The Theology of The Unconscious

Would you put your hand in the haunted box?

By Gerald Alper

Scot Atran is an anthropologist who has a research interest in the evolutionary roots of  superstitious beliefs.   In an experiment that has become famous, he presents his students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic.  ”If you have negative sentiments towards religion,”  he tells them, “ the box will destroy whatever you put inside it. “   The point of the demonstration is that even students who say they are nonbelievers act as if they believe in something. When he tells them to put their pencil in the box, the nonbelievers do so without hesitation. When he tells them to put their driver's license in, most do, but only after significant hesitation. When he tells them to put their hand in, few comply.   Atran wonders, “if they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?” 

This is a startling result, but only if you don’t think about it.  First note, that Atran pretended that the box was an African relic, thereby admitting a critical deception was a precondition of the success of the experiment.   But perhaps this deception was read on some subliminal level by certain perceptive students. If this was some kind of psychological hoax, if something was up, it is understandable that someone might show, not so much hesitation, as mistrust. Someone might refrain from putting in their hand, not because they fear supernatural vengeance, but because they didn’t want to be tricked by a psychologist. Perhaps they were afraid of being mildly shocked, or surprised by something that felt like a creepy dead thing, but was really, say, a rag doll? Maybe the point of the test was to determine just how gullible they were and, no matter what they did, they feared, not retribution, but social embarrassment?

Imagine for a moment you were to participate in Atran’s experiment. He shows you a box, tells you it is an African relic, and says “if you have negative sentiments sometimes towards religion, the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” He then instructs you to put in, respectively, your pencil, your wallet, and your hand. What would you think? Would you trust him? What is so rational about taking the word of someone who says that to you and then actually doing what he says? Is it, perhaps more rational, to be immediately on one’s guard, to suspect the trick, to incrementally fall prey to a (normal) paranoid frame of mind?  Maybe Atran, however, does know what he is talking about and knows, for example, that reputable African villagers have really testified to the damage that has accrued to certain irreligious people who have profanely touched the box. Maybe Atran does not believe this himself, but wants to see if you do. But what if certain people really have been hurt, not because of a curse, but because of an undetected toxic chemical inside the box? Or what if you could not care less about any of the above, but you do care about coming across as insensitively irreligious and you do not want your family to know that it has been many years since you last went to church?

Or imagine this: you are about to buy a watch as a birthday present, say for your father and, while wrapping the gift, the sales clerk, laughing a little self-consciously and perhaps guiltily, says, ”It’s strange, but the last two people I sold this watch to, died of a heart attack a few weeks later!”  And almost immediately recognizing and trying to undo his monumental gaffe, says ”Of course, that had nothing to do with this. It’s a fine watch.”

Now what do you do? Under such a circumstance, is it really more rational to go ahead and buy the watch from this particular salesperson? A cognitive scientist such as Atran seems to think so. He makes the assumption that a person acting rationally will always refrain from doing anything that might be included under the tainted umbrella of superstitious thinking. But that can be a blinkered viewpoint. There could be valid, commonsensical reasons for shying away from violating a religious taboo. Such as, for example the pragmatic desire to save energy.

For, any way you put it, it is a creepy thing to tell person out of the blue there’s a curse or a series of unexplained deaths attached to what looks like a harmless, every day object. That’s hard to ignore, no matter how unsuperstitious you are. It is natural to want to think about it. Just how did the supposed curse or  jinx come about? Is there a simple, understandable explanation? Since you’re not a cognitive scientist  investigating the roots of irrational beliefs, you are not interested—when all you want to do is buy a watch or participate, if you are a student, in an interesting, but presumably trivial psychological experiment—in being lured into a weird-sounding chain of events. What rational reason would an ordinary person have for doing that?

Here’s a final personal example. Several years ago, I received a mysterious, anonymous letter, requesting me to send copies of the same letter to at least two other people. If I did so, I might enjoy the same good fortune that had been known to befall several people who were willing to comply. Were I to disregard the letter, however, I might incur the same bad luck reported by at least three others.

The chain letter has an immediate, jarring effect. It was a chain letter operating on the carrot and stick principle. Do what I say and you get something wonderful. Don’t do what I say and just wait to see what happens. The choices could not be simpler. Either pass the chain letter along or throw it in the wastebasket and take your chances. Since I knew it once I was not going to send such a letter to another person—that would be unethical—it meant throwing a letter away.

Yet, much to my chagrin and embarrassment, I found that surprisingly hard to do. What if there was something to the letter? Could I be absolutely certain that nothing sinister would befall me if I decided to break the chain? Why had the sender refused to sign their name, unless they have something to hide? Was it possible the sender was someone who knew me? Someone who wishes to harm me?

My instinct, the healthy part of my mind, said don’t be silly, throw the letter away, but something stopped me. Instead, putting a letter to the side, I tried not to think about it. A day past, another day. The more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it. There was only one way to end my conflict. Summoning up my courage, I broke the chain and threw the letter way.

No one, I realized, no authority can tell you what your life means to you or should mean to you. Science or theology can tell you what they think their answer is to what exists out there, what lies in store for us, and what came before us, but they cannot tell you what that answer means to you. An individual truth can only be individually interpreted. You can hand that over to an authority, but you are still thereby making an interpretation. The theology of the unconscious —when it is your unconscious – can only be interpreted by you.

For readers who wish to pursue this further, See my new book, God and Therapy: What we Believe When No One is Watching (IBooks, Gerald Alper)

Published February 4th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.