with the rest of our narratives or not. We have a tendency to think that if the explanation is weak then the observation is mistaken, or if the explanation is our favorite explanation, the observation need not appear accurate. We should be aware when what worked before still works and when it does not. We should be slow to dismiss any of the rituals that have stood the test of time while keeping perspective on their priority. If a rule is clearly not fair, then we should probably bend it, and if it will not bend, think hard and then decide if it should be broken. One of the most enduring story lines from all of the ancient stories is the story of arrogance, pride or hubris, in which a person decides that they know more that everyone who came before and defies the old ways only to meet his downfall and bring down the community in the process. We also have history showing us that abusing and hijacking the narrative to promote personal power and obedience means we cannot afford to let the rules scholars just tell us the rules and accept that they must be followed blindly. We have to think. We must take our morality seriously and actively pursue what is good, not simply assume we know or follow what we are told. We have a wealth of advice from across the ages that we must listen to, but it is up to us to do what is right in the here and now. We have our beliefs that we work to perfect each day, and we have our practices that we find to be effective or not effective.
We all do voodoo so try to do it well.