Monday, August 9, 2010

Magic is in the mind .

Religions large and small are cluttered with magical practices, as are social organizations, governments and corporations, because magical thinking is the default mode of the human brain. Child development experts confine magical thinking to a stage of childhood, but in practice it never goes away; magic is fundamental to how the human brain interprets and interacts with the environment. Essential to the practice of magic is the belief that the power to manipulate reality resides within the individual, who attempts to do so by means of incantation or ritual. Magic is a precise activity. Words and actions must be repeated accurately, or the desired outcome will not be obtained.

The instinctive use of magic ritual is often a reaction to stress. A person preparing for a job interview may pay special attention to his or her appearance, wear a lucky shirt, carry an amulet, and repeat affirmations learned from a success guru. This ritual behavior may reduce stress and thus help the interview go well, but it will not make the candidate more qualified, nor magically shuffle his or her application to the top of the pile.

The contagious magic evinced by sports fans, from wearing replica jerseys to collecting autographs and memorabilia, is obvious and widespread. The desire to meet a top athlete is a manifestation of the universal belief that power can be transferred from person to person, either by simple proximity, or by obtaining an object that has been in contact with that person. The obsession with celebrities and religious figures results from the principles of magic, and is no different than the ancient adoration of the gladiator, or the quest for the supposed relics of saints. Magical thinking is woven into layers of culture that have accrued over thousands of years. Desire for personal power, and over others is fundamental to being human.

In true magic, power resides not in a god or gods, but within the individual, who must precisely manipulate words and objects in order to obtain results. The later addition of deities marks a profound shift in power away from the individual. Instead of being the locus of power, the individual becomes a supplicant to an unseen power. How did this shift come about? The underlying thinking might go like this: man makes things, but man cannot make the sky, or rain, or a tree. Something that is like a man, only much greater, must make these. Whatever causes storms, rain, and lightning, must be very powerful and it must live in the sky. This radical change benefits humans; magic depends on the power of the individual, but what if he or she is weak? If a powerful being can be put to work on one's behalf by flattery, pledges of obedience, and sacrifice, respite from life's problems might be achieved.

The gods began their existence as real ancestors. We know this because people ply the gods with objects that people like, especially food and luxuries that supernatural beings obviously don't need. The steps from ancestor to god are somewhat straightforward: when a person dies, the 'life' essence of the person automatically becomes supernatural. The person that we knew no longer exists, but he or she must have gone somewhere; there must be a world where only the dead go. It can take time for the missing essence to make the magical transition to the land of the dead (because they remain vivid in the memories of the living) and cultures have various techniques to ensure that the dead don't return to harass the living.

Death is universally feared: the dead ought to remain dead. Thanks to the strength of human memory, dead people persist in the mind, and significantly, in one's dreams. We forget that dreams had no rational explanation until recently, and people reacted negatively to the walking, talking 'ghosts' that visited them during sleep. Inhumation, especially with red pigment that represents the blood of childbirth, is meant to insure rebirth in another world, as much as it is done to protect the body from scavengers. Cremation prevents reoccupation of the body by the spirit-ghost.

The invention of a heaven or afterlife that promises a happy and eternal reunion with the ancestors, family, and in-laws, and perhaps with one's entire clan, such as Christianity offers, combines ancestor worship with an attractive location in the supernatural realm, a nice place in eternity that is intended to keep the dead, dead. Today's concept of heaven as a perpetual family reunion is a sentimental Victorian creation.

Literal rebirth, as shaped by Hindu religion, may also arise from the eerie fear that the dead will return to terrorize the living. Ensuring that life is miserable can be useful in a caste-bound society. A wealthy person would surely want to live again. A poor but optimistic person might see rebirth as an opportunity to be better off, to climb a step on the social pyramid. The negative positioning of rebirth confines the mass of humanity to a future of recurring misery. For the poor there is no point in wanting a better life; it's better to be permanently dead.

The gathering of ancestors into pantheons was a process of practical consolidation as human populations increased and spread, clashed and united. The Ancient Romans were particularly adept at conflating other gods with their own; importantly, magic ritual persisted through the time of empire in private and public life, and was codified in the Roman Catholic Church.

Pantheons were insurance providers
In the ancient world, travelers greeted each other with the question, "Which gods do you worship?" Deities were compared, traded, and adopted in recognition that strangers had something of value to offer. An exchange of earthly ideas and useful articles also took place, and a more comfortable daily life was obtained through expanded availability of materials, tools, foods, and skills.

Pantheons were the ancient world's insurance providers. Diverse deities protected women, children, tradesmen, sailors, butchers, farmers, and soldiers, regardless of status. No pre-existing condition prevented a person from finding a god, goddess, or spirit protector. Each person or group had a sympathetic listener, who might increase one's chances for a favorable outcome to life’s ventures, large and small. The non-racist and religiously inclusive mind of the Romans was a powerful factor in the success of their multicultural empire, which abolished barriers to travel, trade, and information across the Mediterranean world, and in Europe and North Africa. More people wanted to be included in the Roman Empire than wanted out.
Monotheism ruined all that.