But what does it *do*?
A way of thinking about beliefs I've grown to respect in the past few years
[cw: descriptions of violence]
One of the most fascinating papers I’ve read this year is Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra’s Why Being Wrong can be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs.
The two authors explore the use of magic in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, focusing particularly on the popular practice of “bulletproofing,” in which armed groups hire experienced practitioners to perform rituals believed to make soldiers impervious to the effects of machine guns.
An obvious question to ask is “how does this work more than once?” After all, shouldn’t people notice that some of the bulletproofed soldiers do get shot? The key to the ritual’s persistence is that its effects come with conditions the recipient must follow in order to remain bulletproof. Some of these rules are very clear-cut: no eating zucchini, no committing sexual violence. Others are a bit more ambiguous: you may not know if you’ve walked by a woman on her period, but if you have you’ll once again be vulnerable to bullets.
The result is that once you believe in the spell, it’s difficult to come across evidence disproving its effectiveness. When people who participated in the ritual are killed, you can take this evidence that they broke the conditions rather than evidence that the ritual doesn’t work. Even if you’re the one to get shot, and you’ve been following all the rules, you might conclude that you must have unwittingly encountered a menstruating woman, breaking the charm.
It’s hard to describe the beliefs of people with a fundamentally different worldview from your own, and I suspect Nunn and Sanchez de la Sierra’s Congolese counterparts would object to how the (necessarily very Western) framing I’ve given isolates bulletproofing from the conceptual framework you need to really understand it. But what’s really fascinating about the paper, and what this post is about, is the way they analyze the function of the belief separately from the question of whether or not it’s true.
Even if you don’t believe in bulletproofing, it’s impossible to deny that the ritual has had real, tangible, and even positive effects in the lives of the people who practice it. The ritual was developed in South Kivu, an area subject to repeated, violent, and deeply traumatic attacks from nearby Hutu militias. (The paper documents several massacres — in another talk by Raul we saw data indicating that the average household has had more than one person murdered in such an attack. It’s impossible to overstate the emotional toll this has taken on people in the region.)
When young men from the Bunyakiri area banded together to defend themselves, they found themselves fighting with machetes against organized militias carrying machine guns. And, despite being massively outarmed, they succeeded in driving their attackers out.
Did the use of witchcraft help? Probably not directly, since a lot of people had to die to win the battle. But “directly” isn’t the only kind of help. It’s hard to imagine the amount of courage it takes to run towards men with machine guns when you have nothing but a large knife, and before the bulletproofing ritual spread many young men chose to flee (leaving family members behind in danger) rather than face such horrifying odds. The belief in supernatural protection changed their beliefs about the likelihood of success and the likelihood of their own deaths, and made it easier to organize a resistance that made the community as a whole better off.
(There’s also evidence, although not much discussed in this paper, that if you can convince the people you’re fighting that you have powerful witchcraft, this helps you win as well because your opponents will be more afraid to fight you.)
The conditions of protection shaped its effects as well. One of the most common rules is that the spell will not protect a person who commits sexual violence. In a region that’s experienced one of the worst genocides, where crimes against humanity are a regular occurence, a credible threat that such behavior will lead to death can lead to fewer atrocities in the long run, an absolutely necessary goal that otherwise can be really, really difficult to achieve.
Beliefs are tricky. The belief in bulletproofing sits inside a context of knowledge and cultural assumptions so different from my own that it’s difficult for me to understand why people find it compelling. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also have beliefs like this — Christianity, for example, is strange, and even many of my nonreligious beliefs would probably turn out to be ridiculous if we could access absolute truth.
But part of why I love the bulletproofing paper so much is that it’s helped me to think through an aspect of beliefs that I didn’t grow up paying very much attention to: how they function not just on their own, but within the context of a community.
In my everyday life, I get very frustrated by people who believe things that aren’t true, for reasons I can’t quite figure out. (I’ve learned that one of the easiest ways to get me really angry is to start talking down to me about a subject I know more about than you.)
But in some broad societal sense, these beliefs serve a healthy function. Most anti-vax beliefs are silly. But it’s good for there to be a handful of people who don’t trust vaccines, because if the vaccine were secretly killing people, they’d be the ones to discover it. Biden didn’t cheat in the 2020 election, but it’s good that some people worry about election fraud, because if something had happened they’d have caught it. And it’s even good for there to be pushback on settled science like climate change, because principled debate keeps everyone honest and ensures the scientists studying the world aren’t overlooking anything obvious.
(Ironically, a lot of our ability to distinguish correlation and causation — the foundation of modern statistics — comes from Ronald Fisher’s persistent attempts to disprove the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.)
This is why I’m not too worried when my activist friends have views that seem extreme or un-nuanced. Sure, some of my climate activist friends are probably overestimating the impacts of climate change, and I would be upset if the entire world stopped funding poverty relief to focus purely on carbon. But the scientific evidence is pretty clear that humanity as a whole (and a surprising fraction of science-adjacent writers) is significantly underreacting to the coming apocalypse. I don’t care if my friends agree with me on the exact amount of risk, because their views are motivating them to push society in a direction it desparately needs to go.
I feel the same way about my views about money — money is tricky, the ethics around it are nuanced, and economics is hard. But we as a church and a society are currently so far in the “spend money on luxury and consumption instead of people who need it” direction that I think my general belief that “this use of money is fundamentally unloving and sinful” pushes society in the right direction, even if there’ll be nuances I haven’t figured out yet along the way.
The problem, of course, is that “it serves society for a few people to believe something false” is different from “false beliefs have no negative consequences whatsoever.” It’s good for a few people to be unusually focused on vaccine safety, so they can tell the rest of us if something goes wrong. But it’s bad when they can convince lots of people that something has gone wrong when it hasn’t, as the tens-to-hundreds of thousands of Americans anti-vax propaganda has killed can attest to. It’s good that there are people concerned about election security, but it’s bad when they try to use their power to overturn actual, fair election results. It’s good that there are people playing devil’s advocate to climate science, so our models and methods can get more and more accurate. It’s bad when they convince substantial parts of society to close their eyes and ignore the evidence.
I’ve found this “functional” approach to thinking about beliefs useful in trying to understand historical processes: individual people come to believe things for varied and idiosyncratic reasons, but you can often understand the large-scale patterns of belief by tracing which functions serve the incentives of the powerful.
A couple of examples:
I’ve written before about how the rise of liberation theology was helped by the Catholic Church’s need to compete with Pentecostals for poor parishioners. This isn’t because liberation theologians sat down and were like “how do we bring a better product to market?”, but rather because competition influenced the complex social forces that determined who rose to power in the Latin American Catholic hierarchy.
American Fundamentalism has a strange, literalistic, and kind of stilted approach to reading the bible that doesn’t fit very well with Christian (or secular) history, but one that’s skyrocketed in popularity to the point that in many parts of Evangelicalism reading the bible any other way is almost unthinkable. Why? A big part of the story is that this perspective attached itself to the pro-slavery movement in the early US, whose influence catapulted many of its proponents to otherwise inexplicable power and prestige. (This isn’t quite the thesis of Mark Noll’s “The Civil War as Theological Crisis”, but that’s a good source to learn this history from.)
American Christian complementarianism (the belief that men should have “headship” over women) has kind of a strange history, in that it seemed to be on the decline (even the Southern Baptist Convention was ordaining women as pastors!) until the “Conservative Resurgence” that started in 1979. This resurgence was led by Paul Pressler (now known to be a serial rapist) and Paige Patterson (fired for covering up sexual abuse and bullying abuse victims) Once again individual people make up their minds for complex and personal reasons, but it’s impossible to read the history of complementarianism without recognizing how much of its rise was due to a concerted effort by a small group of people who benefited from abusing the power it gave them.
I think a lot of the ways I’ve developed as a person over the past few years are attributable to thinking through the consequences of beliefs. I used to be sort of ambivalent about complementarianism — it seemed strange, but if I’m being honest the bible’s kind of ambiguous on the question of sexism. This changed when I started to pay attention to just how much damage complementarianism has caused, in the lives of close friends and millions of other people. The same perspective has helped me embrace full, vocal support of LGBT people and their rights: the bible isn’t super clear, but the harm of the “traditional” perspective is severe and widespread.
Maybe this is a bit utilitarian, but I also think it’s godly. Jesus’s perspective on things like the Sabbath and adultery law consistently center “how the religious practice affects actual people” over an abstract commitment to a religious hierarchy or tradition, and we should too.