Two sides to national superstition

Religious adherents seem to particularly resent having their deeply-held beliefs described by the word “superstition”. After all, superstition is the belief in things that are totally illogical, that have no foundation in science, that are based on old wives’ tales and pre-scientific nonsense. Religion isn’t based on superstition. Perish the thought! Religion is based on faith!

Of course, atheists have long known that faith is just superstition’s Tyler Durden. Faith looks the way superstition wants to look, talks like it wants to talk, and fucks like it wants to fuck. This may be the reason why religious folks get all bent out of shape whenever this comparison is made – they see the uncanny resemblance and don’t want to admit the truth of the charge. Well, maybe they’ll start paying attention when it starts blowing up skyscrapers. Oh… never mind.

Faith, or religion, or superstition, or whatever synonym you prefer can motivate people to do impressive things. Mozart wrote some of the most beautiful music the world has ever known, and devoted it to God. One can argue about painters like Michaelangelo and Raphael (and the other turtles as well), but the fact is that there is a lot of art created in the service of superstition. But for every example of artistic inspiration, there’s an example of something else entirely:

Police in Indonesia’s most conservative province stripped away body piercings and buzzed off spiky mohawks from 65 youths detained at a punk-rock concert because of their perceived threats to Islamic values. The teens and young men were also stripped of dog-collar necklaces and chains and then thrown in pools of water for “spiritual” cleansing, local police chief Iskandar Hasan said Wednesday.


Chief Hasan insisted he’d done nothing wrong. “We’re not torturing anyone,” he said. “We’re not violating human rights. We’re just trying to put them back on the right moral path.”

We’re not violating human rights, we’re just temporarily suspending the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to not have your head shaved by police. See? It’s so simple.

Now it is entirely unfair for me to pick on the entire country of Indonesia. Every time they make it into this blog, it is always something that happens in Aceh province. It would be like blogging about Alabama as representative of the entire United States (which, incidentally, is often a tough distinction to make for those of us that don’t live in the States). That being said, one does have to wonder about a country that lets this kind of repeated stupidity run seemingly rampant without an adult stepping in.

Now obviously this is disturbing for a variety of reasons, but it should surprise nobody. Once you are convinced the gods license your endeavour, you can justify any action, regardless of its immorality. As much as I hate hipsters, if someone gave me the power to destroy the world’s supply of skinny jeans, Pabst Blue Ribbon and ironic moustaches, I wouldn’t. I recognize that hipsters are still people…ish.

And sometimes the power of superstition fuels not the violent, but the bizarre:

Two self-professed witches were detained in Romania on blackmail and extortion charges on Wednesday in a high-profile case involving a TV star and reportedly other public figures. Police spokesman Christian Ciocan said the two women — who go by the single names of Melissa and Vanessa — approached public figures promising to help them overcome work or love difficulties, and help them break curses. He said the women initially charged very little, but then, as their victims became hooked on their services, increased their prices.


He said the witches practiced voodoo, and sacrificed animals in graveyards and near rivers, claiming this would protect Ms. Zavoranu from her mother and in-laws who had put a curse on her. The Witches, however, claim Ms. Zavoranu is being vengeful because she asked them to cast a spell on her mother that would kill her, but the mother is still alive.

Witches. Really. Witches.

Apparently, belief in witchcraft is still pretty mainstream in Romania. So much so that high-ranking government officials are taken in by superstition. And while it’s fun to joke about, it’s apparently a serious enough problem that the police have to become involved. The belief in superstition is so strong that it separated a fairly successful celebrity out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Silly Romanians…

Condescension retracted.

So here’s the question: if Romanians had shaved the head of the accused witches to ‘cleanse’ them, would that be more sane or less sane? If the Aceh police had brought in their most powerful clerics to provide an Islamic blessing and prayers (Double double, toil and trouble, la ilaha illa allah…) would that make more sense or less sense? What is the practical difference between someone who thinks that punk kids need to be ‘cleansed’ to promote Islamic values and someone who thinks that animal sacrifice protects against curses?

The answer, it seems to me, is pretty obvious: the difference between faith and superstition is the difference between autumn and fall, between a custodial technician and a janitor, between ‘traditional values’ and bigotry – one is simply a fancier word for the other. And while it may be nice to pretend as though there is a meaningful distinction between the two (“it’s not a chest of drawers, it’s a bureau!”), any dissimilarities are purely in the eye of the frantic beholder, clinging desperately to the belief that their vinyl records sound better than their neighbour’s CDs.

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  1. jamessweet says

    Can we start judging Canada based on the news from Alberta? I’m tired of you guys up North with your reputation for progressive politics and reasonable social policies. :p

  2. Crommunist says

    Alberta isn’t nearly so socially regressive as you think. Tax-wise, yes, policy-wise no. If you want to feel better though, poke around the last couple of months worth of Canadian posts. Since the last election, Canada has stopped looking like the future, and begun resembling the past much more closely. Hopefully at least ONE of us can get some pleasure from the perversion of our political system.

  3. says

    Well, sure there’s a difference between a superstition and religion. A superstition is one illogical belief. A religion is a collection of them.

  4. Broggly says

    Apparently Aceh’s problem is they had a terrorist seperatist movement recently, and the Indonesian government is worried about stepping in when they do stupid things in case they start killing people again.

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