Superstition vs. Science

Guest post by Christopher

One of the hurdles that has tripped me up since we started this whole grand venture, and has been a huge challenge for me to get past, is the exasperation I feel when we run up against superstition in this culture.

Don’t get me wrong, superstition is a normal human trait, and exists in every culture around the world. It’s ingrained into the human brain, I think. We have our beliefs in the West, as well, which are just as unsubstantiated as they are anywhere else. I live in America, which is often full of backwards and illogical thinking, especially surrounding politics. It’s an election year here, and I get just as frustrated by our own crazy thinking. Just this morning, I was listening to the local morning show on the radio while they spoke with a comedian going on about vaccinations being a conspiracy and causing autism. A superstition like his is caused by fear—whether fear of needles or of doctors—the same fears and irrationality that gave rise to the Black Death in Europe hundreds of years ago. Such crazy fears are giving rise in whooping cough and other diseases in my own country which had been almost eradicated decades ago.

I have been a student of mythology and religions since I was very young and I’ve studied many different myth cycles. Mostly European but I’ve spent some time with Hindu myths and legends – Hanuman is a personal favorite of mine. I enjoy old stories, and many times they give the reader valuable lessons in behavior through parables and epic storytelling. As a writer, I have to love that.

But sometimes myths can also give rise to superstition and irrational fear, or the belief that cause and effect don’t have to bear any relation to logic. I’ve been hearing many things since I started to learn about India and the causes for the problems they face with sanitation, and some have made my jaw drop and prompted me to launch into tirades. I won’t do that here, but I’d like to share some of the things I’ve heard and let you judge for yourself:

  • That newborn children get diarrhea because their parents have sex too soon after their birth.
  • The idea that your hands somehow magically get clean while you’re preparing meals, so you don’t have to wash them before handling food.
  • That feces are just harmless dirt, and you don’t need to wash your hands after handling it.
  • That flies that were just crawling over human and animal waste are harmless creatures and don’t need to be kept away from food or open mouths.
  • Stories from travelers to India of food dishes or clothing being washed in the same water that is also urinated or defecated in, and the subsequent life-threatening illness that followed.
  • That the rivers in India are so holy they cannot become polluted, which in turn leads companies and communities to use them as sewage and chemical dumping grounds.
  • Pictures of people bathing or even drinking from the same water where corpses are floating a few yards away, or where animals are relieving their bowels into the river.

These things flabbergast me. They make me throw my hands in the air and pace about. And they also highlight the fact that the people we are trying to help desperately need education, and to set aside superstition in favor of the clear light of scientific reasoning. I’m not saying they must discard their legends and myths – I am simply saying they must no longer let magical thinking continue to cause this level of illness and death due to ignorance and fear. To do otherwise is gross negligence.

In 2011 almost one-quarter of all worldwide deaths of children under the age of 5 occurred in India. That’s far more than any other country. 1.7 million children and infants. More than 4650 deaths per day.Somewhere, somehow, superstition has to stop and real learning and change must begin.

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