We hear glib talk about a culture war, the fight between modernity and tradition, between Enlightenment rationalism and ancient superstition, between science and faith. But we are so immersed in our own myths, legends, unquestioned traditions and hallowed falsehoods, we can overlook them. A peek at an alien culture can be eye-opening.
Absurd fictions like feng shui become as trendy as magic crystals among some gullible westerners, but visit China and you learn about ghosts and discover that the gaps designed into the tops of gleaming skyscrapers are there to keep from impeding the flight of dragons and making them angry. Really!
I recently read “Leaving Iran,” a memoir by Farideh Goldin of her family. They were members of the tiny, Iranian-Jewish community that dates back to the Persian Empire. She tells how her family was forced to flee when the Ayatollah came to power. The book glancingly sheds light on the kind of primitive, magical thinking that used to be the norm everywhere through the long history of the world.
The author’s grandfather was one of a long line of rabbis. Many decades ago he was walking with his young son on a rainy day outside the walls of the Jewish quarter of Shiraz. He was set upon by Muslim ruffians and beaten. Why? Jews carry spiritual contamination and it is easily transmitted by water, so walking in the rain threatened to pollute the Muslim community.
After the Revolution, a Jewish woman who ran a hairdressing shop hired a Muslim woman to help. She was reported for morally corrupting a Muslim by this act, arrested, sentenced to death, put in a burlap sack, shot repeatedly and the bloody sack dumped on her husband’s doorstep. He was later billed for the price of the bullets.
In Iranian schools before the Revolution women were told to study home economics because they were unsuited for math or physics, a sentiment not that foreign in our own schools. And lest the superstitions of Iranian Muslims be thought to be particularly noteworthy, the author also describes the folk notions of the Iranian Jewish community.
For example, she was taught to prepare meals according to elaborate dietary laws, keeping dairy and meat separate and so forth and preparing ceremonial meals such as the Passover Seder. But no one ever bothered to have her learn the story of Exodus since she was a girl.
Her mother was essentially sold to her prospective husband sight unseen and put on a bus alone to marry him. At the time she was just thirteen, and the explanation was that she had to be betrothed before her first period began lest her value drop.
When the author’s father died, cousins practicing a severe form of Judaism refused to allow the dead man’s sons to attend the funeral. Their place was instead reserved for the unborn sons of his wasted seed.
And Muslims and Jews alike were taught not to boast or exhibit pride at their success or good fortune but to always concentrate on enumerating their sufferings. Why? To fool the jinn and avert the attention of the evil eye.
It is easy to be scornful of a culture this backward, brutal and unenlightened, but judge not lest ye be judged. In this country, not that long ago historically speaking, we burned witches, subscribed to blood-letting and lobotomy, and argued that slavery was ordained by God. A recently deceased Supreme Court justice was all in favor of criminalizing homosexuality. It was a scant 95 years ago that women were permitted the vote, and there is widespread belief spirits of the dead can communicate to us, the future can be foretold, houses can be haunted.
Listen carefully to the candidates for each party and you will hear, behind the platforms they espouse, the myths to which they subscribe. That deficits don’t matter, supply side economics works, we can win every war we enter, climate change is a hoax, government programs can cure social, civic and psychological malfunction.
Few humans are very far from the world of ghosts and goblins, amulets and lucky charms, talismans and divine intervention, evil spirits and angels on the shoulder. Our only hope is to foster a preference for reason over superstition, logic over emotion, evidence over hearsay, the scientific method over the conventional wisdom.