On the evening of October 11 this year a Maori ritual for lifting a curse was held for 22 year old Janet Moses in Wainuiomata. The ritual was attended by about 40 people and lasted until 8am the following morning where Janet finally died by drowning. She had multiple grazes on her arms and torso and a neighbour reported hearing noises like “banging on a wall” throughout the night. Her death was reported to police at 5.30pm later that day.
The family believed that there was a curse, or makutu, on Janet because some bad things had happened to people around her, i.e. a relative had become sick.
Instead of outright condemming these kinds of barbaric ceremonies, the archdecon of the Maori Anglican Church said “It’s a very difficult process. I’m personally very wary of removing them [curses]“. It appears the issue for him is not a question of whether curses exist but how difficult they are to remove.
Curses don’t exist in the real world, neither do demons, angels, tree spirits, fairies, gobblins, desert djin, ghosts or gods. They do exist however. They exist in the minds of the people who believe in them and that can make them almost as real as if they were in the physical world.
How do I know this? Two main reasons: 1. These various supernatural creatures are confined to cultural (and, often, geographical) boundaries which means they spread from mind to mind like a language or a story, and 2. There is no evidence in the physical world that they exist.
There has been a ton of study done on how the human brain is wired to personalise inanimate objects and to try to give purpose to otherwise random events. You will have experienced this for yourself if you’ve ever see a cloud or wood bark or an illusion where you immediately see a person’s face. It’s uncanny but we now realise that the tree isn’t trying to tell us something – there are lots of patterns and we’re wired to recognise faces because faces are important to us. Likewise with giving purpose to random events; a Tsunami kills quarter of a million people and we just know there had to be some reason; you win a raffle, the lottery and you get an unexpected tax refund all in the same week – someone is clearly watching over you; the eye is amazingly complex – it must have been designed by some super being, a god perhaps; bad things start happening to those around you – you must be cursed or something.
These interpretations of randomness are a result of an inbuilt pattern recognition all humans have. It’s been useful to us in our evolutionary past – our ancestors passed on these attributes in their genes because by recognising patterns and being able to recognise that other people and animals had intentions they had a greater change of survival.
We’re really very good at it but that can be our weakness. Especially when we over-recognise intentions and patterns and throw away our more recently acquired logic and reason in favour of primal fears and rituals.
So, how do we stop curse-lifting rituals from happening? Education and the teaching of critical thinking has to be of some use. Also, people like Dr Hone Kaa, the archdecon of the Maori Anglican Church, who provide safe harbour and lend authority to all forms of harmful superstition need to be re-educated or removed from their positions of influence by their seniors. If their seniors or church authorities are not willing to do this then we as a country need to stop encouraging the spread of these beliefs by removing tax breaks and any other existing privileges usually reserved to promote beneficial causes.
Superstition has been helpful to us in the distant past but it’s, literally, killing us now. Let’s drop it and move on.