Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ever this day be at my side

This story on the CNN website sends chills up the spine: Villagers in Kenya slaughter their neighbors out of fear of witches or ghosts. The reporter says of the rife superstition that "it may be difficult for Western cultures to fathom."

Oh, really? It was only three centuries ago that 19 people went to the gallows in Salem, Massachusetts, on charges of witchcraft, this more than half-a-century after the same good folk of Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard University. Even today, 80 percent of Americans believe in angels and two-thirds believe in the devil. A third believe in ghosts and a quarter believe in witches. I wonder if these figures are all that different than for Kenyans? Fortunately, in America, secular humanist traditions deriving from the scientific Enlightenment undergird our laws and mores, and keep our more violent tendencies in check -- something that didn't prevail in the theocracy that was late-17th-century Massachusetts.

We sniff at the superstitious Kenyans, but cosset our own beliefs in spirits. One person's superstition is another person's dogma. Lord knows, I was brought up in my own mishmash of miracles.

Angels. Banshees. Bogies. Demons. Devils. Djinns. Fairies. Fays. Gods. Ghosts. Goblins. Heaven. Hell. Incubi. Kachinas. Nixies. Phantoms. Poltergeists. Pucas. Shades. Specters. Succubi. Witches. Wraiths. To merely dip into the thesaurus of spooks. Humans have a prodigious appetite for believing in unseen worlds -- and that applies as much to New York City as to remote villages in Kenya.