A couple more thoughts on Matthew Hutson's comments on "magical thinking," which were the subject of my last post.
The tone of Hutson's piece suggests that people who believe there is someone "up there" looking out for them are fooling themselves in order to feel more important. They want to believe they are special, that their life is a mission, and that they are meant to do something important. It's an ego boost.
My own perspective is very different. From what I've experienced, the belief that you have a guardian angel or a "spirit team" on your side engenders a certain humility and gratitude. It's not that you're special, because, after all, you assume that everyone else has a spirit team too. You may feel pleased that you're a little more in touch with your team than you used to be, or than some other people are, but that's about as much of an ego boost as you get.
When things go right for you, you're less inclined to take the credit and more inclined to be grateful to your team for smoothing your path. "Thanks, guys," is a likely reaction.
If things don't go so smoothly, or you're not sure what to do, you generally "get in touch" with your team through meditation, prayer, guided imagery, or what-have-you. Often an unexpected and viable solution will come to you in this altered state. The ability to relax and hand over your problems to "someone else" can be enormously helpful in relieving stress and anxiety. Again, if you get the answers you need, you don't feel personally responsible; you're indebted to your team.
On the other hand, if you believe there's no one looking out for you and you're on your own, you tend to develop a much more ego-centered attitude, if only in self-defense. This is natural. You're a stranger and afraid in a world you never made, so you'd better have the biggest, baddest ego on the block. Otherwise how can you protect yourself in a dangerous and uncaring world? No one has your back, so you have to be tough, aggressive, vigilant, and above all, better than anyone else (however you define "better" in your particular social circle - smarter, more attractive, more talented, etc.).
When things go right, you not only take the credit, you demand it. Like a small child you insist, "I did it! Look at me!" But no one ever does give you all the credit you feel you deserve, so you are perpetually dissatisfied.
If things go wrong, you have two options: You can blame yourself and begin a dark spiral of self-accusation, anger, and depression; or you can blame this rotten world and all the idiots and lying bastards who screwed you over.
Now, strictly from a psychological standpoint, which mindset seems healthier? Which is more likely to lead to happiness, contentment, and an appropriate balance of humility and pride? Which is more likely to lead to fear, anger, frustration, stress, anxiety, and dramatic mood swings that take you from self-aggrandizement one day to self-disgust the next?
Studies have shown that regular churchgoers enjoy, on average, a more optimistic mood, lower blood pressure, greater longevity, a healthier old age, and other benefits when compared with non-churchgoers. Some experts speculate that the habit of socializing with like-minded people explains these results. Maybe. But another possible factor is that churchgoers believe that someone "up there" is watching over them, guiding them, and offering solutions to their problems.
Hutson disparages this viewpoint as "magical thinking." Evidently he is sure there is no spiritual realm and therefore no possibility that anyone is actually watching over you. Let's say he's right. Let's say that, in fact, all the people who believe they have guardian angels, a spirit team, or saints or ancestors or a loving Savior looking out for them, and who believe they can in some way establish contact with these beings from time to time, are hopelessly deluded.
Even so, if the actual results of this belief system are positive, what difference does it make? If you can come up with solutions to your problems by communing with an imaginary spirit guide, and if those solutions work, wouldn't you be foolish not to do it? If you can banish or minimize stress, fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions by convincing yourself that higher powers are on your side, then why not believe it? And if such beliefs possibly contribute to the positive health effects associated with churchgoing, even better.
Why stigmatize a belief system and imply that people are silly or even a little bit crazy if they subscribe to it, when it has all these benefits? If a pharmaceutical company developed a pill that would help people solve intractable problems without strain, reduce stress, make them more even-tempered, engender optimism, lower blood pressure, lengthen their lives, and improve their quality of life into old age, wouldn't everyone be encouraged to take it?
I'm sure there's a downside to belief in supernatural assistance. Any idea can be carried too far or can be misused and abused by people with psychological problems or an antisocial agenda. But for most of us, a belief that "somebody up there likes me" seems to carry a boatload of pluses and few, if any, minuses. Maybe we should paraphrase Patrick Henry and tell the experts, "If this be magic - make the most of it."