Before I moved down to the blistering heat of Miami (and long before I accepted the ice bucket challenge and made Wisconsin my home), I spent some time growing up in Chicagoland. Bustling and diverse, the Chicago area offered a unique glimpse into varied cultures and religions. It was here that I spent a few years attending an inner-city charismatic Christian church. It was also here that I became a college student of world religion, visiting mosques, temples, and sanctuaries of every type. But most importantly, it was here that I first glimpsed the havoc wreaked by superstition, religion, and magical thinking.
Of several stories I could share with you, one stands out as particularly relevant to this morning’s blog post. I was working as a waitress at the time, and my coworkers and I had just welcomed a new employee to our team. Having recently left Guadalajara, this young woman bore the weight of her 12-hour work days with the relentless grace characteristic of American immigrants. She and her husband had plans to start a family, and though she was soft-spoken and shy, her joy was visible.
As the months wore on, however, she grew sullen. She wore a pleading, desperate expression as she quietly worked away the hours. One day, with a pained expression and a trembling voice, she shared her concerns with us. She and her husband had been trying for months to conceive, but she wasn’t able to get pregnant. She was sure her husband would divorce her if she couldn’t live up to his expectations and grant him a child.
Over the following weeks, I consoled her with the advice that any rational friend would give. “Infertility can be attributed to males or females.” “You haven’t been trying for very long.” “If he loves you, he wouldn’t divorce you for something neither of you has any blame in.” But she remained uncomforted, until one wintery morning when she walked in smiling. “I began treatments!” she declared. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Innately protective of this gentle and submissive woman, I probed, “What kind of treatments?”
“Come. I’ll show you.” She took me into the back room and lifted her work uniform to expose her back. I gasped. She was covered with burns. In a quiet but confident voice, she explained that they had found a doctor who was willing to treat her with traditional medicine. He had explained that she was frigid, or too cold inside to hold a baby. Her untimely move to the freezing climate of Chicago had aggravated her condition. The solution was to burn her. They would singe her back with a red-hot metal bar once a week to warm her up, which would warm her womb and allow her to carry. And though I tried to reason with her relentlessly, she was so convinced of her own guilt and the power of magic, that she proceeded with the horrifying treatments. Words can’t capture the feelings I have about this incident, to this day.
On my blog, I talk a lot about the harmful side of religion. But what about magical thinking? During my interview with Richard Wade, he made a statement that got me thinking.
It’s clear that people do have important built-in social, interpersonal, sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs, and atheists and rationalists are beginning to consider and experiment with what can fulfill those needs in better ways than religion. This is important in the long term, because if we don’t establish reason-based cultural norms that do this, people will just keep inventing new versions of religion and other magical thinking.
What is magical thinking and what web has it spun in society and in our personal approaches to life? Join me over the next few weeks as I probe into the history and future of magical thinking. I will kick it off next week with a whopping confession or two. We will explore magical practices within organized religion, the dangers of pseudo-religions and cults, and Voodoo, Santeria (yes, I have first-hand South Florida anecdotes to share!), paganism and Satanism. I hope, along the way, you will chime in with your own opinions and experiences. Then, when we’re all ready to wrap up this thought-provoking dialog, I’ll present what I believe to be emotionally satisfying, yet reason-based replacements for religion and magical thinking.
I can’t wait to share with you and learn from you over the next few weeks. Till then, I’m off to chant this Wiccan spell for sunshine:
Goddess Sol, bless and decree that the sun shall shine on me.
(Hey, it’s 26 degrees in April! I mean, it can’t hurt to try. Or can it?)