A couple of days ago, I speculated that woo-woo beliefs stem primarily from three human psychological causes: (1) wishful thinking, (2) paranoia, and (3) a reluctance to consider alternative, and unpleasant, explanations. I submit to you that there is a fourth reason -- some woo-woo beliefs give people an excuse for their own bad behavior.
A marginal example of this is the recent upsurge in fraudulent "professional psychics," who bilk people for thousands of dollars to predict futures, give personal advice, and get in touch with deceased family members. I call this a "marginal" example because I'm pretty sure that the charlatans are aware, deep down, that they are charlatans -- that really, they're just doing convincing magic tricks and swindling the gullible. As such, it doesn't really qualify as a true belief. There might be some people who are convinced that they really are psychic, but I suspect that most of those do not include the big money-makers, who go on tours and perform their acts in front of thousands.
I ran into another example of woo-woo-ism used as a justification for antisocial behavior just yesterday, with the story of the young Saudi Arabian guys who went berserk and demolished an abandoned hospital because it was "haunted by jinn." (Source)
Riyadh's Irqa Hospital, which treated Gulf War combatants twenty years ago, was left empty because of ill-repair and safety issues, and (as is common with abandoned buildings) got a reputation for being haunted. The haunting, however, was not by the spirits of the dead; no, Irqa Hospital was haunted by jinn, who are malevolent spirits from Middle Eastern mythology, whose presence can tempt people into sinful behavior.
Well. Evidently a bunch of people never learned the basic concept of "Mythology means it isn't true." Of course, the fact that the jinn are mentioned several times in the Koran didn't help. So they decided to take action. First, an anti-jinn article appeared in the Saudi Gazette recommending the formation of a committee to decide what to do about jinn. The article ended with the facepalm-inducing statement, "It would be no understatement to say that we are sick and tired of evil sorcerers."
Then, things escalated. Twitter feeds from Saudi users began to buzz with recommendations that the anti-jinn cadre needed to take matters into their own hands. And finally, a raid was organized on Irqa Hospital, and hundreds of young men descended on the place, smashing windows, punching holes in walls, and ultimately burning 60% of the building.
So, what did all of this accomplish? My sources said nothing about hordes of dismayed, defeated jinn retreating in disarray. My guess as to the number of jinn that were encountered that night is right out of Monty Python's "Camel Spotting" sketch; I'll bet they saw almost... one. Given the lack of success, in the typical definition of the word, what possible motivation for the raid could these guys possibly have?
Well, it allowed them to do an activity that young men, world-wide, seem to love to do; to get together at night, in large numbers, and smash stuff up. But unlike most places, where smashing stuff up that doesn't belong to you is considered a relatively antisocial thing to do, here the woo-woo belief system is invoked -- "Hey! We're not just demolishing random hospitals; we demolished a hospital to save you all from the evil jinn! You should thank us!"
It's the same sort of tendencies that lead to even worse behavior -- such as the people whose fundamental disdain for their fellow human beings, coupled with an enjoyment of causing suffering, drives them to participate in the persecution of "witches." (And lest you think that all of that went out of fashion in the 18th century, allow me to point out that a recent news release from the Legal and Human Rights Center stated that 642 people were lynched in Tanzania last year for "practicing witchcraft.")
It's hard to face this dark side of human nature -- and once understood, it is even harder to do something to combat it. The only thing that can conquer this kind of behavior is education; knowledge is, perhaps, the opposite of fear. In understanding how the world actually works, we can leave behind superstitious fears and prejudices -- that jinn haunt abandoned buildings, or that people deserve death because they can cast evil spells. Progress is slow, plodding, incremental, and there is a significant fraction of the world's population that still espouses these sorts of beliefs. Still, we are progressing. When you consider that it was not so very long ago that witches were hanged right here in the United States, it gives you some cause for optimism.