Thursday, April 1, 2010

Another Great Article – Knock on Wood


No, it’s not about the Stevie Wonder song. I was thinking about superstition the other day. Not so much in the broadest sense of all things paranormal, but rather in the more specific sense where people use words, gestures and symbols to try to influence “luck” or “good” or “evil.” These are almost universally pagan in origin, but they’re still in extremely common usage in a society that is almost entirely either monotheistic or agnostic/atheist. People who believe in “One True God” still commonly feel a need to “knock on wood” to ward off bad luck. People refrain from speculating about potential good fortune out of fear that they’ll “jinx” it. They feel a need to say something when somebody else sneezes. Even if it’s just something as benign as “gesundheit” or as seemingly pseudo-religious as “God bless you,” you have to wonder – why? Why do you need to say anything at all? It’s just an autonomic reaction to irritation in the nose’s hairs or mucus membranes. Does that really need an acknowledgment, much less a benediction?

What it comes down to is control. All of these old superstitions derive from man’s uninformed attempts to understand and exert control over the world around us. We all want things to go our way. We’d all prefer it if misfortune passed us by as much as possible. Life’s hard for most people, but some seem to live a “charmed” life – things just seem to work out in their favor. Mathematically, it’s just a matter of random probability, but it sure seems more likely that they must be doing something to influence their outrageous luck. And if we can figure out what that something is, we can imitate it and thus live the life of Riley ourselves.

At least, that’s the pagan, pre-science way of thinking. So they came up with gestures to ward off evil and sayings to hold onto good luck or persuade bad luck to go bother somebody else. The question then would be – why do we still do it? If we believe in the Christian, Jewish or Muslim God, we believe that all good AND bad comes from Him. He’s the maker of heaven and Earth and whatever isn’t the result of our own free will is part of God’s plan for us. Catholicism specifically condemns superstition as a “lack of trust in the divine providence of God,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Atheists or agnostics believe the opposite – that there’s no plan or there’s no influence or that, at best, there’s no way we can understand it if there is. Either way, the notion that “luck” or even “God’s will” can be influenced by saying “Bless you!” after somebody sneezes is laughable. Knocking on wood? Pointless! Tossing salt over your shoulder? Wasteful! So, again, WHY? Why do we still do it?

Well, it’s still about control. We STILL want to believe we can influence unseen forces to bring us good luck or steer away misfortune. We know better, but then we’re also keenly aware of how much we don’t really understand. There’s a whole universe out there of sub-atomic particles and energies and even spiritualism that we don’t really understand well at all yet. And since we don’t, well then, maybe there actually is some way to get a little more control over the winds of fate. Until something better comes along, of course, we might as well stick with the tried-and-true beliefs of our great-great-great-great ancestors. And if you think that’ll really help, well, good luck with that.

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