Not Precisely Superstition

It is quite fashionable, among some scientists, to equate religion with superstition.  The two, unlike religion and magic, are quite different.  They both involve belief, but, guess what?  So does science.  Superstition might best be summarized as traditional causality with no evidence, such as a black cat crossing your path causing bad luck.  Religion, on the other hand, tends to be a system of beliefs which, unless treated superficially, don’t look for causality as much as for meaning.  Superstition can be quite persistent.  It’s something that’s picked up in an ad hoc manner.  For example, I knew nothing of horseshoes growing up, apart from the very, very occasional game.  It wan’t until my mid-to-late teens that I heard my step-father say that an upside-down horseshoe was bad luck when hung on the wall of a building.

I had assumed that I had heard most of the relevant superstitions well before then.  I didn’t really believe any of them and they all seemed to be about luck, something I definitely didn’t believe in.  I was quite religious, after all.  I could tell the difference between religion—definitely true—and superstition.  Superstition was hearsay, or folk belief.  Never divinely revealed.  The thing about superstition is that it plants a doubt that never quite goes away.  Even if you didn’t believe it in the first place.  Say you break a mirror.  Seven years is a long time for bad luck to hit.  Any time something bad happens to you after said breakage, you naturally wonder.  Was it because of that mirror?

Good and bad happen to us all the time.  They are generally a matter of perspective.  A broken mirror means you may need to buy a new mirror, but it also means a seed a doubt will always be there for as long as you recall when you broke it.  You may naturally link the causality to the event, even when they have nothing to do with one another.  That’s the nature of superstition.  Some religions share some traits with this form of thinking, but entire systems or religion are seldom based on superstitions.  Black cats, mirrors, ladders, rabbits’ feet, four-leafed clovers—in what way would such things influence the world around them?  Yes, some religions attempt that as well, but many do not.  Like fear and religion, superstition has many overlaps but isn’t precisely the same thing.  Religion should be examined critically—it’s simply what humans do.  It shouldn’t be, however, be considered simple superstition.  Perhaps its bad luck to do so.

3 thoughts on “Not Precisely Superstition

  1. Robert Crompton

    Your comment about superstition planting a doubt that may not go away reminded me of one of my never forgotten anecdotes: It was just before Christmas and the last working day before taking a longish break. I would be back in the office in the new year so sorted out my desk in readiness for my return – including putting my new calendar on the wall. A colleague noticed the calendar and remarked with apparent concern, “Are you not superstitious then?” I replied that, no, of course I was not superstitious. To which he responded, “Well no, neither am I but you are pushing your luck there.”

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    • Good example! I think the staying power of superstition has to do with the doubt it creates. You’re never quite sure if there’s ever any connection, although rationally we know there’s not. Thanks for the comment!

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