“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 Year of Magical Thinking