Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.
These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.
It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology
at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”
The Role of Ritual in the Evolution of Social Complexity: Five predictions and a drum roll
Prediction 1. Dysphoric rituals produce more tribal warfare, intra-elite conflicts, military revolts, and separatist rebellions.
Prediction 2. Routinized rituals enabled the emergence of larger polities.
Prediction 3. Intensification of agriculture leads to routinization and orthopraxy.
Prediction 4. Widespread orthopraxy makes polities more stable and long-lived.
In the study of religion, orthopraxy is correct conduct, both ethical and liturgical, as opposed to faith or grace etc. This contrasts with orthodoxy, which emphasizes correct belief, and ritualism, the use of rituals. The word is a neoclassical compound—ὀρθοπραξία (orthopraxia) meaning 'correct practice'.
Prediction 5. Routinization and orthopraxy lead to the expansion of political dominion and trade.
The process of inferring general patterns in human history has usually meant cunningly plucking out facts to fit your argument—for instance ‘cherry picking’ historical events to lend credence to your judgments about the ‘errors’ of the past and your favoured ‘prescriptions’ for the future. However flawed this methodology, alternative options were limited. Anybody seeking to use our accumulated experience of the past to predict likely patterns of history-making in the future has been limited by how much knowledge they could personally command, given the difficulties of accessing information, the limitations of brains (especially memory and processing power), and the shortness of scholars’ lifespans. To overcome these very human frailties, what has long been needed is a computerized database of global history in which patterns of correlations across space and time between variables of interest could be reliably tracked using statistical tools. Seshat: Global History Databank
, a vast collection of information gleaned from the work of scholars who study the human past, will provide a new way of addressing this challenge.
DMR theory posits two clusters of features pertaining to collective ritual and social morphology in the world’s religious traditions (Whitehouse 1995, 2000, 2004, 2012). One cluster—the imagistic mode of religiosity—is characterized by low-frequency (i.e., rarely performed), high-arousal (typically painful or frightening) rituals and small but intensely cohesive communities. The other cluster—the doctrinal mode of religiosity—is characterized by high-frequency (i.e., routinized) low-arousal (often tedious and repetitive) rituals and large-scale, hierarchical, but more diffusely cohesive communities. The imagistic mode is thought to be adaptive for groups that need to stick together in the face of strong temptations to defect—for example, when engaging enemies on the battlefield or large prey on the hunting ground. The doctrinal mode is thought to be adaptive for groups seeking to pool small amounts of resource from individuals in a much larger population so as to create a large, centralised resource in the form of charitable donations, legacies, tax or tribute – for example, when competing coalitions are organized via categorical ties of caste, race, ethnicity, or belief.