Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are You Superstitious? Yes!

Superstition is at the base of our culture.

Considering the state of the world I’ve been thinking about superstition. Irrational behavior is very deeply embedded in USA culture. The definition from is “believing in beliefs that do not have grounds in logic and reason in the physical world.”

You might think I’m talking about politics, but I’m not. It’s deeper than that.

In preparation for a conference we are planning,* I watched two films on the Kogi people. Elder Brother’s Warning is from 1990 and depicts the visit a BBC journalist made to their land. No outsider had visited since they had escaped from European invasion into the high sierra mountains of Colombia, South America. The Kogi issued the invitation to the journalist and film crew because they were worried about the “Younger Brother”—the label they use for those who initially came from Europe in the 16th century to take over the rest of the earth. The Elder Brother (the Kogi) wanted to give a warning to Younger Brother to stop killing mother earth—stop pulling apart her body parts (with mining, cutting and stripping). They could feel the suffering of the earth in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of Colombia.

The second film, Aluna, was made 20 years later with the same journalist. The Kogi invited him back because they said that Younger Brother had not listened and they needed to make their message clearer. In the film they focus on water systems, explaining how what is done to rivers and coastlines influences life in the high sierras. Like smart ecologists they could perceive the interrelations of civilized water “management” (drainage, redirection, stoppage) and the risk to the survival of animals and plants. Human activity has been shifting the natural ecology of places in ways that cause drought, landslides, and the death of many species. They warned that humans would not survive either.

The Kogi referred to practices commonplace in civilized nations—changing the course of rivers, draining wetlands, damming rivers. I always only thought of the loss of the salmon or wildlife from disappeared water sources. But the Kogi sense more than that. The rivers, lagoons, and other water entities are like the veins in a body. When they are damaged, so too is the whole body. Things start to go wrong elsewhere because everything is interdependent.

Europeans colonizing the rest of the world initially derided societies with different beliefs about the world as “superstitious”. But it turns out that the cultures grounded on superstition are those grounded in Western European beliefs.

What are the superstitions that the USA and other civilized societies have?

WESTERN SUPERSTITION (these beliefs have spread to the rest of the world)

  • The earth is full of objects that can be extracted and moved by humans with little cost to life on the planet.
  • The earth should be manipulated for human convenience.
  • Only humans lives truly matter.
  • Humans are so smart that their technology will take care of any crises their lifestyles create.

What are the alternative, RATIONAL views (what traditional sustainable societies have always understood intuitively)?

  • The earth is a self-organizing, complex system of millions of dynamic systems that interact on every level (from physics and chemistry, to water cycles and atmospheric transformations).
  • Unique animals and plants emerge from particular locations on the earth and when those locations are damaged, their existence is threatened.
  • When you break the rules of mother earth, you will cause suffering.
  • Humans are one among many living entities, the younger siblings, on the earth.

Longterm sustainable societies like the Kogi also display an ethical stance:

  • Because humans have capacities for imagination and choice, they can help or hurt the other entities on the earth.
  • Humans have a moral obligation to help the other entities on the earth flourish.

Why is the West (using the term to represent the superstitious belief system) so ecologically stupid and superstitious about humanity’s powers? What are the biggest differences between Western civilized nations and the rest of the world?

In my view, there are two fundamental differences

One is the species atypical ways of raising children in civilized nations, undermining brain development and function, forcing children into a me-against-the-world orientation, alienating them from their own natures and the natural flow of human existence (evident in societies that provide their children the full evolved nest).

The second is related, the divorce from living with Nature. When you live in a city, you can forget about earth systems. Species isolationism has encouraged beliefs that humans can separate themselves from nature without risk, that nature’s systems and laws can be ignored, that children can be treated like machines, that the earth is dead and can be treated like a grocery store.

Perhaps the worst superstition is that humans are superior to the rest of nature.

These are self-destructive delusions that are leading to the killing of the planet, and eventually, our species.

The Kogi have presented their warnings. Ecological scientists are now reaching this same understandings.

So it’s not only reversing carbon pollution that needs changing, we need to understand the earth’s systems and treat them with respect. The culture of human supremacy and separation needs to change, returning to a partnership orientation to living with nature and earth’s systems.

After all, the earth has been around for billions of years and the culture that is destroying it is only a few hundred years old. Clearly, something has gone wrong.

*for September 2016, Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing.


Jensen, D. (2016). The myth of human supremacy. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Korten, D. (2015) Change the story, change the future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Naess, A., & Rothenberg, D. (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Orr, D. (1991). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. New York: SUNY Press.

Sahlins, M. (2008). The Western Illusion of Human Nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.