Got my mojo working

Superstitions. Lucky charms. Faith healing. Benedict Carey at the New York Times asks: Why Do People Cling to Odd Rituals? The conclusion, according to researchers, seems to be that people are wired for belief.

The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was “only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one.”

So is faith in a lucky rabbit’s foot similar to faith in an all-seeing, all-powerful, benevolent deity? Of course not, says Mr. Carey, glancing nervously over his shoulder for unsheathed knives.

These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.

Right. Lucky charms are completely different from religious charms. And writing a letter to Santa is not at all like praying to St. Jude. But if that’s true, why is religion such a good substitute for magic in young children?

It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer,” said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

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