What is it that makes an otherwise intelligent person stupid? I like to think I have reasonable brain function, but I had to wonder when I received a chain letter one day several years ago. It wasn’t one that urged me to pay money. All that was required was for the recipient to
Kiss someone you love when you get this letter and make magic
Well, that seemed harmless enough. This was followed by assurances that this letter was sent to me “for luck.” It was a favor. Someone was trying to help me without asking for anything in return. Even if I didn’t believe in this “magic by mail,” at least it was a nice enough gesture.
Except that there was in fact a price tag. In addition to kissing someone, I was also instructed to
Make 20 copies of the letter
Send those copies to other people, and
Do it within 96 hours
It wasn’t just a “nice gesture” I was being “asked” to pass along. The request had become a commandment. The letter “must make a tour of the world,” the author insisted. Why? Would the world experience bad luck and come to an end if the letter didn’t make it? As a typical chain letter, it was accompanied by threats, backed up by “proof.”
“Joe Elliot received $40,000 and lost it because he broke the chain. While in the Philippines, Gene Wolfe lost his wife six days after receiving this letter. He failed to circulate the letter. However, before her death, she won $50,000 in a lottery. The money was transferred to him four days after he decided to mail out this letter….Andy Doddit, an office employee, received this letter and forgot it had to leave his hands within 96 hours. He lost his job. Later after finding the letter again he mailed out twenty copies. A few days later he got a better job….Please don’t ignore this.”
Gee, thanks for thinking of me. Somehow, this nice gesture didn’t feel quite so nice anymore. I’d lose my job and kill my loved ones if I didn’t obey, presumably even if I didn’t go to the Philippines. But it must be real. They mentioned names and occupations. No one would just make up those things. And there was no ulterior motive, no money being exchanged.
To make sure the reader was convinced, the letter writer offered even more proof. “An Air Force officer received $70,000 in four days.” Pretty convincing. Who, by the way? And is luck always to be measured in dollars? “The chain comes from South Venezuela and was written by Saul Anthony Decroe, a missionary from South America.” It had to be real if they used the guy’s actual name, and it had to be a real name because they even included a middle name. Of course, even if this person really had existed and did send the letter, why should we think that this automatically proves he was a magician who could create a “lucky letter”?
There is, it should be noted, no such country as South Venezuela, but even if the S was capitalized by mistake, the assumption is that if the letter was written by a missionary, then it has to be true. We all know how holy missionaries are. (Having been one, I certainly know.) Of course, nowhere in the scriptures is holiness and luck correlated. Ask Job.
And if this is the chain letter started by Decroe, is he writing about himself in the third person and predicting future evidence? Who is it that updates the letter? Who is the researcher who tracks down the recipients to see if they’ve been bad boys or good girls in their response? Even if the original letter itself is magic, what are the credentials of the updater?
Just in case there is any remaining doubt about these letters, one more piece of incontrovertible evidence is offered. “Constantine Dens received the chain in 1955. He asked his secretary to make twenty copies and send them out. A few days later he won a lottery of ten million dollars.” How many ten million dollar lotteries were around in 1955? Even if we could look up lottery winners and find out there really were such a person, how would we know the author of the letter didn’t look it up, too, and just include the names of a few lottery winners to use as evidence?
What assurance do we have that even if these people existed and did win money, they actually took part in a chain letter campaign? If the letter started in 1955 and had to go to 20 new people every 4 days, that would be in the 57 years since then 5200 time periods during which every four days, each recipient had to send out 20 letters. After only a month and a half, 512,000,000,000 people would have received letters, only 506 billion more people than there are on the planet.
Not everyone sent the letters, obviously, which explains all the bad luck in the world. After all, there sure aren’t 20 new lottery winners every four days. But if 500 billion is the exponential number after only 45 days, even considering the non-participating letter recipients, after 57 years, surely we’d still have reached everyone a hundred times over. And I’ve only received 4 chain letters in my life.
Maybe this is a good sign, that there are lots of people who won’t be ruled by fear and superstition. Somehow, though, I doubt it. This letter was sent to me by an acquaintance, an active member of the Mormon Church. While some feel that all religion is superstition, the LDS Church at the very least tries to eliminate a lot of the ridiculous superstitions. There is no immaculate conception implying that all sex is dirty, no automatic salvation by chanting the ritual words, “I accept Christ as my Savior,” allowing us to feel safe regardless of our personal behavior. Still, there are Mormons who believe sacred undergarments will protect them, that talking about the embroidered symbols in those underwear will bring down God’s wrath, that allowing one man to love another will destroy civilization. And as a child, I still heard at home all about broken mirrors, walking under a ladder, the number thirteen, black cats, cracks in the sidewalk, knocking on wood, and so forth. As I grew older, I vowed I’d never teach my children such hateful things to make them constantly worried about unimportant trivialities.
When I received the chain letter, though my initial reaction was one of irritation and disgust, that feeling was soon enough followed by, “But what if there’s actually something to it?” The self-loathing I would feel by giving in was simply too steep a price to pay for a “just in case” kind of superstition.
Still, I think of all the religious people I’ve known who’ve had their lives directed by others on the basis of blackmail and worry, and I wonder if it is possible to have a religion that doesn’t have at least some superstition mixed in, as part of the process of mental power control. I left the Mormon Church years ago because I felt that too much of my life was spent “knocking on wood” to keep on God’s good side. After so much time away, I felt I had pretty much purged all of that from my system. But the letter proved me wrong. On the fourth day, I warily watched for speeding cars and timorously checked my mail. If something bad happened, I could still send off those copies like that guy in the example.
There was even a disclaimer in the letter to keep people like me from feeling too stupid about mailing out copies. “After a few days you will get a surprise. This is true even though you are not superstitious.” Oh, well, then, I guess it won’t hurt to try, if I don’t have to have faith for it to work. “(That was always the main drawback in my religious superstition.)
I refused to send the copies, however, and the fourth day went fine. So did the fifth. But on the sixth, my ferret started getting sick and within a few days, he had died of lymphosarcoma. I should have sent those letters to avoid the curse. I brought this bad luck on a loved one.
What kind of a “holy,” religious person sending me the letter “for luck” would be so spiteful? Hmm, it does seem more and more to be the attitude that religions teach us God has. “I love you very much. But if you don’t obey my every whim, I’ll curse you for eternity for your ten years of misbehavior.” What is it people say when struck by a terrible disease or accident? “What did I do to deserve this?” They think they must have accidentally broken some arbitrary rule that God set up, because religion so often includes ridiculous rules with unjustifiable penalties. A perfect God damns an Amazonian tribesman to hell for not being a Christian, though the man has never even heard of Christianity. God damns a baby to Limbo for not being baptized before it died at the age of two months. God forgives a sin because I chant the Hail Mary four times, though I do nothing to atone for the sin. Likewise, if I atone to the person I’ve hurt but neglect the confessional, I’ll still be punished. Rubbing the beads of the Rosary is what counts, not letting milk touch meat, not saying “fuck.” It’s the superstition which saves, not anything else.
A Baptist preacher once told me that the people killed in the Coconut Grove fire wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t committed the sin of dancing that night (apparently they could have committed it the night before without displeasing God). Mormons, however, believe that dancing is good. Unfortunately, they have other superstitions to make up for it. God will be so distraught if we drink a glass of tea, for example, that he will refuse us entry into His presence in heaven for eternity. It’s easy for Baptists to see the superstition in Mormon beliefs, for Mormons to see it in Catholic beliefs, for Catholics to see it in Baptist beliefs. The real challenge is for each of us to find the bits of superstition in our own beliefs and weed them out of our lives.
Does religion have to be made of threatening, petty superstition in order to intimidate its followers into obedience? If religious leaders truly believe they have something wonderful, they shouldn’t have to scare people with tales of the bogeyman to keep them coming back. It’s harmful to all of us to make us feel dependent on God’s capricious impulses, like his throwing up his arms in disgust and flooding the world or sending an earthquake or fire or tornado. We end up turning god into the bickering, self-centered gods of Mount Olympus. Christmas and Easter aren’t the only pagan traditions Christians have incorporated. We also expect our god to be petulant.
No matter how we explain the Garden of Eden, we are haunted by the suspicion that God tried to trick us by placing us in a no-win situation. We often feel as if even though we have the correct requirements on our spiritual resume, we won’t get the position of heavenly attendant because our resume isn’t printed on the right kind of paper. It is this pettiness raised to the level of divine judgment which trivializes religion and turns far too much of it into superstition.
The question becomes not “How can we become better people?” or “How can I better help my neighbor?” but “Did I use the right print type on my application for entrance to Heaven?” “Did I dot my i’s and cross my t’s?” We turn religion into a game of “Mother May I?” or “Simon Says.”
If we “dare” to offend God by analyzing religious superstition the way we analyze preposterous chain letters, we can learn to separate the wheat from the chaff and keep the truly important beliefs in our lives without cheapening them with rubbish. If there really is a loving God at all, He would surely expect us to be mature in the way we worship Him. So let’s toss aside the counterfeit religion and focus on making the world a better place. It’s hard to break the chains that superstition hold on us, but we can do it without tossing a pinch of salt over our shoulder or crossing our fingers behind our backs. If I’m wrong, may lightning strike me.