|Posted by speedskating-online on January 9, 2009 at 4:54 PM|
Written by Beorn Nijenhuis
Dutch speed skater
I am not one for jumping to conclusions, but I suppose I have taken a couple of things for granted. Besides believers, I assumed that everyone thought witchcraft was a bad thing. But, the more I read, the more I am left with a nasty taste of tolerance in my mouth. So many hands seem to be reaching out from the rational western world to the supernatural side of the isle, to try and find a place for magic in society.
Let?s first get one thing straight, at its core our western world is not superstitious, but scientific. As one who began his reading career with The Hobbit and later The Lord of the Rings, and worked with savage speed through the far inferior but admittedly entertaining Harry Potter soap, I am not one to deny a little of what Christopher Hitchens calls "the numinous" in my life. But in our western society, these books are but the "trappings and the suits" of magic, and fit over a body that has reason and science flowing strongly through its veins. This is not serious magic, and in our society, that has its feet firmly planted on the shoulders of Locke, Hume, Voltaire and Jefferson, this is not a problem.
None of the foundational institutions of western society are intrinsically poisoned by the supernatural. Our public schools are not Madrassas, our healthcare system is not goaded by alternative medicine, our courts reject witchcraft and our governments are not religious dictatorships. And yet in this supposedly rational society 73 percent of young people profess belief in witchcraft or paranormal activity of some kind. How do we manage such a feat of schizophrenia? We believe that the supernatural is all around us, but that it never influences anything foundational in our life. Agriculture, biology and medicine all used to be dominated by the supernatural, but today we take it for granted that a farmer in need of water will install an irrigation system, instead of dawning a rain-dancing costume and going out to jump around in some field somewhere. The supernatural has been pushed back from these areas of human endeavor, but there are still many where it holds its ground fiercely. In those ghettos of ignorance, with their thick walls of tolerance and fear to protect them, hysteria reigns. Charlatans and hucksters abound there to make their millions with improvable claims and fake promises. Outside of these ghettos though, rationality keeps our planes flying and our fevers low. In the western world we keep our penchants for the supernatural safe and secluded, free from scrutiny, or the possibility of ruining the world.
It speaks to the arrogance of the West that we believe that all countries are cafeteria spiritualists like us, picking and choosing what they like, but ignoring anything that might cause society grief. The truth is that there are still many cultures that define themselves almost completely in supernatural terms. In these countries, where magic goes far deeper then a daily horoscope, supernatural belief can be hugely destructive.
So often we fail to see the danger for what it really is. When we look at the sorry Aboriginals of Papua New Guinea, who stand entranced upon the tops of mountains waiting for their god to finally come down and bless them, we say ?Oh how culturally enriching.? These people have no contact with the western world and believe that the 12 o'clock cargo flight from Sydney to Bangkok is a god. They erect make-shift landing strips and wooden effigies of planes to attract the Cargo God. Just imagine the waste of human resources and energy that this obvious misunderstanding has caused these poor people. And what is the multiculturalists? ethic when faced with this theological embarrassment? Not to interfere, but instead to let them practice their religion and above all respect and tolerate it. What an arrogant and elitist approach this is. These people, who under other circumstances are equally capable of joining the international community, are left in abject intellectual poverty in order to please our twisted goals of cultural relativism.
In the same vein of tolerance-gone-wrong, we all do our best to respect and tolerate the deeply held traditions of African witchcraft. Here again we try to find a silver lining to this dark cloud. The truth of the matter is that they are equally great wastes of time. Although witchcraft has more subscribers than the Cargo Cult, both beliefs are equally silly. There are no love potions and there are no elixirs that improve virility just like there is no silver god of cargo flying overhead. But instead of trying to fight for more reason and rationality amongst all this hocus-pocus, we find ourselves trying to incorporate all this "richness of religious diversity" into our lives.
How can we? How can we make such a monumental error of judgment? I am not talking about the unfortunate but harmless example of the New Guinean Cargo Cult tribes. This is not about a simple waste of time and energy. I'm talking about 15.000 innocent Nigerian children slaughtered because we want to uphold the myth that one can believe in abjectly false and irrational things and not suffer the consequences. A society cannot believe in witches and not kill innocent people for the crime of witchcraft. In Nigeria?s case it was innocent children. How can we allow a government to sanction irrational myths, when it puts the people of that country at such infinite risk?
Zimbabwe recently relinquished its ban on witchcraft. It's a fitting symbol. In the collapsing scenery of a once prosperous country, the last and most horrible thing to collapse is a country?s relationship with reason. When that goes, we open the floodgates of hell. The horror of heretics being burned at the stake, witches drown in rivers, children being led to slaughter by their own parents; this is the horror of a society governed by magic.
Compared to the new hell being created in Zimbabwe, our problems with superstition seem small. But with government policies regarding stem cell research still the victim of Christian superstitions, and Armageddon paranoia getting serious attention from the White House, we must admit that much work is still ahead of us. But still, we must focus on the progress that we have made. Let?s celebrate this progress. It's time for a little more pride in the accomplishments of science and reason in the last 200 years.
One of my favorite futurists Michiu Kaku reflected on a question he is often asked: "What has science done for me lately?" Listing advancements in every field and every form of human infrastructure he went on to answer the question in one unequivocal word: "Everything."
This is a culture worth exporting. This is also a philosophy that is worthy to replace the backward, violent and useless cult of magic and superstition that reigns supreme in so much of African culture. Instead of practicing respectful tolerance for such pernicious and destructive superstitions, we should be doing all we can do to rout it out. The people deserve this. All African nations, held entranced by the terror and ignorance of superstition, need to be shaken free.
Shaken, as I would have shaken Isaac Newton every time he picked up those old alchemy books. Yes, even the smartest man in history was a victim of his own little compartmentalization of crazy superstitions. Who knows, had I gotten through to him, maybe the island of human knowledge in this ocean of ignorance would be a little bigger. At least it would have saved him a lot of wasted time. As it stands, there are plenty of other people who need a shake, so let's get shaking.
For a video on witchcraft in Africa, click here.