Humanity has always needed superstition to teach lessons and maintain order in our societies. Superstition can be fun. We are innately drawn to them. Even today, the use of superstition starts young. Using Santa as a fable for children to understand the consequences of being good or bad is commonplace. An omnipotent god rewarding us in heaven or condemning us to hell based on our actions on Earth is not all that different.
Even before the existence of societies as we know them, superstition was necessary to quell our fear of the dark and the unknown, and though we learn more and more each day, unanswered questions still plague us. For millennia, the existential crises that arise when we question our place in a seemingly endless universe was not something that humans could afford to spend time dwelling upon. We needed answers so that we could focus on the tasks at hand: Feeding ourselves, keeping ourselves safe, keeping ourselves sane. (See: “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~rbrokaw/maslow.HTM)
More recently, advances in technology and government have allowed many of us to stay safe and fed without significant work on our own part. Never has there been a safer time an place to be a human.
Do not misunderstand. This does not underestimate the dangers that still lurk for people of certain looks, genders, or sexualities here in America. I do not take for granted the safety we experience here when there are atrocities being committed against humans in other parts of the world on staggering scales every day. I do not want to overlook those in our very neighborhoods who do not have food or shelter. But for many of us alive today, we face little threat to our safety in the short term.
For the majority of humanity’s existence, each day has been a fight to stay alive on an individual level. This has been the case for over a hundred thousand years. Only extraordinarily recently (especially on an evolutionary timescale) has a significant portion of the populace had the luxury to not worry. However, we have not had time to adapt and so our minds remain willing and capable of accepting superstitions as truth. Even ones we know are false—Santa Claus, for example—make us happy. Ones that we truly believe make us far more than happy. They make us feel safe. They protect our minds from overwhelming questions. They give us the purpose our minds desire.
This makes religion powerful. Historically, religious leaders have been some of the most powerful people in our societies. But that power only remains when people are in a position where they are willing to believe in superstition. Take away the fear of the unknown, and you take away the power from the powerful. Give people the opportunity to be educated and face the existential questions of life from a place of safety, you give them power.
That concept flies in the face of the Puritan Work Ethic, something that many say is what has allowed the USA to thrive. It tells us to keep our heads down, do the work, and go to church on Sundays. That is all you need to do to be happy. It keeps the power in the hands of the powerful and emphasizes acceptance of superstition.
It is no surprise that politicians have long intertwined their politics with religion. It is also no surprise that many politicians do so little to put their people in a place of security. Even those who do not explicitly rely on fear to motivate their voter base—even some of the more progressive politicians—support so-called “free markets” that continue to place more power in the hands of the powerful and encourage corporations to monopolize. These politicians espouse ideals like the American Dream that revolve around the Puritan Work Ethic and a goal of being moderately financially successful. In many ways, those who follow these ideals find themselves comfortable and happy.
It remains true, though, that the American Dream has only ever been accessible to certain people. There have been and still are power structures in place that keep the working class in its place. Even as the working class grows and diversifies, the powerful clamber for more power and continue to steal security from those who support them.
Many political positions are about keeping the working class insecure and workers loyal to their work and efficiently productive. A few of these political positions in particular come to mind: Opposition to universal healthcare and the idea that healthcare is a basic human right, opposition to social safety nets, and opposition to immigration.
Would-be immigrants who stay in their county ensure a workforce that is paid less and has fewer protections.
When the only healthcare a worker can get is through his or her employer, quitting a job can become practically impossible. When having a benefits package could mean the difference between life and death, people will give up a lot to keep it.
Opposition to a social safety net arises out of fear of what people may do when they have no fear. They may become less productive. They may no longer work themselves to the bone for the one who signs their paycheck. A social safety net restores power to the working class. It allows people to pursue art and other careers without fear of failure. It sets people free to learn and experiment with what makes them happy. It allows them the freedom to examine and question the existential fears that keep them willing to believe.
Of course, superstition is fun, though. Santa is pretty cool, right?