Episode the Thirteenth

Why is superstition prevalent across cultures and eras? Is it an innocent amusement, or a dangerous belief? Is it at all related to religion?

This is Episode 13, Yep! You heard that right. Thirteen. Parts of which are being produced on March 13, 2021. If I were superstitious, I would have skipped this episode number, this date, or both. But I’m not. However, I do realise that superstition is a very interesting topic. It seems to sit at the intersection of culture, psychology, philosophy and even religion. Therefore, fittingly, superstition is the topic of Episode 13.

Cultural Superstition

Let’s start with the cultural. Superstitious beliefs can be closely associated with specific cultures and times. The association of number 13 with bad luck, for example, is pervasive throughout the American continent. In North America, Friday the 13th is notorious. In Latin America, Tuesdays are considered bad days for beginnings, like getting married, going on trips or leaving home. And Tuesday the 13th is the day to watch out for down there.

A fun fact I learned researching this episode is that this fear of the number thirteen has a name: triskaidekaphoia. And in fact, fear of Friday the the 13th is more specifically known as paraskevidekatriaphobia. In other cultures, the nasty day or number may be different, but something common across all cultures is that the history and reasons for selecting the bad omen are more or less equally vague and opaque.

And of course, no conversation about cultural superstition is complete without talking sports. I am amused by the superstitions around baseball, what with not stepping on the lines when entering or leaving the diamond – and I’m sure you can think of many, many other examples. And then on the personal level, everyone knows someone who swears by their good luck socks, or shirt, or watch, or whatever little rituals they summon success with on a variety of personal and professional endeavours.

Getting Serious

The cultural angle of superstition is very interesting, and can be quite amusing. However, there’s also a much more negative connotation in the sense of excessive fixation with subjective realities, which traces back to the very first known uses of the word. The word itself, by the way, is very peculiar. “Superstition” is thought to come from the Latin super stare, which we could translate as: “to stand over,” “to stand upon,” or “to survive.” But this is a matter of conjecture, because we sort of ran into the word in classic Latin works with no explicit introduction or definition.

However, one thing that’s clear from the context of those works is the pejorative use of the word, not unlike some of its uses today. Take a cursory look at several modern English dictionaries, and you’ll see that “superstitious” is associated with the supernatural, but generally not in a good way. “Irrational,” “ungrounded” and “excessive” are adjectives commonly connected, or even equated, to superstition.

The Psychological Angle

How can a dubious and highly mocked concept be such a prevalent and almost timeless component of human nature? Psychology offers several reasons. One is the desire to understand the world around us, to establish patterns and to ascertain causes and effects. Some of us, in some circumstances, will prefer a tenuous or improbable cause to an unknown cause, or no cause at all. Therefore, as an example, a person facing an inexplicable setback may chalk it up to having walked under a ladder earlier in the day, or having run into a black cat. Someone goes on a date with his or her partner; they unexpectedly break up, and think it had to do with the clothes they were wearing or the place they were in.

There’s even a theory that connects evolution or natural selection with superstition. Crazy, isn’t it? Superstition mixed with science?! The idea is that noticing cause and effect associations improves survivability, and that the benefits of being right outweigh the drawbacks of being wrong. This could lower the barrier to accepting more speculative associations. In other words, if you went on a prehistoric expedition and lost a friend in an accident involving lava… It’s not a big deal that you wrongly believe that it was due to your saber tiger tooth collar. Because at least that means you’re making associations. And hopefully at some point you’ll pick up on the fact that lava is the dangerous thing. I think one could argue that accepting some incorrect associations may actually lower your chances of survival.

But in any case, in all of this, there are elements of fear and control. Superstition plays to a fear to the unknown and potentially ominous like those insanely named phobias of specific days I mentioned earlier. And it plays to a desire to hold on to at least an illusion of understanding and maybe even controlling the world around us.

Superstition and Epistemic Responsibility

You could say it’s all harmless. It’s an innocent placebo. A trivial idea just to feel good. Right? Well, philosophically, that doesn’t quite fly. At least, it didn’t for British philosopher and mathematician W. K. Clifford. To explain why, let me start by observing that it’s pretty cold outside as I record this. Which is a fairly simple statement that shouldn’t be too debatable if you’ve been in the GTA almost any night this week. But philosophically, it goes deeper. (Of course. It always does.) How do I know it’s cold? Is it just my opinion? Or is it knowledge? Do I have evidence for it? And if so, what kind of evidence? How do I know, that I know?

This is the domain of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. A classic epistemic definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” If I believe that something is true, and if I have justifications to believe it’s true, which is to say if I have the right evidence, then I can say I know it. For example, when I said, “it’s cold outside,” in the first place it was a belief. My attitude or stance on the temperature. In this particular case, I arrived at that stance by looking at a properly calibrated and utilized thermometer, which showed the temperature to be lower than zero degrees Celsius. And that, coupled with a commonly agreed definition of “cold” when it comes to weather, made me conclude that my belief is true and justly so, because it corresponds to reality through rational, logical and verifiable means. And that’s the definition of knowledge according to epistemology.

So I now have epistemic certainty on my belief that it’s cold outside. What does this have to do with superstition? A concept closely related to epistemology is epistemic responsibility, which is that I should only hold beliefs which are justified to be true. In other words, epistemic responsibility gives a moral weight to the beliefs I hold and share, because untrue beliefs are harmful to myself and to others. That was the point of W. K. Clifford. He literally thought it was immoral to believe things one has no evidence for. And I’m not sure that Clifford’s point was specifically against superstition, but I do know it was against religious beliefs, which American philosopher William James took issue with.

Enter Religion

And that brings me to the connection between superstition and religion. At a very high level, which is probably too simplistic, to some people these concepts are equivalent. Religion is superstition. And I would cautiously say that depending on how we define religion those people may be on to something.

Before you think I’ve lost my mind, let me explain. You see, what most people conflate with religion is actually idolatry, the human tendency to create and worship idols. This, by the way, is also at the heart of what I find one of the most fascinating discussions around the philosophical question of origin: Do all humans invent religious myths due to some weirdly universal psychological or evolutionary trait? Or is it a reflection of the fact that one of these so-called myths actually is true, and humans creating religions is just an expression of their divine origin? I happen to think it’s the latter, of course. From my Christian worldview, the fact that God created humans reflects, among many other ways, through humanity’s desire to know its Creator. But parking my opinion for a second, I hope you will agree that the tendency to make idols is a universal human theme, and I think it goes a long way in explaining superstition.

The biblical book of Isaiah has a comically sad explanation of how idolatry works. The prophet explains how a man fells a tree, and from the same wood he makes a fire for warmth and cooking, and an idol to worship. Listen to the prophet’s conclusion on the whole ordeal:

No one stops to think. No one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ’half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals. I roasted meat and ate. Should I make a detestable thing from what is left? Should I bow down to a block of wood?’ Such a person feeds on ashes. A deluded heart misleads them. He cannot save himself, or say, ’Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’ (Is 44:19-20 NIV)

Now, does this not sound exactly like superstition to you? The kind of stuff someone would make up out of thin air to drive away fear, to have a sense of control, and to attempt to explain the world around them? And of course, back in the times of Isaiah, idols were made of wood. These days we carry idols in our pockets. They’re covered in glass. We call them smartphones. The technology has changed, the expression has changed, but the idea of having something that we can at once be enslaved to and somehow control remains valid.

Throughout the ages, theologians have highlighted that dichotomy with idols. Where we make impossible contracts with them, because we expect them, at once, to save and deliver us, but also to be, to some extent, controllable – to be bribed or to be cajoled into granting our wishes. Which again, sounds an awful lot like superstition to me. I may think I can’t control what happens to me, but hey – there’s no harm, let’s hang this rabbit foot to my keyring, or let’s make sure I wear my lucky sweater to that important presentation, because maybe I can beg favour from, if not downright command, the inscrutable powers that control the outcome of my life.

And when it comes to that, a biblically sound and well-founded Christianity actually stands as a powerful antidote against idolatry, and therefore as a powerful antidote against superstition. At its core, Christianity condemns superstition and suppresses it, like it does with everything that competes with the attention that only God deserves. A biblical Christianity will establish, with more than sufficient epistemic evidence, that God exists, that He is good, and He’s in control of our lives. We’re not. But that’s perfectly fine. We need not fear. We need not know or understand all causes. We need not control everything around us. This isn’t to say that we are enticed or allowed to be intellectually lazy or careless. It’s not. We’re encouraged to understand the boundaries that all of us are confined within, and to peacefully and trustfully accept them. No superstition needed.

What About Miracles?

I want to end on something of a cliff hanger here. Often times, when non-believers process the attitudes of believers, I see three general patterns. One has to do with community and social good. Atheists may not accept the source or exclusivity of Christian concepts of morality and righteousness, but often they accept them – or many of them, anyway – because they ring true, even when separate from a faith-based context.

The second pattern involves relational and lifestyle choices. Some atheists truly rejoice when they see Christian friends kicking bad habits or improving their character and their relationships. They may not see the cause of it as something fit for themselves, but they can still see the value of it for someone else. You’ve probably heard it: “Well, I’m glad to see that religion thing seems to be working for you.”

But the third pattern is where things get really contested, and that’s when the conversation turns to the supernatural. Bring up the Holy Spirit, demonic influences, or the resurrection, and we can be back at the “religion is superstition” fight in a hurry. And as we approach Easter, which is Christianity’s biggest celebration of the year, it begs the question. For all the conversation about epistemic evidence for God, and all the logic and philosophy we can offer – can we know that miracles happen? If you want to hear my thoughts on that, don’t miss the next episode (article, podcast).

Published: March 15, 2021