Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 19, 2011

Violence begets superstition…which begets violence?

Filed under: Idolatry,Pakistan,Superstition — Razib Khan @ 1:41 pm

Fear of terrorism makes Pakistani students turn to religion:

They interviewed 291 students from 4 different universities in Karachi. Almost all (90%) had been exposed to terrorist violence on the television or in conversation with their parents. A staggering 46% knew someone who had been injured or killed in a terrorist attack, and 26% had actually been personally exposed to such an attack.

When asked what strategies they used to cope with the stress, the most popular answer was that they increased their faith in religion (the table shows average scores on a 0-4 scale).

Given that so much of the violence has religious overtones, such a response may seem paradoxical. On the other hand, it may help to explain why such violence perpetuates.

February 7, 2011

Offense, superstition, and magic

Filed under: Astrology,Religion,Superstition — Razib Khan @ 11:34 am


One of Zach’s friends found my attacks and dismissal of astrology objectionable. He states:

But seems like i picked one post, which was very under researched and the gentleman had strong… no very strong views- quite offensive to some of us- but he didn’t care. Anyways, i tried my best to reason out- but got no direct response to my question/points- rather an abrupt and ridiculous statement and a threat of being banned from his site. Sure, your playground- you decide. Doesn’t mean you become right. , you can’t thrust your thinking on others.

Of course I didn’t respond to his questions. Why should I? I operate with a scientific framework. Real science. Not fake science like astrology or Talmudic analysis. I don’t get into discussions about the validity of Creationism, geocentrism, or, astrology. I understand that a large proportion of the world’s population find astrology plausible, and perhaps the majority of educated Indians. Since most people are stupid, I’m not outraged or shocked by this. And most Americans would presumably accede to the incoherent details of the Trinitarian formula. They don’t even know what they’re acceding to according to surveys. Such is the way of the world. In any case, within the context of South Asian culture the plausibility of astrology makes eminent sense. But, I don’t particularly respect aspects of South Asian culture which I find offensive (caste) or distasteful (superstition like astrology, or excessive religious enthusiasm and identification). South Asians who find astrology plausible have to understand that to someone like me their respect for astrology is as funny as a primitive with a bone stuck through his nose. Some of this is just cultural priors which aren’t even grounded in concrete belief. Many secular Jews who are atheists continue to tell me that Talmudic scholarship required some brain power and was of substance. I dispute this too.

Idol worshipers

More seriously, the debate over astrology doesn’t have great consequences in the West. It’s marginalia. But the idea of what causes offense is a serious issue. Every society has its shibboleths. The sensitivity that we Westerners show toward sexual assaults on women or discussion of the Holocaust seems ludicrous to some non-Westerners (I have had multiple discussions with immigrants who have a hard time grasping how Americans conceive of and react to rape). But there are real consequences of offense in a multicultural society. Some Muslims in Europe are clearly trying to silence people in regards to offensive speech because they’re a prickly lot. Consider this: I consider Islam as pagan and idolatrous a religion as that of the Canaanites who revered the statues of Baal. When Muslims hear this they sometimes become angry and think I’m being blatantly dishonest to offend. But I’m not. The Hajj is clearly a repackaging of old pagan superstitions into Muslim garb. Muslims will disagree about this, but I have reasonable grounds to stand when I make this connection as an outsider. I am both offensive, and, I am honest about my genuine beliefs More broadly my explicit atheism and rejection of Islamic identity despite my family background rubs many Muslims the wrong way. The most amusing case occurred at a party in college. A long-haired young man was very high on marijuana, and we found out that we shared a surname. His father was from Pakistan (his mother was a white American). When he found out I was an atheist he tried to illuminate me on the spiritual and glorious values of Sufism. He wasn’t quite offended, but even in his drug-induced haze he was somewhat affronted by my unequivocal rejection of ancestral superstition.

February 5, 2011

Superstition vs. myth

Filed under: Astrology,Culture,Superstition — Razib Khan @ 10:40 am

I want to enter into the record something: I do not think that we should be restricted to considering only what is “True.” Myths, stories, and hopes, are important, even if they’re not necessarily empirically sound or rationally coherent. For example, economists have made a good case (to my mind) that focusing on Christmas gift-giving leads to “deadweight loss”. But, I think it is instructive that all societies and cultures have such festivals. I believe that evaluating the efficiency of transfer of gifts on an individual level misses something critical about the collective coordination of the “season.” You may not get the optimal Christmas gift, but you feel the “spirit” leading up to that momentous day as all those around you are rising up in synchronous expectation. I suspect economists are missing the ends of the season here. It is not about the transfer of material goods and services to increase individual utility, it is about a collective reorientation which can not but help affect the sense of well being of all.

But there are genuinely destructive myths, those which I term superstitions. Chinese “traditional medicine” for example is problematic because of the need for animal body parts, which leads to an illicit trade (not to mention the probable lack of efficacy of many of the “cures”). The application of feng-shui to city planning strikes me as less fundamentally pernicious, but it is still an inefficiency which I think can not be justified in a society characterized by as much deprivation as modern China. Similarly, astrology as “entertainment only” strikes me as a harmless amusement. I have never accepted the validity of the practice, so I was never concerned with friends and acquaintances wished to “read my signs.” But, the utilization of astrology to determine marriageability or political schedules strikes me improper use of what should be fun & games.

February 3, 2011

Astrology == science in India

Filed under: Culture,Stupidity,Superstition — Razib Khan @ 9:06 pm

A dumb comment below:

All those anti-religion posts are from westerners whose exposure is mostly to Judaism and Christianity. And to a lesser extent Islam. It is easy to dismiss the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and Koran as irrational bullcrap but not so easy to dismiss Buddhism or Advaita.

Made me think of this:

The Bombay High Court reaffirmed this on Thursday when it dismissed a PIL that had challenged astrology as science.

The PIL was filed by an NGO, Janhit Manch that had sought action against ‘fake’ astrologers, tantriks, practitioners of Vastu shastra etc.

“So far as prayer related to astrology is concerned, the Supreme Court has already considered the issue and ruled that astrology is science. The court had in 2004 also directed the universities to consider if astrology science can be added to the syllabus. The decision of the apex court is binding on this court,” observed the judges.

(via Ruchira)

Object of idol worship

Also, to be fair to the worshipers of the idol Yahweh, Buddhism and Advaita are not properly compared to Christianity or Islam, they’re properly compared to Thomism or the Islamic sciences. The primitive aspect of Hindu culture  from which emerge the charlatanism of the Godmen, or the almost mindless devotional strains of Pure Land Buddhism, give the Western cults a run for their money. Of course militant atheism is probably a reflection of the Abrahamic focus on a specific exclusive personality cult around the figure of Yahweh/God/Allah. But the need for the efforts of the Indian Rationalist Association are a testament to the fact that superstition can flourish even without the tending of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

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