Here in the “civilized world” of America, we don’t take seriously any of those superstitious religious beliefs we read in text books about other countries (and I am, of course, not referring to mainline American religion superstitious beliefs). But I experienced a healthy dose of culture shock this past year while living in a house with an international student from West Africa. I never quite managed to catch the exact name of the country that he’s from, but French is his first language. What I learned was that all of these superstitious beliefs that we basically consider punchlines are as real as terra firma to someone coming from within the culture.
I remember an awkward conversation in the kitchen one stormy night where my housemate turned to me and explained how, back in his country, there are powerful people who can control the weather. I looked into his face for a trace of humor, but found none. He was saying it matter-of-factly. Of course, I asked for details. I pieced together what he was saying in his broken English along with the African myths I had learned about in school. He was describing tribal shamans, who are believed to be able to control the weather by magic. The myth includes traditional rain magicks that bring slaking water to parched farmlands. It also has lightning magicks, which a shaman presumably would use when he is angry with a person or town and wishes to try to destroy them (I imagine this helps with extortion too).
So I asked him if he believed if there was anyone in Maryland who was creating this stormy weather, and he responded just as matter-of-factly, “Of course not!” As if it should be incredibly obvious to me that shamans are able to control the weather in Africa, but not in America (imagine how powerful one who could control the weather here would be). He looked at me like I was silly, asking if there were people in America who can control the weather; have you ever heard of such a thing? This all struck me as a bit conflicting. After all, my former housemate is studying for a degree in aerospace engineering. Surely that requires somewhat of an empirical outlook on the world? How can someone who wishes to design airplanes and rockets not believe in the universal laws of physics? All of the same rules apply in Africa just the same as they do here. If anyone could do magic in Africa, there’d be no reason it couldn’t be done here in America, and imagine how incredibly powerful such a thing would be. If there were any merit to these folk claims we’d already be exploiting the hell out of magic, just like we do with anything else.
Many months later, not long before I moved out, he described a very strange incident to me. If an American had told it to me, I would have assumed he was insane, or maybe on drugs. But coming from my housemate, with his cultural background, it at least made sense to me. It’s the same as listening to a Christian describing resurrection: equally impossible, but once you’ve heard nonsense enough times, you don’t bat an eye at it. He told me about how sometimes he hears the voices of people he knows back in Africa. On his cellphone.
I thought to myself, Oh, okay, there’s definitely a logical explanation for this one. I bet your friend just had a cell phone in his pocket and the speed dial keys were accidentally pressed. This has happened to me in the past; I’ll get a call from a friend, but all I hear is muted conversation that has nothing to do with me. But then he explained that the people he knows back in Africa don’t have a cell phone. And he thought they were playing a joke on him by somehow telepathically projecting their voices to him from a continent away. Through his cell phone. Because, you know, voices just appearing out of thin air is nonsensical, but appearing out of thin air through a cell phone is perfectly fine. I didn’t have a good answer to this one, so I used the tried and true strategy of discreetly backing out of the room.
So that was my exposure to a set of worldviews that simply doesn’t jibe with what I was brought up with here in America. When you look at this kind of stuff objectively, it really doesn’t make any less sense than Judeo-Christian mythos. If anything, it is much less sweeping in its violations of physical laws, so it is more likely (to use a twenty-sigma distorted meaning of likely). Even as an American atheist, I’ve been brought up surrounded by all of these familiar myths that I simply don’t peg on as outlandish anymore. The Earth was created only 6,000 years ago? That’s old hat; I hear it all the time. But telepathic communications possible through cell phones? Now that’s absurd, huh?
But try looking at it from his perspective.