The Demon-Haunted World

Thursday April 9, 2009

Demon Haunted World

Several years ago, whilst living in Indonesia, I was made a peculiar offer. I was in the Tanimbar islands, at the far Eastern end of the country, where I was studying the work of local wood-carvers. My friend Damianus, himself a sculptor, knew that I was interested in carvings from the area, and told me that he owned a walut, a small sculpture, that had been in his family for generations. It was, he said, panas, which is to say hot: so hot with ritual power, indeed, that when the wind blew from the west they placed the sculpture in the eastern eaves of the house, and when the wind blew from the east, they placed the sculpture in the western eaves of the house, so that the sculpture’s heat did not blow inside and lead to sickness and misfortune for Damianus and his family.

I said that I would like to see the sculpture, if at all possible; but when I said this, Damianus looked uncomfortable. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘a problem.’ He went on to explain that the sculpture belonged to his household (mata rumah): it was dangerous for others to see it. ‘I know that you do not believe these things,’ he said, ‘but we say that if strangers who are not members of the household see this sculpture, they fall sick or die. Or when they leave their plane will crash. Or their boat will sink. Or,’ he added with a shrug, ‘perhaps not. Who knows?’ Damianus hesitated for a few moments. Then he said, ‘As you do not believe, I will let you see it, and perhaps you will be fine. But I would like you to sign a disclaimer first.’

A disclaimer?

Yes, said Damianus. If I was willing to absolve him of all consequences, and to put on paper that I had been fully warned, then he would let me see the walut. Did I want to go ahead?

I myself hesitated for a few moments. Then I thought better of it. No, I said. Thank you for the kind offer, but I would prefer not to.

It was not that I believed that there was some kind of mystical power invested in the walut. It was not that I really thought that the ancestors would wreak their revenge upon me if I dared to poke my nose in places where my nose should not be poked. Nor was it only a matter of cultural sensitivity – the hunch that Damianus really would rather not have shown me the sculpture – although this was no doubt a factor. So why did I refuse? After all, there are many who would have simply diregarded Damianus’s warnings and would have been none the worse for it. And certainly, in terms of my view of the world, I have no truck with what Carl Sagan has termed the “demon-haunted world”. There are, I am pretty certain, no such things as demons, spirits, ghosts, ghouls or non-corporeal ancestors: not, at least, outside of our own minds and thoughts and dreams. And yet something just seemed wrong about the idea of signing that piece of paper.

I was thinking about this again the other week when I read a review in New Scientist of Bruce Wood’s book Supersense: Why we believe in the unbelievable. The book explores the paradox that, even though we may have given up on the demon-haunted world, the demon-haunted world has not given up on us. Our brains are still the same old human brains, however rationalist our credentials. We may not say that we believe in spirits and ghosts and so forth, but our brains are still attuned to thinking in these ways, as human brains always have done. When, a couple of years back I was doing some initial research for the novel I am currently working on, I held in my hands the guitar that used to belong to the painter Francisco Goya, it was with a quivering and quite non-rational reverence, as if I had in my hands something almost holy. Conversely, as Hood points out, most of us would shrink from wearing an item of clothing that belonged to a mass-murderer. We might know that the guitar is just wood, that the clothing is just cotton or wool: and yet the human mind simply does not apprehend the world in this fashion.

If Hood is right, then all of us, from the most hard-nosed of champions of reason, to the most otherworldly of shamans and priests, have one foot in the demon-haunted world. And if this is the case, then this is something that we need to come to terms with. There is a kind of rationalist bravado that hopes that we might be able to dispense with the whole lot of it, to throw out the spirits and gods and ancestors in one fell swoop; but there are good reasons for thinking that this bravado is misguided. If we are stuck with the demon-haunted world, then I think we need something less dramatic than bravado. Perhaps a kind of irony born out of the recognition that the mind will continue to conjure such extravagances, even if we know that there is no rational ground to believe in them.

This puts a rather different slant on the interminable science vs. religion debates. The challenge for the hopelessly irreligious is this: to recognise that the demon-haunted world is here to stay and that we all move in a world haunted by countless non-corporeal spirits. We simply are the kinds of beings who swear at dumb machines when they break down, who find ourselves willing the traffic lights to change when we know that there is no possible causal connection between our willing and the changing of the lights, who relate to the world in countless ways that cannot be called rational. But, conversely, the challenge for the hopelessly religious is this: to admit the possibility that the entities in which so much faith is put, the spirits and saints and gods, are born not out of the world, but simply out of the ordinary, everyday, functioning of the human mind. And in recognising this, perhaps it might be possible to take both rationalism and religion a little, well…, a little less seriously.

It’s impossibly utopian, of course, but might there not be some kind of convergence here? What if the rabbis and priests and monks were able to say, “These otherworldly beings of which I speak, and in which I cannot but believe – they are born only from my mind; and yet I believe, because I cannot do otherwise”? And what if the rationalists were to put their bravado to one side and say, “I do not believe, of course; and yet were I to find myself in a foxhole, I would probably pray along with the rest of you, not because there are any grounds for thinking that anyone is listening, but because I have a human mind, and I cannot do other than this” ?

And what if they were then all to say, “Ah, what does it matter? Let’s go and grab a bite to eat”?

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#1 · Dave Robinson

10 April 2009

And of course the next interesing question is the relationship of mind and world. I feel that consideration of this old chestnut might seem to help resolve the two sides of the argument together somewhat in the way you imply.

#2 · billy

14 April 2009


yes, it would be great if people could take religion a little less seriously..and while they’re in the mood for levity they could maybe apply it to everything else, then the world (cliche coming) ‘would be a much better place’!

I might even try it myself.

#3 · Bernhard

15 April 2009

Above all, I would suggest that exploiting our own brain’s habit (or capability!) of believing things can be great fun once you don’t take it too seriously – look for “trance masks” on Youtube for example.

#4 · DonB

15 April 2009

Transcending the great divide. Nice post – may we help ourselves and others approach the fence between us. Now – off to breakfast and work!

#5 · Alex Hubbard

21 April 2009

Dear Will,

thanks for the post. Something in what you say relates to an interest I have in the on-going project of secularisation in the west. Thinking about this process in general I often try and look for secular versions of religious ideas so as to see if those ideas are merely reappearing in different, secular forms. For example, if you play the game during life and create a store of good deeds and obey religious law you get rewarded when it’s all over. This seems not entirely dissimilar to the work ethic, pensions and retirement. Be that as it may what I wanted to say was that it seems that the rational as an ideal to which we can never attain looks a lot like the catholic notion of original sin. We’re just not built to accomplish righteousness/rationality. Where does this leave us? Possibly with another idea of ourselves that we just don’t, and can’t, quite make the grade, a degraded picture of a humanity failing to connect with reality. On the other hand maybe it simply means that the best possible version of ourselves is not to be sought through rationality as the prime mover and shaker. Still, it is interesting to see the Enlightenment ideal of reason condemning us to a similar lowly plight that they sought to remove us from in rejecting religious auhority.

#6 · Will

22 April 2009

Alex, the question of religious ghosts returning to us in secular garb (particularly given that Rowan Williams has recently talked about the UK as being “haunted by religion!) is no doubt an interesting one – and it’s not hard to find examples of this. But I wonder if, in your example, the ghost in question – or one of them – is the idea of “the rational” that you seem to be putting forward. Are there different conceptions of what reason is and does that do not have to have the definite article before them? I’m thinking of (although I read it a long time ago) Robin Dunbar’s The Trouble With Science where he talks about the kind of reasoning that happens in the sciences as being continuous with the kinds of things that minds are evolved to do.

#7 · Erik Hedvall

28 April 2009

Let me talk about a book! Carl Jung is reasoning along these lines in his book “Man and his Symbols”. Something like: The human mind has evolved from primitive forms and still functions on all the primitive levels in the unconsious. Like a human fetus proceeds through a lot of amphibian and monkey-like forms on the way to growing into a human. Modern civilized people are just trying to ignore all these functions, and consequently get neurotic.

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