Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 27, 2009

Supernatural beliefs contradict our smug sophistication

Supernatural — of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil (Merriam-Webster)

New Gilroy Dispatch columnist Erika Mailman (welcome to the club!) recently wrote about her 17th-century ancestor who was twice accused and acquitted of being a witch. With our 21st-century sophistication, we smugly scorn the ignorance and gullibility that allowed our forebears to accept supernatural explanations for mysterious phenomena.

Mailman correctly notes that witch hunts aren’t confined to history. She cites present-day witch hunts in Africa, India and Papua New Guinea and looks for motivations, concluding that witch hunts often result from “desperation, as war-torn families found themselves with limited food supplies. If one person is pushed out of the house, there is more food for those doing the accusing.”

Her assessment might be correct in some cases, but it misses the bigger picture: Tolerance of supernatural beliefs allows witch hunters to successfully persecute innocent victims.

If enough people reject supernatural explanations as the utter nonsense that they are, if they demand evidence for assertions, identify and reject fallacies, and think critically, witch hunts will disappear like dodo birds and dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, that’s hard work, so it’s not the way most people operate, even in the savvy 21st century.

Even today, because so many people hold supernatural beliefs and so few are willing to challenge them, we see parents who reject medical care for their children, instead relying on prayer and faith healing.

In a recent case, Wisconsin parents received six-month jail sentences and ten years of probation after their 11-year-old daughter died from untreated diabetes. Insulin, a discovery of rational, science-based western medicine, could have saved her, but these Christians chose their supernatural beliefs at the cost of their daughter’s life. The New York Times reports that 50 similar convictions have occurred in the United States since 1982.

Even today, because so many people hold supernatural beliefs and so few are willing to challenge them, we see people remaining in a sweat lodge to the point of physical illness, coma and death in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment promised by a New Age guru.

Even today, because so many people hold supernatural beliefs and so few are willing to challenge them, millions suffer and die from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases due to pronouncements from the Pope, acting as the allegedly infallible spokesperson for his religion’s supernatural being, that forbid condom use.

I’ve long argued that religion (that is, belief in the supernatural) must not be exempt from rational criticism. You’re welcome to guide your own behavior by whatever beliefs you want, but you are not welcome to affect my behavior, the health and safety of others, or public policy based on your faith.

If your supernatural belief (that is, religion) demands that you shun physician-assisted suicide, by all means, comply. But if you want to ban physician-assisted suicide for others, you need rational, logical, non-faith-based arguments to support your position.

If your supernatural belief tells you that same-sex marriage is wrong, then, please, don’t ever marry someone of the same gender. But if you want to ban same-sex marriage for others, you need rational, logical, non-faith-based arguments to support your position.

If your supernatural belief tells you to shun medical care and rely instead on prayer and faith, you’re welcome to make that decision for yourself. But if you prevent your sick children from seeing doctors, be prepared to face criminal prosecution and loss of custody when your prayers and faith fail to heal them.

If your supernatural belief tells you to abide by the ten commandments or the tenets of Shariah law, feel free to subject yourself to them. But if you want to post them in taxpayer-funded facilities, think again. Our Founding Fathers wisely put the concept (yes, not the words, but most definitely the concept) of separation of church and state in the First Amendment so that no one’s supernatural beliefs can trump our constitutional rights and responsibilities.

Until we get to the place where supernatural beliefs — whether they’re held by members of mainstream organized religions or fringe sects — are only tolerated in private, and where behaviors that affect others and public policies are guided by reason, logic and critical thinking, we’re not as far removed from our witch-hunting ancestors as we might think.

That’s the truly frightening realization that the pretend supernatural beings — the ghosts, zombies, vampires and witches — who ring your doorbell this weekend should trigger.

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