My 37th Fable, ‘The Foolish Monkeys’, concerns superstition. It tells the story of a group of simians who decide to go to the coast to feast on coconuts. Out of superstitious belief, they heed a shamen’s advice to take a dangerous route so as to avoid a behemoth, and are never seen again; only the single wise one among them survives. I was thinking of it this week, on being reminded of the time when my parents sold their house. A month later, they got a call from the new owner protesting that they hadn’t warned her of the presence of a poltergeist she could plainly see whenever she went into the hallway at night. My mother thought it hilarious but, with the nous she’d acquired as a psychiatric nurse, did not gainsay the woman. Instead, she told her that she must have brought it with her from her previous abode. Since the woman apparently accepted this explanation – for they heard nothing more from her – one can only assume that she had ‘seen’ apparitions before and thought this a plausible account.
If you’ve no taste for superstition, you may laugh at it in others, as I admittedly did when a woman I knew well threatened in all earnestness that, unless a relative of hers did as he was told, she would come back to haunt him. Yet superstition is part and parcel of the human condition. All over the world, and since time immemorial, it has been a staple of human culture. One reason – the one most often cited – is that it supplies an all-important sense of control, providing credible explanations for phenomena that otherwise would seem unsettlingly strange, and credible solutions to problems that would otherwise leave one powerless. A less obvious reason is that shared beliefs are a powerful way of uniting individuals, so that they form groups with collective purpose and clout. Most often there will be a person orchestrating this unity-through-conviction – a shamen or seer or witchdoctor or wizard or priest or whatever – who stands to benefit most from the stature conferred by his or her position. It’s the prophets what profits.
One of the main goals of the Enlightenment was to root out superstition in all its forms, on the grounds that it was an instrument of oppression and exploitation. By educating the people, these C18 idealists hoped to roll rationality out across the globe, starting in France. They did enjoy considerable success, providing intellectual impetus to the scientific and technological revolutions that made the West the unmatched powerhouse it was until quite recently. But their project has proved nothing like the universal success they anticipated. Large portions of the globe have remained immured against their aims, either in part or nearly wholly. And it was something of a shock this week to hear of the new report from the Pew Research Centre that, because the birth-rate of those portions is so much higher, the next thirty years will see a dramatic reversal for the Enlightenment. Specifically, the percentage of the world’s population accounted for by people who demand scientific proof before they’ll believe anything will shrink to that of an at-risk minority. The conventional liberal argument is that the dominant populations of the future will acquire Enlightenment values as they ‘develop’; but anyone who knows about the genetic (rather than solely cultural) transmission of beliefs will think that argument to be a triumph of hope over science.
If the Pew forecast turns out to be accurate – and there will of course be many twists and turns along the way, which might include natural calamities, man-made holocausts, and technological utopias or dystopias – this will be a grim future for those who believe that scientifically verifiable truths are the only ones worth knowing about. The species would probably survive even in a world full of mumbo-jumbo (as it did for millennia before Sir Francis Bacon defined the scientific method in 1605) because most superstitions are not actually fatal and, like placebos, can confer advantages. The particular reason why science might seem worth saving is that it is demonstrably safer to build your house on concrete foundations than to suppose that the benevolence of the Genie of the Flood Plain will spare your kith and kin when the rains arrive.