Indulging superstitions comes at a real cost

Often we think of people’s superstitions as harmless quirks that have are easily tolerated. No one gets hurt if someone says a prayer before eating, refuses to walk under a ladder or doesn’t go out on Friday the 13th. Those are all superstitions, ie irrational beliefs in the supernatural, but ones that are so common or harmless that we give them a free pass. When some people take their superstitions to even greater extremes, like claiming lego will destroy children’s souls or that Dungeons and Dragons is evil, we find it ridiculous but don’t pay it much attention other than as a curiosity.

I should perhaps note that I have had experience with that form of superstition. When I was in junior school (and again in high school) my friends and I used to play some card games. We played with regular playing cards and trading card games like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering (MTG). One of my friends had a huge number of MTG cards, some of which were quite rare and no doubt worth a decent amount of money. One day when I suggested playing I learned that he no longer had any of his cards. His mother had become convinced that the cards were satanic and had made him throw them all away.

That’s probably the most extreme sort of superstition that most well-off people encounter. However, the way of thinking that allows such superstitions to survive, that of accepting beliefs even when there is no or poor evidence to support them, is exactly the same in the truly harmful superstitions. The most recent examples of which require such credulity at such risk to personal safety that I just cannot comprehend them.

There are grown adults in Africa who truly believe that they can wear talismans to make them invisible and protect them from bullets. And when they don’t work (and they never do)…

I was distracted by this apparent obsession of Philippe’s at first, but soon realised that he was inadvertently responding to a question that had been bothering me: How does he explain it when a fighter, wearing gri-gri, is shot and dies? How does he justify its ineffectiveness?

This period preoccupation seemed to be the answer. Tell everyone that the wearer must have touched his partner while she was menstruating (or had walked under a washing line) without taking off his gri-gri, and Philippe gets off scot free.

Or there is an even more astounding story of a man who let a hyena eat his toes and penis because a witch doctor told him to. This sort of thinking is not just amusing, it’s endangering people. That’s why I find it scary that traditional healers in South Africa are gaining more recognition with some people thinking they should be regulated or granted formal qualifications.

We shouldn’t be regulating sangomas and witch doctors, we should be creating an educated population that is trained to think critically so we can move away from such superstitions. There will be cases where traditional medicine is helpful and where the knowledge from sangomas is important. In those cases, we need to study and understand why those treatments work so that they can be improved. That’s how we developed medicine in the first place. We found some plant, for example, helped people get better faster. Then we found the chemical in the plant that was responsible. Now we can deliver that chemical specifically in the concentration that will have the greatest benefit with the least risk. There are some people doing that work, as I learned at a previous MRC conference, however, the results were not good news for traditional medicine.

There was one section in the article that I agreed with…

Traditional healers are angry that medical boards are not ready to give African medicine the same standing as Chinese, Ayurvedic, aromatherapy or a panoply of other complementary treatments, which have begun the process of certification.

“It’s an insult, a disgrace that we have a medicine control council that has not been able to register African traditional medicine, but it accepts Chinese medicine,” said Rui de Carvalho, who ditched a cushy IT job to become a traditional healer.

All those traditional and alternative medicines should be treated the same way. They should not be treated as medicine at all. They are not based on any scientific principles and have limited, if any, benefits. One popular alternative treatment is homeopathy, a treatment whose very foundation goes against solid scientific principles. It’s possible homeopathy might work through an unknown mechanism. Luckily it’s been studied and reviewed many times. The most recent of which was Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council which found there is no evidence that homoeopathy is effective for any of 68 different health conditions they examined. The best site for understanding how homeopathy works is here.

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4 thoughts on “Indulging superstitions comes at a real cost

  1. Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
    And whooop, there it is. Follow the money. If your special idea would actually work there are many groups that would be exploiting it. The fact that governments are not exploiting your special power or thing is proof enough that it does not work.

  2. Plus the so called ‘healers’ are making money off the ignorance of good people and causing irreparable harm to believers who would chop off their left hand if their religious leader told them to. Just horrific! As in all things: education is key. Keep the people ignorant and you can rule them easily.

  3. Pingback: E&R is three years old! | Evidence & Reason

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