Written on Jan 13, 2013, but posted today to ward off bad luck and the evil eye

It’s always interesting to note that one group’s deeply held religious beliefs are always so easily dismissed as ludicrous by those who hold different, equally implausible beliefs. I’ll see your virgin birth and raise you a demi-god born from swan rape.

The beliefs all tend to all be contradictory, so they can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong.

Insisting that something is true because there are a lot of people who believe in it (despite the evidence) doesn’t always serve to raise confidence in the assertion, either. We seem to “believe” a lot of irrational things that are demonstrably not true, and the fact that your local newspaper still probably carries the horoscope is a demonstration of that. Ditto the fact that your local hotel probably doesn’t have a 13th floor.

Think about that: hotels don’t have 13th floors because people might think they are “bad luck”. So people stay on the 13th floor after it’s renamed the 14th floor, and that they are perfectly OK with. They’re still on the 13th floor, but apparently bad luck is fooled by the number printed on the elevator button. Honestly, people: that’s just inane.

I was reminded of this fact after the radio show this week with author, film-maker, teacher and former Muslim Alom Shaha. I have received a couple of comments since the show from people whose core argument is, basically: “Well it’s easier to become an atheist after you’ve been a Muslim, because that religion forces you to believe all kinds of things that go against common sense…”

But of course YOUR religion, that one is perfectly rational.

We all seem to have a tendency to believe weird, irrational stuff, and we’re terrible at measuring coincidence, probability and risk. It’s interesting from an evolutionary development perspective (why was this a benefit to genetic survival, or was it just a by-product of a brain overbuilt for pattern-matching?), but asserting facts on the basis that you don’t understand the numbers behind them inspires little confidence in your argument.

“What are the odds?” Well, they are non-zero, for starters. That’s enough in most cases to note that the low-probability event you are so convinced demonstrates supernatural intervention is, in fact, inevitable over millions of event iterations. If you think you’re one in a million, there are seven thousand of you alive today.

And the odds are extremely high that 6,999 of them hold beliefs that you find crazy, and vice versa. But there’s way more of them than there are of you… so you have to agree that the odds are much higher that you are the one that’s nuts, right?

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