If you wanted to teach a Fore tribesman of Papua New Guinea how to use a computer, you could take one of two series of actions: denigrate his beliefs, superstitions, and rituals, and THEN tell him about the computer.
Or you could understand why beliefs, superstitions, and rituals matter, earn the man’s trust, let him teach you how his culture helps him navigate the world, and THEN tell him about the computer.
As a fellow human being, which do you think you would respond to better? Because, despite what you might think, we in the “rational,” secularized West are not free from beliefs, superstitions, and rituals.
When I was a teenager, I developed an elaborate series of rituals that were designed to achieve one thing: good grades. For example, I would touch wood whenever I would say or even think about something I wanted to happen. The simple phrase “knock on wood” developed into a compulsive series of behaviors, and the rules became more and more elaborate.
I would never do what Lisa Kudrow is doing. Think about it logically: If you pretend that your head is made of wood and knock on it, you’re saying you’re a blockhead. You’re saying your brain is bad–and that is what a teenage Hunter feared most, because my sense of acceptance and value was tied tightly into my intelligence. So, I kept a wooden pencil with me to ensure that I would always have wood nearby and wouldn’t be forced to pull a Lisa Kudrow. I wanted to hit a home-run in school, and these rituals gave me a sense of control. In short, I was doing in school what batters do in professional baseball.
But while baseball players like Nomar Garciaparra are famous for their rituals, they don’t actually practice those rituals evenly. As Michael Shermer explains in his excellent book The Believing Brain, fielding is almost free of superstition while batting is full of it:
“I have made a similar observation on superstitions among athletes, most notably baseball players. As fielders succeeding over 90 percent of the time, they exhibit almost no superstitious rituals, but when they pick up a bat and go to the plate— where they are sure to fail at least seven out of ten times— they suddenly become magical thinkers employing all manner of bizarre ritualistic behaviors in order to cope with the uncertainty.”
But unlike batting in baseball, succeeding in school is more like fielding. If you know how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, you can succeed over 90 percent of the time. Yet we don’t teach kids how to learn in school. We just sit them in class without guidance and expect them to figure it all out–big surprise that most don’t. Instead, kids think magically. They believe that they are cursed with “bad math genes.” They think that they “weren’t blessed” with natural writing skills.
And those who really, really want to succeed but don’t know how develop lots of little rituals–like touching wood–to give them a sense of control over things they don’t know how to control. But as those students develop a sense of control over their academics, they no longer need the rituals. The rituals slowly fade away. Much like Bing Bong.
Does any of this sound familiar? That’s because a child’s education is the entire history of humanity’s cultural evolution in miniature. Children develop rituals. Children develop imaginary friends pulled from the elements around them. (Bing Bong is made of cotton candy and has the shape of an elephant, a cat, and a little bit of dolphin.)
Even though we love our imaginary friends and get very attached to our rituals, as we develop a sense of control over our own futures, we let go of our imaginary friends. Listen to Jared Diamond talking about a Fore Tribesman going in two generations from the Stone Age to the Information Age.
That’s why we should recognize that the behavior of New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins not only runs counter to the goals of science; it’s actually unscientific. It’s ridiculous to think that insulting people’s beliefs and intelligence will earn their trust and get them to reflect on their beliefs. If you want to think of religious people as children who believe in imaginary friends, go right ahead. But first consider this: Would you insult a child who had an imaginary friend to get them to stop believing it? Of course not. You’d teach them and trust that in time Bing Bong would fade away.
But that doesn’t mean that God will disappear or that humans will stop having imaginary friends and rituals. I still have rituals around learning. I BELIEVE that I will improve if I keep looking up words I don’t know and analyzing my mistakes. The ritual, the faith–it’s all still there. It’s just BIGGER magic because it fits well with reality. And I still have imaginary friends. And so does Richard Dawkins. His imaginary friend is called The Blind Watchmaker.
Humanity has long argued about what we should call our imaginary friends. Some people call them God or Allah or Vishnu or Shiva. Richard Dawkins doesn’t like those names. He thinks we should all believe in The Blind Watchmaker. It doesn’t make much difference. What matters is what we believe about reality. However, I don’t need to argue about that with you. I can just show you the evidence, and then you can draw your own conclusions.
And based on the evidence presented in books like The Diffusion of Innovations, I know that humans adopt new ideas when they have practical value. So, then my job is to help show you the practical value for your life of updating your beliefs. Easy peasy! No fuss. No muss. No more arguing about what we call our imaginary friends. I call mine Bing Bong. (What do you call yours?) Bing Bong is amazing. Why? Because he gave his life that Riley might live. He made the ultimate sacrifice, and if you know storytelling and human psychology then you know that human brains LOVE that. Bing Bong. Jesus Christ. Braveheart. They’re all great stories, and I can draw life lessons from all of them.
But what if I got super literal about Bing Bong? What if I decide that it was misleading to have children think that their emotions were actual little people in their heads? They’re not. What if I decided that it was inaccurate to think that there is a candy floss, cat-tailed, elephant-nosed creature named Bing Bong inside Riley’s head? There isn’t. And yet, Inside Out was made by teaming up Pixar with two of the world’s most eminent scientists, Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner. I’ve interviewed them both. They’re both baller. And they decided that personifying the emotions and having a candy floss imaginary friend was okay. That’s cool with science. And it’s cool with me that Richard Dawkins has an imaginary friend named The Blind Watchmaker. And it’s cool with me that Dawkins uses his imaginary friend to help people make sense of evolution.
So, why isn’t Dawkins cool with other people’s imaginary friends? Well, because often he and people like Sam Harris don’t recognize the wisdom that religious people know and that science has rediscovered. And because they don’t like many of those other cultures’ rituals. So offer them more powerful rituals. They’ll take them. Dawkins has an imaginary friend, and often when you listen to people you realize that personifying abstract phenomena is actually an incredibly smart work -around for the human brain.
The other day, I had a conversation with a Maori man, and he told me why the Maori personify mountains and rivers. When mountains and rivers are people, you take care of them. You’ll notice this Maori practice sounds a lot like Shintoism. In fact, it evolved independently in a lot of places. Religious practices like these aren’t stupid. They’re highly evolved. They draw on how the human brain actually works to create pro-social choices. Given the current state of the environment, maybe the problem is a LACK of imaginary friends in W.E.I.R.D. culture. I think that having more imaginary friends and respecting the wisdom of ancient cultures is something Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris can learn.
Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins haven’t learned science. They’ve learned W.E.I.R.D. Science. I doubt they’ve even been exposed to many of these ideas. If they had, they’d be busy helping Smart Go Pop rather than simply criticizing ancient wisdom that science has validated. In the end, the most magical thinking is to think that previous cultures were such idiots that they hadn’t figured out ANYTHING worthwhile about how human beings work. That’s the magical thinking of #NewAtheism and we can teach them better rituals that produce the results they want. No knocking on wood required.