It’s magic Friday

BluebellWood 011
Local woods near where I live have burst into colour once again

If you have no idea what I’m on about, then you should indeed celebrate.

Alas, most do know exactly what I’m talking about. Today the moon is in the right phase (yes really, it is that bizarre), and so a good percentage of the population are celebrating today as the day that god gets killed as a sacrifice to himself in order to appease his own wrath towards all of us because one of our ancestors was tricked by a talking snake into eating some fruit – you are buying into this idea right?

Oh and least you wonder, yes I’m mocking the very core of the claim, but I’m not excluding myself here in any way because I once truly did believe it.

What is far more interesting of course is not just to ponder over the very idea, but to also ask ourselves why humans embrace such strange thoughts as truth. What is clear is that we tend to inherit such thinking from the culture we were born into, and so if you look out across the religious landscape, the specific beliefs that people hold will in general tell you where they were born.

Ah but why is it like this?

Meaning and Patterns

The human mind has a quite natural disposition for taking an almost random set of inputs and deriving a pattern of meaning from it. Quite clearly being good at doing this offers a very distinct survival advantage, for example if you can work out a pattern you can then potentially use it to predict things you can leverage. The cycle of the seasons, the movement of wildlife, the normal cycle of fruit busting out from trees at specific times, are rather obvious examples and so clearly any ancestors of ours who could grasp such patterns would indeed have a survival advantage when competing against those that could not.

Our thinking today reflects that reality for this is now spring, and while Christianity may indeed have moved in and claimed ownership, the traditions that prevail clearly point to a way of thinking that predates that specific belief system. We have easter eggs and spring rabbits, and of course we should not dismiss the Christian death and re-birth ritual as out of context, because it all is all very much part of the consistent pattern of ways that humans use to embrace the seasonal variation that is once again at the point where the landscape will be transformed and life that has been dormant will once again burst forth.

Right across many different human cultures, we find some form of spring festival such as the Chinese new year, the Jewish passover, may day celebrations,  the asian water festivals, the vibrant colourful Hindu festival of Holi where Vishnu was saved from death, oh and of course the Roman calendar that marked the start of the year in spring.

Behind all this diverse variation is the almost universal public acknowledgement of the arrival of the spring equinox. Marking the turning of the season like this is perhaps truly understandable because the knowledge of when the season turns is one of the reasons why our ancestors survived, and so we have been naturally selected to celebrate this time of year.

OK, I get that, but why all the religious stuff?

American behaviourist, author, and inventor, Burrhus Skinner, made a rather interesting discovery back in the 1940s, he observed that the humble pigeon behaves in an odd manner under controlled conditions. Skinner famously placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that randomly delivered food at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behaviour. He soon found that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they happened to be performing as it arrived, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions to get more food …

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return” 

‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947.  Burrhus Skinner.

Our primitive ancestors responded in exactly the same manner to random events in the world around them, and so over time they developed a comprehensive set of rules as they strove to appease the gods to ensure that they would be rewarded. For successive generations these rules evolved into quite sophisticated belief systems, often involving complex rituals that were coupled with the patterns they observed.

The pattern seeking engine between our ears does indeed enable us to successfully find patterns, but we then attribute things that are beyond our control to supernatural entities, and as part of our effort to gain control, we derive rules that we thing we need to follow. From all this, beliefs naturally emerge over successive generations.

Additionally, those beliefs that then gave us an advantage over other competing beliefs, are the ones that have thrived and so we have beliefs today that are almost immune to rational criticism.


OK, so back to the fact that today is magic friday. It’s true significance is simply down to the fact that our ancestors identified it as a key moment in a sessional pattern and survived. Everything else, all the religious stuff, is simply humans behaving exactly as Skinners pigeons did.

If indeed you do believe, and as a result wish to impose specific modes of behaviour upon yourself, then please do feel free to do so.  However, what deeply religious people should not get to do is to attempt to dictate and impose superstitious rules upon anybody else.

As is pointed out by Michael Nugent in the Irish Independent today, a dry Good Friday is silly and an affront to non-believers.

Personally, I will in fact be raising a glass or two and toasting the fact that our distant ancestors were smart enough to work out the seasonal pattern and survive – now that is perhaps a far better acknowledgement for this time of year than imposing some rather strange religious rituals upon myself.


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