The True Gifts of the Good People
Substantially expanded 14 September 2013
By necessity, each person must form a theory of the world that is abstracted from, and less detailed than, the territory of the world itself. There is no perfect theory; each theory must occasionally break down in the face of experience with the actual world.
Many religious ideas are "gap fillers" that explain these breakdowns in models of reality. Experiences such as lost objects seeming to violate object permanence highlight the imperfect nature of one's theory of reality. Rituals uphold the plausibility structure for the gap filler, self-signalling that the belief is real and substantial.
I inherited some household rituals (mostly relating to food preparation) from my older female relatives. It's strange that they survive to the present day; they are not religious, or rather are performed regardless of the religion of the woman, and were passed in my case with no explanation or justification. These include throwing salt over one's shoulder if you should spill it (I later learned this is frequently explained as "throwing salt in the devil's eye," but I did not receive this explanation from the relatives I received the ritual from). Another is rubbing the cut end of cucumbers against the cut cucumber to produce a foam; this is supposed to "suck the toxins out of a cucumber." I still perform this ritual, even though obviously it makes no sense. I am not sure why, but rituals seem valuable for their own sake.
I have recently been reading a 1966 book of UK folklore, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. The author travels around Ireland and environs, interviewing people and learning their traditions involving the pixies, fairies, and the like - euphemized as the Good People, the Gentle People, sometimes even "them people." Many of the rituals described are very appealing, and I have begun practicing some of the more appealing ones. One thing that interests me about the legends of the Gentle People is their inscrutable nature: they are at turns cruel and benevolent, sometimes stealing babies from their cribs and sometimes filling the house's larder with meal.
This is the background context for what follows. I recently experienced an object permanence violation, which is to say, my bright blue plastic dish scrubber completely disappeared from my kitchen. This is very strange, as I have a fairly organized kitchen and tend to know where all my kitchen implements are at any given time. But the bright blue dish scrubber was just gone - not in any hiding place big enough to hold it in my entire house. My sense of object permanence was seriously threatened. And in the context of my ritual performance, it actually occurred to me: those asshole fairies stole it!
Obviously, the Gentle People did not steal my dish scrubber, inscrutable as they are. What happened was that I failed to record my own behavior, and when thinking about other things, placed or dropped the scrubber somewhere I would not think to look for it. But it surprised me how easily this thought came to my mind, me, a proper woo-free atheist. I could see why the fairies have a dual nature, naughty and nice: they can act as a gap-filler for all sorts of violations in one's theory of the world, such as apparent object permanence violations. And every theory violation thus explained becomes evidence for the existence of the fairies, supporting the belief.
Of course, the mistaken theory in the case of a lost object is the fallacy of thinking one records one's actions like a videocamera. A lost object is a cognitive phenomenon. But it can definitely feel subjectively like a violation of object permanence. A gap-filler that explains apparent object permanence violations - such as fairies that pilfer things - can be satisfyingly called up to caulk over this hole in one's theory of the world, supplying the gift of a comfortably whole theory of reality with no gaps.
Performing rituals can facilitate belief in such gap-fillers. The act of throwing salt over one's shoulder after spilling the salt, or taking a tiny bite of dropped food and throwing the rest back "for the fairies," or referring to fairies euphemistically ("the good people") creates a kind of plausibility structure for the belief. Acting on a belief makes it more real. Sharing a belief socially with others also makes it more real; there is social proof, and the belief acts as an in-group solidifier. The belief may be socially rendered magical, not subject to rational examination.
A final note about the fairies in memetic evolution. The belief in fairies seems an obviously pagan belief and precedes Christianity on the islands by many centuries. However, just as Christianity co-opted pagan cultural items for its benefit, the fairy faith rendered itself compatible with Christianity. A legend collected in multiple places (explicitly believed by many sources) is that the fairies are the angels who followed Lucifer out of Heaven, and got sort of locked out of Heaven by God, condemned to live in the caves and hollows of the earth. By fitting the fairies into the Christian legend, the islanders were able to keep their valuable fairy faith, with its rituals and traditions, while apparently bowing to the memetic sweep of Christianity.