Johnny Townsend: Superstition is leading us toward extinction

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students gather to call for action on climate change at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday March 15, 2019.

Humans are an intelligent, rational species. We build upon existing knowledge to understand ourselves and the world around us. This trait has allowed us to overcome almost every obstacle and reign as the dominant species on the planet.

So why haven’t we been able to incorporate the science around greenhouse gases into our collective consciousness and adjust our behavior accordingly?

In addition to being highly rational creatures, it seems, we’re also highly irrational.

Smart, intelligent people will throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder. We’ll avoid walking under a ladder, change direction if a black cat crosses our path. We worry that if we break a mirror, we’ll have seven years bad luck. We believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Sure, we grow out of many superstitious beliefs over time, but not all of them. Most of the adults in my life still say “Knock on wood” so as not to tempt Fate. I see adults cross their fingers, make the sign of the cross, don their lucky shirt. They play the lottery using their lucky numbers, repeat unique rituals before a game or a job interview.

We watch “Charmed” and “Touched by an Angel” and every Harry Potter movie because part of us not only hopes there is something greater out there but also believes on some level that magic and the supernatural are real forces, if we can only tap into them.

Many of my Mormon friends and family don’t feel the need to act on climate change because they believe Jesus will return any day now and take care of everything.

These are people who wear magic underwear every day of their adult lives.

I mean no disrespect. I used to wear them, too. I still keep a pair, 30 years after being excommunicated.

My previous partner taught at a religious university. An avowed atheist, Tom still maintained his fair share of superstitions. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer, I saw first-hand how humans cling to irrationality like a life preserver. Tom refused to write a will out of fear that doing so would jinx him.

Of course, superstition is not an effective treatment against biology, and he was dead three months later. His superstition had real-life consequences, however, if not for him, then for those around him. Because gay marriage wasn’t legal at the time, Tom’s estranged sister was legally his next of kin and inherited the house, his pension, his CDs in the bank, and everything else.

Perhaps our refusal to act on climate change won’t affect us personally very much, but it will certainly affect the billions of others left here after we die. Are our grandchildren spoiled brats, selfish for wanting to inherit a habitable world?

As a Mormon missionary in Rome, I was instructed not to dust my feet off on anyone, no matter how provoked I might be. Dusting our feet was a ritual so powerful even God couldn’t refuse to act on it and would be bound to afflict whoever we’d cursed.

As elders in the LDS Church, we held the priesthood, a mystical power that would allow us to heal the sick. My missionary companion and I blessed a member of our congregation in Sardinia, promising him a full recovery.

He was dead the next day.

My companion and I “knew” that if we had only been more righteous, the man would have lived.

If faith or priesthood or other magical powers can only function on occasion, in a few isolated cases, when we’re exceptionally devoted, then relying on those as our primary tools to solve an existential crisis is not a very solid plan.

Mormons are told to pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on us.

Maybe the Messiah is coming back, and maybe he isn’t. What’s clear, though, is that it’s up to us, through real, concrete, scientific measures, to take drastic action and transform our civilization to something sustainable.

Giving climate scientists and activists the Evil Eye is not good policy. So let’s use the brains evolution gave us, put aside our superstitions, and act as if the world is real, with the belief — no, the knowledge — that reality matters.

| Courtesy Johnny Townsend, op-ed mug.

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of “Behind the Bishop’s Door” and many other collections of Mormon short stories. His latest book of essays, “Human Compassion for Beginners,” was recently released by BookLocker.