Superstition

  • If you break a mirror that is seven years bad luck!
  • Don’t open that umbrella indoors! That is bad luck!
  • Here, wear these special under garments to ward off evil demons!
  • Ack! A black cat! Let’s go a different way!
  • Throw salt over your back if you spill to ward off bad luck!
  • I was born in August, so I’m more likely to be upset right now.
  • Get out of here, he’s got a camera! It’ll steal our souls!
  • There are fairies in the gardens that watch over us

Ahh, yes, superstitious rituals concerning mirrors, ladders, and umbrellas. A person’s entire personality dictated by where the stars are at the time of their birth.  Camera’s that will steal your soul if you are looking into the lens when the picture is taken. Oh, and my favorite, holy undergarments that will protect you from evil.  All of these things are superstitious things that people still believe today. Most people in the United States would have a hard time not laughing at someone who espoused these beliefs as being as true as the sky is up.  However, people believe them.  But ask anyone that you come across if they believe in seven years bad luck, or if they see a black cat it is an ill omen, and they will ask why you are asking them so frivolous questions.  Most people wouldn’t admit to such claims, at least not openly.

However, what do we think of these things?

  • If I move my hands across my chest and forehead, I am warded from evil.
  • Eating ham is forbidden and I will surely be punished if I consume the meat of a pig.
  • By sprinkling some water on my babies head I ensure he or she will gain entrance to heaven.
  • If I bow down on a rug towards a certain point on the earth I will be saved from evil.
  • By eating this wafer and drinking this wine I am consuming a holy being.
  • If I pray in a certain way I will have all of my wants and desired fulfilled.

These things are surely different, are they not? We should not view these rituals and acts as superstitious, but rather with reverence and respect. After all, is not crossing one’s self an accepted form of theistic worship? Obviously, we must baptize our children to ward them from the fires of hell.  These rituals and behaviors are all legitimized in our Western culture as a somehow appropriate expression of piety or holiness, but are they really any different than the above list?

Or are they something else?

How is believing in an astrological sign any different than believing a waving of the arms is somehow responsible for warding off evil? How is prayer to a specific deity any different than garden fairies that hide within stones?  Or throwing salt over your shoulder different than skipping a certain type of meat for religious purposes?  They are not any different.   They are not any different because each case has exactly as much evidence for its existence as the other-none.  Every single one has origins not from a holy deity but from a cultural norm from thousands of years ago.

This is not to say that we cannot have fun with such superstitions. Who really wants to open up an umbrella indoors, and what is wrong with fun stories about garden fairies? However, we must examine each ritual for what it is-superstition.  As a society we must stop taking so literally the superstitions and rituals of yester-millennia and take a more rational approach to our world.  In a world that understands the data about the efficacy of prayer (none) or the health benefits of pork we will see a marked increase in happiness.   No longer should we view such superstitions as facts of life or as legitimate means of expression or salvation in times of distress.

We should view superstitions for what they are, simple explanations for what happens when things go awry.  When there is no explanation for an event, people make one up, and they make one up that makes sense to them or their community.

So I ask you, next time you see a ladder to walk under it. If you cross paths with a black cat, give it a hug, kitties are cute!  In just the same stroke as you do such things, ask yourself or your colleague, why exactly DO I cross myself?  What is it about pork that I can’t eat it again?  When it all comes down to it, the most important thing we can do is to be good to one another. No amount of rituals, superstitions, or supernatural explanations can do anything to absolve us of not doing so or ensure that we do.

Jason Kelley

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7 comments on “Superstition

  1. bgress says:

    BUT I ONCE HEARD SUM 1 SAY THAT SCIENCE PROVED PRAYER WORKED!!!1 HOW CAN YOU REFUTE THAT?!

  2. Jim says:

    Well written.

    I agree with most everything you’ve include here and I think if you expand on your premise you’ll find a common question that religious people ask the non-religious. The question can be posed many ways but boils down to, “what if you’re wrong?” (see the famous video of Dawkins being asked this for a smack down). That is to say, what if there is a diety and you’re going to hell for not performing the proper rituals or thinking the proper thoughts. This has been referred to as the “better safe than sorry” defense of religion.

    In the example of spilling salt and throwing a bit over your shoulder, you are simply doing this for peace of mind, not because they actually believe the premise that spilling the salt gives you bad luck. This is a great example of how ridiculous the “better safe than sorry” defense.

    All of that being said, self-made rituals can have a positive psychological effect without being particularly dangerous. I think Sam Harris puts it well when he claims that there is genuine value in reflection and meditation. Sometimes in order to get ourselves mentally prepared to meditate one might perform a ritual of sorts. I use the term meditation liberally to mean any act that prompts intellectual reflection beyond day-to-day activities. It could be something as simple as picking out your favorite spot to read or visiting the same place in your favorite park because it evokes a certain feeling of peace. There is value to be found here, but the problem comes when rituals become impersonal or dogmatic.

    Impersonal beliefs and their corresponding dogmatic rituals are the foundation of religious experience and thus why religious people have such a hard time when dogmatic rituals are removed from the public forum. It makes it harder for them to use this “better safe than sorry” defense.

  3. Mike says:

    Jason, some very good points. The only thing that I would disagree with is prayer. But of course there is no need for prayer if you don’t have anyone to pray to – do you?

    But the baptizing babies thing, not eating pig, crossing ones self, thinking that you are consuming the literal blood and flesh of Christ, etc. those things are absolutely non-sense. I agree.

  4. zntneo says:

    so why would you disagree on prayer? as compared to say meditation?

  5. Mike says:

    zntneo

    Because prayer is directed toward someone you claim not to believe in. Meditation is not even in the same league as prayer.

    • Jacob says:

      “Because prayer is directed toward someone you claim not to believe in. ”

      Ah, that explains why it doesn’t work with any greater accuracy than sheer chance.

  6. Mark says:

    @bgress

    I think you would be interested to read about this study demonstrating that prayer has no effect on people who do not know they are being/not being prayed for. It also shows that prayer actually has a NEGATIVE effect on health when the person being prayed for does knows it.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all

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