Culture & Society

My Belief is Their Superstition: Rethinking Belief Systems

By José Armando Fernández Guerrero

“Hazte pa’alla.”

“¿Mande?”

“¡Que pongas los pies pa’ acá y la cabeza lejos de la puerta!”

For some reason, my child self found pride in annoying his elders. In this scenario – a hallmark of my life as a little rascal – my mother commanded me to tuck myself in bed with my head as far as possible from the door. I was 3 or 4 and asked why she insisted on this. “Sino no vaya a ser que se meta un ratero,” she would always answer. If not, perhaps a thief will creep into the room. Seems legit, right? She was my mother, so I eventually obeyed. Her word was final regardless of the explanation. With enough repetition, her explanation actually became completely logical to me. And thus, I internalized this thought-process over the next 17 years.

Let’s fast-forward. Now I am 21, no longer living in Mexico, and the final word is now mine. I realize that several of my habits are just unusual to others. Similarly, many of the new behaviors I encountered were strange to me. Dinner is not at 10pm, meat isn’t in every meal (no, chicken does not count as meat), and people can wear sweatpants and a T-shirt to class. Admittedly, these are rather superficial habits, because they do not interfere directly with one’s logical thought-process. Superstitions, on the other hand, are habits that have more control over our actions and our way of making sense of the world.

This semester, I realized once more the far-reaching degree of control my own upbringing has had on my understanding of the world. In my new room, I daringly decided to sleep with my head closer to the door, so I would be closer to the window with a nice view. I dismissed my mother’s advice and I slept perfectly fine. My mother is antiquated; why does she hold onto this belief?

The following morning, I went downstairs, had breakfast, got ready and picked up my wallet. But I could not find any cash in it… What the fuck? Where’s my money? I’m not the kind to lose money, or anything, really… Then it hit me. I left my door unlocked at night and someone must have come in. ¡Un ratero! A thief! It’s true! I’m never sleeping in that God-forsaken position again! ¡Un puto ratero entró a mi cuarto! Which one of my trusted housemates is an unscrupulous thief? Needless to say, I remember nothing from lecture that day.

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Art by Tatiana Malkin

A few days passed, and I locked my door constantly. It wasn’t until my house’s first meeting that the mystery was revealed. When our house Treasurer began “Thank you for those who paid the activity fee…” Bam! That’s where the money went! The deposit, which I had paid long ago, added up exactly to the cash I thought was stolen. Never had I felt so relieved that I was wrong.

Needless to say, I had instinctively jumped to the conclusion a thief was responsible because of the position I’d slept in the night before. My mother’s advice, which one would objectively deem as superstition, was deeply rooted in my thought-process, but all I needed was a situation to apply it to. The word superstition has its roots in the Latin word for “prophecy” or “foretelling,” and indeed my superstition was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s an example of a belief I have inherited and ingrained into my psyche. This experience makes me wonder now: how many more beliefs, including my religion, can be reduced to illogical habits of the mind passed on through the generations? How often do I hypocritically dismiss someone else’s beliefs as superstitions?

Over the summer, I read Alma Gottlieb’s The Afterlife Is Where We Come From: The Culture of Infancy in West Africa which discussed child rearing practices among the Beng people. They believe babies come from a timeless, omniscient spirit world; upon arriving to this physical world they begin to “forget” and narrow their knowledge systems to adapt themselves to our limited life form. They see life as a cycle; the closer to the beginning or the end of it one is, the more susceptible (even willing) one’s spirit is to return to the spirit world. I could imagine the functional purpose of this superstition as being the compulsion for child-rearers to take extra care of infants. However, in viewing the Beng belief this way, I am giving it no synchronic value. I instead reduce their belief to a set of illogical connections (or superstitions) which happen to work well for them.

Though I dismissed the Beng’s beliefs, I did not hold my superstition to the same standard. Only after I found where my money went, did I consider how ethnocentric and imperialistic my thought process had been towards the belief of the Beng. Of course their belief system is a superstition while my European-rooted religion and habits are fully fledged. Why couldn’t it my thought process have been the other way around or at least grant both equal legitimacy? My belief too was an illogical connection with a functional purpose–a precautionary measurement against thieves.

In 1925, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinoswki wrote “As long as savage creeds have been regarded as idle superstitions, as make-believe, as childish or diseased fancies, or at best crude philosophic speculations, it was difficult to understand why the savage clung to them so obstinately, so faithfully. But once we see that every canon of the savage’s belief is a live force to him, that his doctrine is the very cement of social fabric—for all his morality is derived from it, all his social cohesion and his mental composure—it is easy to understand that he cannot afford to be tolerant.” Malinowski was one of the first figures to write about the difficulty we have to connect to other’s beliefs and the ease with which we dismiss them. He urged us to see another group’s beliefs as their life force to legitimize its need in their society. His writing in anthropological thought still otherized the “savage,” which would be avoided today. But but what if we otherize ourselves too? Anthropology seeks to study culture from an objective standpoint but also make sense of it from a subjective analysis. It is the subjectivity that I, and many others, still need to exercise. In putting ourselves truly into someone else’s shoes, we can realize that many of our beliefs are arbitrary but that every culture has them to some degree. Perhaps some of these habits of mind promote a functional moral system or protect us from potential danger, but even Western religions also have some unexplainable arbitrariness we take for granted.

Retrospectively, I could have asked around for the money and be reminded I had used it, but this choice was obscured by what I had been imbued in me as a child. My logical thought process did not kick in because my cultural habits took precedence. I cannot emphasize how relieved I was my belief was not true, but is this usually the case? How often do these cultural habits of mind obscure and control our understanding? Perhaps many more of my beliefs are merely superstitions. I’m trying now to be open to this possibility; only that way can I behave objectively to both myself and others.

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