The Taboos & Magical Beliefs Of Primitives And Science

The Taboos & Magical Beliefs Of Primitives And Science


Our subject is taboos and magic, but given the source material, a bit of background might be welcomed by some. If you are in a hurry, skip right to Taboo.

In pondering a post about the differences between certain Africans and those of European stock, we recall Albert Schweitzer’s African Notebook, which is now almost impossible to find (in non-electronic form).

The reason for it missingness is well known. He was “canceled” before it was cool, because of statements like this: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother by several centuries.” Fr Rutler reminds us early versions of Schweitzer’s book had this passage, later expurgated:

I have given my life to try to alleviate the sufferings of Africa. There is something that all white men who have lived here like I must learn and know: that these individuals are a sub-race. They have neither the intellectual, mental, or emotional abilities to equate or to share equally with white men in any function of our civilization. I have given my life to try to bring them the advantages which our civilization must offer, but I have become well aware that we must retain this status: we the superior and they the inferior.

This is what we now call “judgmental”, a clear sin against Equality, which says all are equal, and none inferior to another except because of hateful circumstance. Though, paradoxically, Equality does allow that some are superior, and it’s usually the inferior in some way. But never mind that.

The real problem with Schweitzer is not his “superior”, but that his “superior” is not universal, and so neither is his “inferior.” Both words do not apply to all things, only to some things depending on circumstance. Africans are superior in living in accord with those parts of the culture created by them in their surroundings, with the culture formed by their own natures in those surroundings, and likewise with Europeans. Malaria, anyone? Milk digestion? All this is in general, on average, and now there is much mixing.

In any case, Equality demands superiority, universal or conditional, never be spoken, except, as said, certain Villains are allowed to be inferior. Villains are those peoples holding back perfect Equality.

Rutler’s article was from 2016, a time when the attitude of superiority was still allowed to be spoken, but only from the left:

During last year’s Synod on the Family, Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed frustration with African bishops for opposing more conciliatory attitudes toward homosexuality that he called their “taboo” and said that Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”…The cardinal’s remarks echoed the poorly tutored John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Church who said of Africans in 1998: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world: that is just not on their radar screen.”

The Ugandan parliament, in a clear show of what they view as local African superiority, but which Kasper and others see as inferiority, recently passed a “bill criminalizing identifying as LGBTQ,” which also “imposes [the] death penalty for some offenses”. “A person who commits the offense of aggravated homosexuality…is liable, on conviction, to suffer death,” says the new law.

The gentleman in the first link said Africans had another superiority, which is living in small family groups and in a land in which the fruits of nature are had with ease. Whereas, many say, it is a superiority of Europeans to live on lands which have to be tamed. Natures and Nature, working together and over a long period of time, have combined to make different peoples.

The charge now made against this attitude is “racism”. David Stove:

“Racism” is the belief that some human races are inferior to others in certain respects, and that it is sometimes proper to make such differences the basis of our behavior towards people. It is this proposition which is nowadays constantly declared to be false, though everyone knows it is true; just as everyone knows it is true that people differ in age, sex, health, etc., and that it is sometimes proper to make these differences the basis of our behavior towards them.

Equality frets that if superiorities and inferiorities are acknowledged, “disparities” in participation in certain favored activities that are not “representational” will not be lamented. They need the lamentations. Whereas naturalists say “disparities” are to be expected, so why worry about them? Let people and peoples find their own place.

Taboo & Magic

Our subject, however, is taboos, in Africans and Europeans. But we needed that dull throat clearing because nearly everybody today is an equalitarian.

Taboos in Africa where Schweitzer served were not (always) the same for every person, like they are in our culture. In Schweitzer’s society, taboos were created at the individual level, whereas for us they are usually more general. All whites now are forbidden certain speech here, for instance.

Schweitzer says, “There is nothing in life that may not give occasion to a taboo.” Taboos originated in any number of ways, holders often inventing them for themselves, and also desiring to do so.

One instance: “In the neighborhood of Samkita there lived a woman whose taboo was that she must never touch a broom but do all her sweeping with her hands.” A more important example:

During my first stay, a tragic taboo affair happened at Samkita. A boy at the Mission school there had as his taboo that he must not eat plantains, and must even be careful not to eat any food out of a cooking-pot in which plantains had been cooked immediately before. One day his schoolfellows told him that he had eaten fish from a pot in which there had been remains of plantain. He was immediately seized with cramp and died after few hours. A missionary who was present gave me an account of this perplexing affair.

The modern European will seek for a scientific, medical explanation. A pastime of historians is diagnosing figures from the past from tenuous clues, so strong is the urge to put everything into accepted medical bins. In this case, the modern European will surmise that the boy had a serious allergy, maybe, and the chemical reactions inside his body brought about by eating the plantain caused his death.

This proves, as do the actions of the unfortunate boy himself, that it is not unusual to try to fit the round pegs of observation into the square holes of theory that culture provides.

But notice, and notice carefully, that there is no indication that the pot had any plantains in it! The other boys only said there were. The taboo killed the boy.

If you’re not sold by that story, realize there are many, many other similar ones. They are anyway well known, or used to be. And not restricted to Africans. Fahrenbach tells us Comanche life was in most respects ruled by strict custom enforced by taboos, which we discussed before.

What’s important to us today is the causative effect of the taboo. Taboos caused illness and death. There is no doubt of this. Just as other forms of magic gave health and preserved life. There is no doubt of this either.

Europeans call the health-giving properties of magic the “placebo effect”, to make it sound like science, as all things must. Giving a thing a label is sufficient to put it into a bin, so we can more or less forget about it, as if the label has explained something. It’s not surprising that this label-explaining happens most in psychology. Theories on causal mechanisms abound, but there is no consensus, and many contradictions.

Interestingly, no magic-oriented culture would quail at prescribing magic readily, whereas our science-oriented culture has many long hang-wringing debates over whether prescribing placebos is ethical. We desire to cure people, but we don’t want anybody to stray too far from science.

Taboo translated into science is nocebo, a more recent coinage than placebo. It took a lot longer for science to acknowledge the causative evil effects of taboo violation. Yet nocebos are just more label-making: nothing has been explained. But the acknowledgement is a step forward.

Europeans like to think themselves above taboos and magic. But they often treat science in much the same way. For instance, I knew a fellow—East Asian, a race not quite as saturated in science as Europeans—who wore a mask religiously, but still got covid. Europeans would say he got it because some other person, not my fellow, violated the mask taboo. But my fellow dismissed this and insisted that if he were not wearing it, he would have got sicker. That attitude is, I think, half way between magic and science.

The half-way point is peopled with Europeans, too. For instance. Magic-science “Palm line surgery is now available for people who believe in palm reading but don’t like what their natural palm lines say”. They had “good” lines lengthened and “bad” ones shortened, taboo and magic, by science-based surgeons.

Europeans were keen on taboo breaking during the covid panic, and not just for masks. Many, many people believed that their mandated science vaccine would not work if they came within sight of an unvaccinated person. They would move away if they knew. It was, after all, a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. The good magic of the vax was easily canceled by the bad, and stronger, magic of “purebloods”.

Science-minded readers will have all kind of objections, but they will all be science-based objections. Yet there is still that African boy. He was killed by his taboo. How do we know that somebody who died of covid, and who blamed his catching the disease on taboo violation, did not die in exactly the same way as the boy?

Others will say that the antibodies of the vaxxed were higher than those unvaxxed, and not infected, and maybe this is so. But how do we know these measures were not elevated by the magic of the vax? Beyond scoffing and dismissing the question as unworthy of science, I mean.

After all, the taboo did kill that boy, and it is well known taboos killed and injured untold numbers. Just as we know magic cured and preserved many. And nobody has any real, proved idea how, beyond giving labels. How then can we know it wasn’t taboo violations that killed some covid victims, and that it wasn’t magic that cured some? Know, not guess.

Science-minded people will say that of course science was responsible for both. But they are just bluffing.

I am, of course, not advocating magic. But I am asking for there to be naive science. And that is because I believe in both. I believe in prayer, which (though I do not seek to prove it here) is the perfect marriage of science and the transcendent.

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  1. Hagfish Bagpipe

    ”How do we know that somebody who died of covid, and who blamed his catching the disease on taboo violation, did not die in exactly the same way as the boy?”

    Good question. We can’t know in any given case but it’s not unreasonable to think that mass propaganda + popular hysteria + fear + auto-suggestion + belief = covid pandemic. It was a spell. Like the recent “epidemic” of gluten intolerance. Suddenly, everyone had it, as if it were a fashionable new hairstyle. Flu vanishes and a new infection, with the same symptoms, appears on the scene, confirmed by a dubious test. People are terrified and worry themselves sick. Maybe there was some physical agent involved but the imaginary agents did all the heavy lifting.

    There was a phony whooping cough epidemic in 2006 spread by bad tests + belief: “…pseudo-epidemics happen all the time.” consider the crazy taboo-spell cast around the word “nigger”, totally nuts but people fall for it and cannot bring themselves to utter the forbidden word. “Equality” is another nutty taboo-spell. It doesn’t exist but if they can make you believe it does you become a kind of zombie-slave doing their destructive will. And many people show themselves to be highly susceptible to spells so there’s lot of power in knowing how to cast spells on people.

    Our supposed Golden age of Science is more like a Golden Age of Voodoo. Great post, Briggs.

  2. Briggs


    Paper sent to me by Anon:

    Nocebo effects with antidepressant clinical drug trial placebos by Roy R. Reeves, et al. General Hospital Psychiatry 29 (2007) 275 – 277.

    We describe an individual who experienced unusual negative effects while taking a placebo during a clinical drug trial. A 26-year-old male took 29 inert capsules, believing he was overdosing on an antidepressant. Subsequently, he experienced hypotension requiring intravenous fluids to maintain an adequate blood pressure until the true nature of the capsules was revealed. The adverse symptoms then rapidly abated. The nocebo effect (undesirable symptoms following administration of an inert substance that the patient believes to be an active drug) may have significant negative impacts on certain patients. Further research is warranted to better understand this phenomenon.

  3. DAA

    What was the worst period in the history of Europe in terms of magic and superstition? Let us say that it can be either the (a) 13th century or the (b) 17th century.

    Caveat: although not directly related, weather conditions may have a strong influence on people’s psyches.

    If you read the usual Whig history, they will tell you which was the backward and which was the century of the so called Scientific Revolution.

    The concoctions that luminaries such as Newton and Hooke drank would make us die of poisoning, just from reading the recipes.

  4. Incitadus

    Not a few years ago western sensibilities were appalled at the thought of female
    genital mutilation in various African and Arab countries. In a few short years
    the West is engaged in wholesale genital mutilation of adults and children under
    the guise of individual rights. Whole branches of medical administration have
    sprung up to support this magical thinking under the rubric of ‘science’. What
    was once taboo and reluctantly accommodated by surgeons after months of
    therapy and evaluation is now effected after a few cursory interviews. How is
    this logic any different than that of the most humble cannibal witchdoctor in
    deepest darkest Africa with a Gillette razor? Call it what you will but it does have
    all the earmarks of some sort of spell cast over a once sensible society. It is a well
    aimed blow at our weakest psychological foundation ‘sexuality’, said to consume
    80% of human conscious thought. If that’s not magic I don’t know what is. Time
    to dust off your 29 volume Frazier Briggs.

  5. Forbes

    Incitadus–That’s an excellent reminder. Western objections to FGM was all the rage, starting (on the heels of Islamic terrorism on the West?) two decades ago (Ayaan Hirsi Ali became notorious for speaking out in ’04-’05). Now, a form of genital mutilation as a course of medical treatment is given a pass. Disgusting and tragic.

  6. Jim Fedako

    Want to discuss taboos, engage anyone in a nutrition store. Or bring up essential oils at a gathering. Taboos are everywhere.

  7. cdquarles

    I’d call that given over to a reprobate mind.

  8. Cary D Cotterman

    I know a lot of leftists. Among them and their social and work circles, covid still comes up in every conversation. They are still obsessed with testing and masking. Almost every one claims to have had covid, to know many people who have had covid, and to have known and known of people who died from covid. I’m a right-of-center independent. I avoided masking whenever I could get away with it, and have never had a test. Nobody in my social or work circle talks about covid. None of us has had covid, or known many people who did have it, or known anyone who died from it. There’s definitely something psychological going on among the hysteria-prone group.

  9. Rudolph Harrier

    I have witnessed this course of events happen twice:

    -Someone religiously wears a mask.
    -When asked why he does that when COVID has largely abated, he says “I haven’t gotten sick since I started wearing a mask, so it’s a good idea even without COVID.”
    -Eventually he gets COVID.
    -After the first positive test he sends a long apology amounting to a statement that he is not unclean. “I am fully vaccinated and triply boosted! I have always worn my mask! I have always supported scientific efforts to fight COVID!” Not that anyone, even most of the woke, care at this point, but it is vital that he lets it be known that the illness is not due to being ritually unclean.
    -Severe COVID, but not quite hospitalization level, for about a week. Keep in mind that these incidents happened in the last year, so it was always a milder form of COVID than the alpha strain.
    -Chronic cough and other side effects continuing for a long time afterwards (months)
    -Every conversation now proceeds in the following way: First, a cursing of COVID and its “long COVID” effects. Second, a cursing of the people who didn’t take COVID seriously, and thus are responsible for the infection (at least morally.) Third, a hymn of gratitude to the mask and vaccine for making the infection less severe than it otherwise would have been.

    There have been at least three more instances where I’m pretty sure that a mask wearer went through the same, set of events, but where I do not know the individual in question well enough to verify.

    I’m not sure how you describe this mindset. There is a combination of magical thinking, obsession over ritual cleanliness, fear of violating taboos, etc. all justified in terms of “science.”

    As another observation, both of the people who I know went through this are extremely emotionally weak. The type of people who obsess over whether they might have possibly offended the wrong person, and who view any disagreement as a personal attack.

  10. hudbwu

    Briggs, you keep writing about taboo and magic and contrasting that to science… but at what point should one roll out St. Martin? Surely, the devil – who undoubtedly exists – will eventually strike someone and this will require an exorcism to remedy.

    The modern world of science and materialism (of which West is the greatest sinner) is turning a blind eye to the interworld, the world inbetween this lived material reality and Heaven. Consider: if an infant is baptised, the infant can’t possibly get into Heaven riding on coattails of their parent’s faith. The infant didn’t give God his intelligent informed consent. Not to mention the infant didn’t take communion. Therefore the baptised infant can’t enter Heaven. Not before the infant makes a decision on whether to sin or not. But the baptised infant can’t just be thrown into Hell either. Therefore, there HAS to be a temporary inbetween world where baptised infants can gain the faculties of deciding and decide if they prefer God or sin. It’s the only way to break the tie between Heaven and Hell. And because of this, we know the modern western materialistic Christianity isn’t correct. It ignores and doesn’t have any theory of the inbetween world.

  11. Jan Van Betsuni

    Briggs writes: “Albert Schweitzer’s African Notebook, which is now almost impossible to find (in non-electronic form)”

    Electronic-editions of texts facilitate the silent-evisceration of irksome passages from un-woke works by the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Burgess, Dahl, (Schweitzer) and troves of others. Meanwhile, any hardcover originals discovered in the holdings of University libraries and second-hand-book-sellers can be torched in the town square.

  12. Robert Berger

    Apropos of Schweitzer’s comment and its use to divide sharply who is better from the rest, here is Lincoln on the similar topic of the justification of slavery

    If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?–

    You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

    You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

    But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you

  13. The Lizard Kings are way ahead of you, they’ve been weaving this magic on the lower forms of life for millions of years.

  14. William James Tychonievich

    @Cary D. Cotterman

    You say you know a lot of leftists, and that almost all of them claim to have had covid. Then you say you don’t know many people who have had covid. Is that because you don’t believe the claims of your leftist friends?

  15. James J. Roper

    Oh the irony, Christians deriding magic, but they think that God magically created the universe! And, it’s taboo to say what I just said!

    The average leftist is no more medically versed than the average rightist. It’s more likely that a sample is biased if ALL leftist friends have had covid and/or are concerned about it, while all rightist friends have neither, than any other explanation. Just reminds us that our own intuition is not trustworthy. We should fact-check the most the things we want most to believe. Almost everybody I know has had it, and, those that think they haven’t had it were never tested for it, so they could have too. Most cases were mild, but a few have long covid.

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