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Assembly of a lesser god

Belief and worship are powerful tools for organizing thought and behavior. If others get control of those tools, they can make us dance like puppets. But if we’re careful, we can learn to pull our own strings.
By Doug Muder
9.22.08

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Lately I’ve been trying to invent the worship of a new god. He’s a minor god—I’ve named him Olly—and he . . . Wait. Maybe Olly isn’t the right place to start. Let me back up and begin somewhere else.

I have friends who worship the goddess Rita.

Now, Rita isn’t exactly a heavyweight among divinities—she didn’t create the world and doesn’t promise an eternity of bliss—but she does provide her worshipers with one very useful blessing: urban parking spaces.

My friends worship Rita by singing her hymn (the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid”) and they give her offerings by putting coins into the expired parking meters of total strangers, saying “Praise Rita” as they turn the knob. In return, they can pray to her whenever they need parking in the city, and parking spaces appear.

Or so they claim.

Now I think this is completely ridiculous, except for one thing: When I ride with my friends, they find parking on the street. When I’m driving, I hardly ever do.

I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this, and I even think I know what it is. Finding parking spaces requires patience, persistence, and exactly the sort of optimism that Rita-worship evokes: Just keep looking; Rita will provide.

I, on the other hand, get frustrated very quickly. Rationally, I know that people come and go all the time, so it can make perfect sense to go around the block again, or to look down a street where there were no empty spaces five minutes ago. But when I don’t find parking right away, it’s very easy for me to imagine that every space for miles is occupied by people who are attending all-day meetings and then planning to go out for drinks afterward. It doesn’t take very long before I hear a loud exasperated voice—my voice, it turns out—whining, “Forget it. I’ll pay for a deck.”

In short, my approach to parking is every bit as irrational as my friends’. The difference is that their irrationality serves them better than mine serves me. If I could believe in Rita, I would probably be better off.

I’ve seen a similar pattern elsewhere. One night in my dorm at college, the guys were passing around a men’s magazine and chuckling (but not for the usual reasons). Way in the back of the magazine was an ad for a capsule that was supposed to cure impotence. The capsule, the ad said in very plain terms, worked by using “the clinically proven placebo effect.” It did nothing, in other words, and the only people who might be helped by it were the ones dumb enough to believe in it.

We thought that was hilarious. Some guys are so dumb that they might get a placebo effect from something, even after you told them it was a placebo. They might take this pill and lose their impotence, when in fact the pill hadn’t done anything.

Wait. Why were we laughing at them?

OK, I remember now: The customers were being suckers for the capsule-makers, because most of them would send in their money and not be cured by “the clinically proven placebo effect.” That’s the problem with most power-of-belief schemes. When you suspend your disbelief and put your skepticism aside, you become vulnerable to people who want to manipulate you for their own benefit. The history of religion is full of prophets and popes and messiahs who enriched themselves at the expense of the faithful.

On the other hand, belief does have power, and the placebo effect is clinically proven. If I ever become “too smart” to be cured by it, how smart is that really? And some power-of-belief schemes—Rita-worship, for example—seem pretty well designed to be free from exploitation.

Maybe belief is like a drug: subject to abuse, but beneficial in the right setting and dosage.

When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer twelve years ago, we were on the lookout for some safe way to supplement medical treatment with a placebo effect. We found one when we came back to our car one afternoon and discovered a large, beautiful dragonfly dead in our back window. It was positioned as artfully as if someone had placed it on display, and the fact that all the car’s windows were closed gave the whole event a miraculous quality. No doubt we could have explained it somehow, but we decided not to. Instead, we made up a myth: The dragonfly was Deb’s totem animal. This particular dragonfly had died voluntarily so that its spirit could watch over her treatment.

We left the dragonfly in the window, and whenever we saw it our own spirits rose. Eventually its body decayed, and we replaced it with an idol: a piece of jewelry in the shape of a dragonfly. Deb made it to every doctor’s appointment, submitted to every test and treatment with a positive attitude, and lived.

The dragonfly idol is still in our car’s back window. Like my friends’ worship of Rita, it has opened us up to no manipulation that I can see.

One final example comes from my previous career as a mathematician. At the time I had what should have been a dream job. I was paid probably more than I deserved to do research that I enjoyed. And yet, as the years went by, the company’s personalities and politics began to wear me down. Sometimes I could still lose myself in a pure spirit of inquiry, but other evenings I came home fuming about some petty conflict.

One day I decided to take that “spirit of inquiry” seriously, and I invented a worship for it. After some meditation, I made a symbol for the Spirit and drew it on a large sheet of paper taped to my desktop. By day my desk pad covered it. But every evening before I went home I put the pad aside, reviewed how well I had served the Spirit of Inquiry that day, and placed each of my tools in its appropriate spot on the symbol: my compass, my ruler, my calculator, my pen. The next morning they would still be there. I’d think about how I would serve the Spirit this day, then respectfully remove the tools and replace the pad on my desk.

Twice coworkers came in just as I was leaving and saw the symbol, but both times a direct explanation worked pretty well: “It’s a ritual I do every morning to get my head together.” The word ritual has become so commonplace that it doesn’t even seem weird to have one. Baseball players who retighten their batting gloves after every pitch have a ritual they perform regularly on national TV. No big deal.

For as long as I continued in that career, the Spirit of Inquiry served me as well as I served it. It helped me focus and concentrate, and it kept me serene when I might otherwise have fretted about reorganizations or raises or transfers. I never did become completely rational about my job, but I found a constructive form of irrationality.

The conclusion I’ve drawn over the years is that evolution, for whatever reason, has made us a believing, worshiping species. And whether we approve of that decision or not, we’re stuck working with the mind we have. Belief and worship are powerful tools for organizing thought and behavior. If others get control of those tools, they can make us dance like puppets. But if we’re careful, we can learn to pull our own strings.

And that brings me back to Olly, the god under construction.

He’s a savior god, but what I want him to save us from is much less cosmic than Sin or Hell. I want Olly to be the god who turns off the unnecessary alarms in our heads. You know the ones I mean: The alarms that keep you awake thinking about a problem you can’t deal with until morning—and won’t be able to deal with at all if you don’t get some sleep. Or the alarms you’ve already answered as best you can. You’ve made the appointment, taken the test, submitted the application. Now you just need to let it go and wait and get on with life.

But human brains aren’t built that way, are they? The alarm keeps ringing. How do you turn it off? If you can just tell yourself, “Stop that. Get on with life.” . . . well, I’m happy for you. But I can’t.

Olly is short for Ollyolly Oxenfree, the call to come home in hide-and-seek. I picture him like the fireman who used to turn off the alarm after the drills at my grade school: a little chubby, with a big coat and helmet. I’m not sure how his worship works yet, or whether Olly needs any myths or hymns. But I picture a prayer to Olly as being a kind of interview, where he makes sure that you’ve really gotten the message the alarm was trying to send. When his questions are satisfactorily answered, the worshiper can chant Olly’s soothing mantra until the alarm goes silent.

What mantra? I don’t have it yet. I know the idea it needs to capture: “Whatever troubles remain are not an emergency. You can let go of that urge to run or hide. You can come home now, and be yourself again.”

But it needs to be more poetic than that, if it’s going to reach that worshipful place deep in my unconscious. It probably ought to rhyme and maybe even sound a little childish because it’s mostly the child in me that needs reassurance.

And most of all, it should sound like it comes from Olly. So my first prayer is the one I would offer to any new divinity: Reveal yourself to me. Teach me to pray.

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