The Year of Magical Thinking

From Noah to Climate Change, an Inability to Distinguish Fact From Fiction

Not Based a True Story: Evangelical Christians were upset with the new film about Noah, accusing of it of not being faithful enough to the bible’s version.
Not Based a True Story: Evangelical Christians were upset with the new film about Noah, accusing of it of not being faithful enough to the bible’s version.

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 05, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So said Neil deGrasse Tyson, joining Bill Nye as players in a strange cultural moment: the resurgence of magical thinking.
Magical thinking, you’ll recall, refers to the misattribution of causality: The black cat meowed, and then I tripped and fell. Two events, no actual connection, but a history of superstition links them together.

The past few months have witnessed a weird spike in magical thinking, irrational thought and superstition, often in the guise of religion. I’d like to think that these are its dying gasps — but as a historian of religion, I know that’s unlikely. To be sure, there is reason to think so: the Pew Research Center’s surveys showing how Americans are growing less religious; Nate Silver’s latest statistics showing how traditionalism is disappearing. Maybe this outburst is like the desperate jabs of a cornered cat, knowing its back is against the wall.

Consider some of the evidence.

Item: the new resilience of the Haredi belief (if that’s what it is) that yeshiva students are protecting Israel as much as Israeli soldiers are — more so, in fact, which is why Israeli government welfare should keep adult men infantilized in yeshivas (many of which are phony exemption mills) for their entire lives. This is magical thinking at its most extreme: the belief that a providential God, the same one who allowed the Holocaust to happen, is protecting the Jewish state because of the merit of Torah scholars (who once perished en masse in the Holocaust).

Or consider the recent right-wing outrage over the movie “Noah,”, an extended midrash on the biblical tale that dares to treat it as myth rather than as history. Set aside that this is clearly how the text appears to regard itself, omitting crucial details (for example, everyone’s wives) and focusing on the mythic and ethical elements of the story. And set aside, too, the fact that the actual text is far weirder than Darren Aronofsky’s ?script. Let’s reflect on the notion that millions of Americans appear to believe that in 2,034 BCE,, all civilizations were destroyed (never mind those cuneiform records) and all animals on Earth crawled, squirmed or flew into a 300-cubit ark.

This, millions of Americans propose, is fact.

But we’re just getting started.

As of last year, a majority of Republicans do not “believe in” evolution, one of the most successful explanations of evidence (that is, “theories” in scientific parlance) in the history of science. The data proving evolution is more certain than the data proving why a microwave oven works.

Speaking of Republicans, J.J. Goldberg recently pointed out in these pages that conservatives in America and Israel are now suggesting that we pray to end the drought. Well, at least they’re consistent. If you’re going to engage in magical thinking to deny the scientific consensus on climate change — last year, 10,883 out of 10,885 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals agreed that anthroPO?genic climate change is real, but zero Republican presidential hopefuls think so — you may as well turn to magical means to alleviate it.

Oh, and lest magical thinking be regarded as purely a right-wing phenomenon, we on the left have our anti-vaxxers, who are now endangering the wider population with fresh outbreaks of measles — based on no evidence whatsoever. And then, of course, there’s the reaction to Tyson — the new host of the rebooted, and by all accounts dazzling, “Cosmos” series. Fundamentalists are not happy.

First, Tyson convincingly shows how understandings of the Big Bang, evolution, climate change and the science that has given us the technology we all enjoy are closely linked with one another. You can’t “cherry-pick science,” he says.

Even worse, Tyson — like Carl Sagan before us — situates human beings in our factual cosmological setting. As the famous “cosmic calendar” of “Cosmos” puts it, if the lifespan of the universe is one year, we’ve arrived three minutes before New Year’s Eve And of course, by endlessly repeating that the universe is 13 billion years old, he casts doubt on the “alternate theory” that it’s about 6,000.

None of this should worry religious people per se. Theologian Arthur Green has written poignantly that the vast sweep of evolution is, itself, the most profound religious myth of our time. Addressing climate change, for those not blinded by industry’s multi-billion-dollar “climate cover-up,” has become a (the?) defining religious obligation of our century. And as for the interpretive freedom of “Noah”, as one rabbi recently put it, “Midrash is what keeps me Jewish.”

Magical thinking, however, sustains those who cannot separate the kernels of spiritual teaching from the shells in which it is often contained. The point of the Noah story is not meteorology; it is, for better and for worse, about faith, justice, perseverance, doubt and obedience. And the point of Talmud study is not that it magically steers Katyusha rockets away from Sderot, but that it fortifies the soul, enriches the ethical mind and envisions a just society. It is also full of pragmatism, wholly opposed to the ridiculous and un-Jewish fantasies of Haredi anti-Zionists.

Ironically, magical thinking has benefited from the unthinking pluralism of the contemporary American moment. Pluralism is good for live-and-let-live, and it is usually a liberal value. But when it shuts off rational reasoning and allows sheer nonsense to be presented as an opinion worth respecting, it becomes an impediment to progress.

Still, I remain hopeful that these delusions are, indeed, the death throes of old forms of ignorance. Intelligent design, reparative therapy — these are work-arounds, which would be unnecessary if the ideology they prop up could stand securely on its own. After all, everyone engages in magical thinking now and then. But we do so when the chips are down: when, despite our atheism, we pray for a speedy recovery; when we wear our lucky underwear to the job interview; when we’re desperate for control of an uncontrollable situation.

This, I hope, is where fundamentalists find themselves today.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.