How People Use Science and the Supernatural to Explain Traumatic Events

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The anthropologist Evans-Pritchard studied the Zande of North-Central Africa. According to his ethnographic account, “In Zandeland sometimes an old granary collapses. There is nothing remarkable in this. Every Zande knows that termites eat the supports in the course of time and that even the hardest woods decay after years of service. Now a granary is the summerhouse of a Zande homestead and people sit beneath it in the heat of the day. Consequently it may happen that there are people sitting beneath the granary when it collapses, and they are injured. Now why should these people have been sitting under this granary at the moment when it collapsed? That it should collapse is easily intelligible, but why should it have collapsed at the moment when these people were sitting beneath it?”

One could say that the collapse of the granary was a coincidence of events, two chains of causation intersected at a certain time and in a certain place. Yet for the Azande, and for all of us, the question of multiple causality remained: Why these people at this moment at this place? The question is not simply one of how but of why. To answer the how question, the Azande explain that termite damages weakened the structural support. To answer the why question, they invoke witchcraft to explain the ill-timed location of the victims.

Access to natural as well as supernatural explanations is not confined to the Azande. It is a pervasive experience across different cultures. We often seek out multiple kinds of explanations for why things occur, and especially so for existentially arousing events with psychological and often moral consequences for human life such as serious illness, our origins, and our inescapable mortality.

I study how people use different kinds of causal explanations to make sense of their lives and worlds. Many assume that natural and supernatural explanations are intrinsically incompatible, that knowledge of natural causes displaces or supersedes the invocation of the supernatural. This view is psychologically inaccurate. Evidence reveals that people use both natural and supernatural explanations to interpret the same psychologically consequential events; people find multiple ways for both kinds of explanations to coexist.

Granaries aliong a cliff in Teli The AIDS epidemic in South Africa illustrates how people use multiple kinds of explanations to reason about traumatic events. When I studied how Sesotho-speaking, South African communities integrate different kinds of explanations for AIDS, I found that people use both biological and supernatural explanations. The most prominent supernatural explanation for AIDS in South Africa is witchcraft, the practices of people with malicious intent who use harmful substances and invisible supernatural forces to cause harm. People invoke witchcraft when they suspect ill will or envy. They believe that witches casting spells wreak destruction on victims ranging from unemployment and interpersonal discord to illness and death. An AIDS diagnosis provokes shame, and fear. Much of the vocabulary used to describe HIV infection is similar to the language used to describe witchcraft attacks. For example, the virus attacks the defenses of the immune system. Attributing AIDS to witchcraft diverts the stigma of a sexually transmitted disease from the victim to the perpetrator of the witchcraft attack. It also gives the victim a sense of control. If the curse can be lifted, it offers the potential for a cure.

How do people reconcile seemingly inconsistent biomedical explanations with witchcraft explanations? Witchcraft bewitchment explanations do not stem from ignorance of biological causes. They exist alongside biological explanations and are not replaced by them. People are exquisitely sensitive to the social context of illness, recruiting one or both kinds of explanation. For example, biological explanations are the default explanation for interpreting AIDS when limited contextual information about the circumstances surrounded the infection is provided. However, when attention is drawn to social risk factors that violate normative or moral expectations believed to put people at risk for witchcraft attacks such as lack of generosity or the jealousy of others, supernatural explanations are used to explain HIV infection.

In response to a question about why someone had contracted AIDS, one woman in my study explained, ‘‘Witchcraft can cause a disease that looks like AIDS.’’ Another man explained that ‘‘to medical doctors it seems like AIDS but it is not. The spell was supposed to look like AIDS.” These explanations provide evidence that one way people reconcile biological and supernatural explanations is to make different kinds of causal attributions about an event. When reasoning about AIDS, some participants in my study explained that different forms of the same illness could have either natural or supernatural origins. Thus, to the Sesotho-speaking community, although certain cases of AIDS may have a biological explanation, witchcraft can cause an equally deadly disease that mimics AIDS. The notion of  “supernatural AIDS” may be a reaction to the information people receive from AIDS education programs indicating that witchcraft does not cause AIDS. This would enable people to maintain witchcraft as an explanatory system for illness and misfortune generally.

Another man explained that, ‘‘Witchcraft, which is mixed with evil spirits, and having unprotected sex caused AIDS.’’ This suggests that another way people accommodate biological and supernatural explanations is to use both in a loosely integrated way. When reasoning about AIDS, one might invoke both biological risk factors and witchcraft, without specifying how the two forms of explanation fit together. Greater integration of biological and supernatural explanations is also possible.

For example, others explained that, “witches are believed to be capable of distorting your sense of good judgment or putting an AIDS-infected person in your path” and “a witch can make a condom weak and break.” This suggests that people use biological and supernatural explanations at different levels of causality. For example, a biological cause can be regarded as proximate and a supernatural cause as ultimate. Thus, in the case of explaining AIDS, HIV infection through unprotected sex is regarded as proximate whereas witchcraft is regarded as ultimate.

Scientific and supernatural explanations are not in a zero-sum competition in individual minds. They can provide distinct, complementary causal information to explain events with moral and psychological significance to human lives. Scientific explanations often provide answers to proximate “how” questions. Supernatural explanations provide answers to “why” questions, and it’s part of human nature to search for why.

Evans, E.M., Legare, C.H., & Rosengren, K.S. (2010). Engaging multiple epistemologies: Implications for science education. In M. Ferrari & R. Taylor (Eds.). Epistemology and Science Education: Understanding the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Controversy (pp. 111-139). New York, NY: Routledge.

Gelman, S.A., & Legare, C.H. (2011). Concepts and folk theories. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40, 379-398.

Legare, C.H., & Gelman, S.A. (2008). Bewitchment, biology, or both: The co-existence of natural and supernatural explanatory frameworks across development. Cognitive Science, 32, 607-642.

Legare, C.H., Evans, E.M., Rosengren, K.S., & Harris, P.L. (2012). The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations across cultures and development. Child Development, 83(3), 779-793.

Legare, C.H., & Visala, A. (2011).Between religion and science: Integrating psychological and philosophical accounts of explanatory coexistence. Human Development, 54, 169-184.

Watson-Jones, R. E., Busch, J. T. A. and Legare, C. H. (2015). Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives on explanatory coexistence. Topics in Cognitive Science, 7, 611–623.

Image Credit

“Granaries in Teli” by Robin Taylor. (CC BY 2.0)

  • Cristine Legare

    Cristine Legare is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Cognition, Culture, and Development Lab at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the interplay of the universal human mind and the variations of human culture to better understand the cognitive and cultural evolution of our species.

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