One of the problems we frequently encounter when discussing religion (especially in the context of science) is that a lot of people have a hazy understanding of what superstition is. They think superstition means “silly things other people believe,” and if we describe any of their beliefs as superstition, they think we’re merely insulting their beliefs without making any substantive criticism. This in turn allows them to get away with a lot of superstitious thinking, at least in their own estimation.
For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for a nice concise, comprehensive definition of what superstition actually is, so that we can share it with people and say, “This is why I describe your belief as a superstition.” So far, the definition I like best is this one:
Superstition is when you arbitrarily associate some particular effect with some particular cause in the absence of any plausible or verifiable, non-magical connection between them.
Thus, for example, when you say that it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, that’s a superstition, because it creates a cause-and-effect association between bad luck and walking under a ladder, in the absence of any plausible/verifiable, non-magical connection between the two. When I was a kid, we used to say that if you stepped on a spider, it would make it rain. Again, no plausible/verifiable, non-magical connection between the two.
These are obviously silly superstitions, but how about this one: if we allow gay marriage, our nation will be destroyed? Superstition again, because we’re associating disastrous consequences with an innocent cause, in the absence of any plausible, verifiable, non-magical connection. That’s more atrocious than silly, but it’s still a superstition.
Or how about this? We see ordered cause-and-effect relationships in the intricate mechanisms of biology, therefore there must be an Intelligent Designer. Is there any plausible, verifiable, non-magical connection between the two? None at all, even if you propose an alien race with advanced technology, since they could hardly have invented the physics of biochemistry needed for their own biological existence. Intelligent Design boils down to being simple superstition (which is why it is out of place in science classrooms that are supposed to teach us how NOT to be superstitious!).
How do you define superstition? Is there a way to better express what the essence of “superstitiousness” is, so that people can more easily recognize it in their own thinking? Even if people resist acknowledging their own superstitions, is there a way we can help other people, especially young people, to recognize it and avoid it?