The Things We Believe In

In a fit of true desperation, I decided to try acupuncture.

The woman was very nice, putting “calming” lavender oil on my pillow and gently explaining that she could feel my energies. I asked her how it worked and she answered in a kind vague manner, noting that the practice of acupuncture is over 2,000 years old.

Ancient things tend to feel weighty, solemn, lending a sacred edge and advantage to their credibility. People have been doing this for thousands of years, so there must be some benefit to it, right?

I laid very still, feeling at once foolish and peaceful, and I remembered that Christianity and acupuncture must be around the same age.

Why have these two practices, largely unsupported by scientific evidence, stuck around in cultures for so long? Certain biological traits stick around for thousands of years for a simple reason: they lend some kind of advantage that helps an organism survive and reproduce. So if a trait instead decreases an organism’s shot at survival, that trait will likely evolve out.

Ancient practices have evolved, but they have not evolved away—they are giving us something, but maybe not the primary thing we think.

I think both certain religions and acupuncture are still around for another simple reason: It’s nice to believe. It’s nice to believe that, with just some pokes of needles, we can cure our ailments, flush out all the gunk inside of us that’s making us sore or itchy or tired. It’s as uncomplicated as sweeping, or unplugging a drain. It’s nice to think that fixing, cleaning, our lives is as simple as sniffing some lavender, or drinking some unpronounceable herb tea. In short, it’s lovely to believe in magic. To believe that a few thoughts, addressed to some higher being, can enact change in the real world.

Both of these belief systems have killed people—a firm belief in acupuncture dissuading someone from getting medical treatment, and belief in religion perhaps in more obvious ways. But I think these beliefs in magic are not inherently or necessarily bad for you. Quieting the mind and getting in a “zen” place—however motivated by needles or scents—is beneficial, and I think you know that instinctually, though there are rigorous scientific articles to support it. Meditating, closing your eyes and feeling your wholeness, is a form of rest and there is certainly scientific literature suggesting that rest is necessary for health. Perhaps even praying can renew hope. You cannot cure cancer by just thinking good thoughts, but it’s safe to say that some parts of these magic practices are giving people something good.

But, while it might not be as mystical and involve so many herbs and crystals, that same awe, respect, and solemnity inspired by ancient practices can come from the scientific study of the universe. Who needs to envision some nebulous chakras when you can know that you are made up of billions of tiny cells, individuals yet all working together, striving for your survival? that all of these vastly different cells, all containing the same genetic blueprint to make exactly you, arose from a single cell? that plants secrete gases that allow us to breathe? that the churning of Earth’s interior produces a magnetic force field that shields us from cosmic particles?

Belief systems, often largely in opposition to science, sometimes attempt to simply fill in holes where science has not yet been able to probe. But beliefs remain unproven in a rigorous manner, and thus the methodical and slow hunt for true answers will forever continue.

Some magic things are undeniably true. Every atom in every thing surrounding you, every cell inside of you, every person on this planet, every planet in the solar system, every galaxy in the universe—you are all made up of the same things. You, we, descend from stars. Nothing is more ancient, or solemn, or mystical as that.

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