Is Rain dance superstitious?—Willem Derde

Some consider it to be a “superstitious practice”, the implication being that it is irrational to believe that dancing causes the rain to fall: no reasonable people on earth can buy the story that dancing actually causes rain to fall. I am not willing to buy it. However, it is a fact that in some cultures people do perform ‘rain dances’. However, to explain the ‘rain dance’ by attributing a ‘causative story’ is to trivialize such an experience: you are transforming the members of that group into a bunch of idiots.

In an attempt to shed some light on this matter, I would like to refer to a debate between the famous Dr. Livingstone and a Tswana ‘Rain Doctor’. The discussion, of course, is about the ‘rain dance’:

“Medical Doctor [i.e. Livingstone]: So you really believe that you can command the clouds? I think that can be done by God alone.

Rain Doctor: We both believe the very same thing. It is God that makes the rain, but I pray to him by means of these medicines, and, the rain coming, of course it is then mine.

Medical Doctor: I only think you are mistaken in saying that you have medicines which can influence the rain at all.

Rain Doctor: That’s just the way people speak when they talk on a subject of which they have no knowledge. When first we opened our eyes, we found our forefathers making rain, and we follow in their footsteps. You, who send to Kuruman for corn, and irrigate your garden, may do without rain, we cannot manage in that way”. (Cited in J. & J. Comaroff: Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 210-211)

I would like to invite the reader to take these sentences at face value. It is clear that the ‘rain doctor’ agrees with Livingstone that he does not command the clouds. Only when he performs the ritual and the rain comes only then does he consider the rain his. In other words, the ‘rain doctor’ does not claim a causal relationship. He only says that he considers the rain his, when he has done the performance and if it then starts to rain. But this is not how Dr. Livingstone understands the matter. The ‘medical doctor’ insists that there can be no medicines which can influence the rain to fall. That neither of the two understand each other becomes clear when we look at the response of the ‘rain doctor’. He gets irritated and refers to what his forefathers did. Livingstone is looking for an answer to the question how it is possible that the dance cause rains to come and wants an explanation. As far as the rain dancer is concerned, the discussion is not even about creating water. Consequently, irrigation is not an alternative as far as he is concerned. For him, the discussion is about continuing what has always been done in his culture. Hence his claim “When first we opened our eyes, we found our forefathers making rain, and we follow in their footsteps”. In other words, it is about what his people do; for Livingstone the discussion is about what the Tswana people believe.

It is here that Wittgenstein’s observations become relevant, indeed. He says: “The very idea of wanting to explain a practice … seems wrong to me. What kind of explanation was he thinking of? The one Frazer provided of course. What did Frazer provide? Stories, beliefs, worldviews, etc. which were believed to explain the practice, that is, cause of these practices, so to speak. What else did Wittgenstein say? All that Frazer does is to make the practices plausible “to people who think as he does”. I invite you to consider the possibility that Wittgenstein was not just thinking about other individuals. In fact, research reveals that what Frazer did, was the dominant way of doing in the West. In other words, one could paraphrase Wittgenstein’s remark thus: All that Frazer does is to make practices plausible to people in the West. In other words, Wittgenstein is making an observation about the culture of the West. What does his insight boil down to? That people in the West search for beliefs, of which the practices are an expression, to make sense of practices. Livingstone asked the rain doctor why he believed that dancing caused rain. It is very remarkable that in the final analysis all these practices are presented as, so to speak, pieces of stupidity. But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of sheer stupidity.” (From “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”).

I will not go into the issue of stupidity again, but I will focus on the other things instead. As far as Wittgenstein is concerned, the problem – i.e. the distortion of other cultures – is caused by a desire to explain a practice. Trying to explain a practice by referring to a theory or belief, is the ‘only’ way for us (the Westerners) to make the others plausible, i.e. to make sense of them. In other words, for us Westerners, for some actions to be coherent, a story, a belief, a theory, or worldview is needed which lends coherence to the actions. That actions can derive their consistency from actions themselves is an option which is clouded by the constraints of the Western culture.

What if there are cultures where beliefs have nothing do to with how people go about in the world (i.e., they are not constitutive of this going about in the world)? If they do exist, it must be obvious that they must possess other kinds of knowledge, i.e. kinds of knowledge that differ from what we are familiar with. Does it make sense to think so? I believe it does. Balu has offered an intriguing and convincing beginning in his book, where he explores and makes sense of this idea. The gist of his arguments cannot be summarized here.

Other cultures do possess knowledge. And, yes, current social sciences do block access to that knowledge.