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Dec 11 2012

Defining superstition

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?

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Irreverend Bastard

    Superstition?

    Belief in anything that is not measurable.

  2. 2
    brucegee1962

    Wow, Irreverend. You don’t believe in the existence of any abstract nouns? No peace, freedom, justice, love, mercy?

    I like the OP’s definition better.

    1. 2.1
      Rob

      What of your examples are not even in principle measurable or reachable by induction from measurable things?

    2. 2.2
      Rob

      A question for you to further show how his definition is no different than the op – how do you verify something without measuring it?

  3. 3
    Rob

    I almost think the “nonmagical” part can be removed. That’s currently handled in a couple of ways. Magical, to me at least, implies not plausible. And even removing that, if it’s something that’s been verified, does the magicalness matter?

  4. 4
    Antares42

    I’d leave out the “non-magical” requirement, because as it is, the argument just shifts the question from “what is superstition” to “what is magic”. But even the same kind of applies to “plausible”.

    Example: Christians will argue that the existence of their god is plausible, and that “magic” is the wrong word to describe his interaction with or intervention in earthly matters.

  5. 5
    BecomingJulie

    I would define superstition as “Belief without good reason”.

    And the only good reason to believe something is that it is (at least probably) true.

  6. 6
    Kevin K

    I’ve always wondered what about stition made it super…but that’s a discussion for a different day.

    I think you make an important connection to magic.

    Religion: Magic invisible beings creating universes, burning bushes, walking on water, and raising themselves from the dead (among other things). Superstition.
    Astrology: Magic effect of the alignment of patterns of stars in the night sky on human behavior.
    Is belief in ESP superstition? Probably not, because of your “magic” clause.

    That would also tend to eliminate the conspiracy theorists from superstition. Because they see someone pulling the strings behind the scenes. Earthquakes=HAARP. No sighting of Nibiru=The Illuminati influencing NASA to deny it. 911Truthers=Bush/Cheney wanting Iraqi oil.

    So, two different brands of crazy. They both deal in unproven and unprovable beliefs that are unproven and unprovable because they’re 100% demented. But superstition deals in the realm of non-human action and influence at a distance, beyond the boundaries of scientific observation by scientifically impossible (or highly implausible) means. Like invisible fairies. Or giant angry genies.

  7. 7
    busterggi

    The difference between religion and superstition is simple – religion is organized.

  8. 8
    One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login

    A concise definition would be useful but I don’t think this is it. Also “X is when” is at least awkward. Fixing that and cutting some words gives

    Superstition is the association of an effect with a particular cause in the absence of any verifiable connection between them.

    “Non-magical” is redundant with “verifiable”; and “plausible” is misleading because lots of people find superstitious explanations quite plausible.

  9. 9
    Roi des Faux

    Actually, the idea that it was aliens isn’t as crazy as it might first seem. The ID argument is that life is too complex to have arisen naturally, therefore god. But that’s just life on Earth, so it’s possible that life from another planet was simple enough to arise naturally, and then they flew here and created complex life as a science experiment. Highly implausible, but still more likely than god.

  10. 10
    Irreverend Bastard

    brucegee1962:

    Can you measure peace, freedom, justice, love, mercy?

    1. 10.1
      Irreverend Bastard

      Clicked the wrong button.

      Can you even define peace, freedom, justice, love, mercy?

      Tell me what love is, so that I may properly believe in it. Because I don’t know if I have ever experienced it. Or freedom. I’m not free to say or do whatever I like.

      It’s all completely subjective, just a gut feeling. My feeling of justice may be completely different from yours.

      No, I don’t believe in peace, freedom, justice, love, mercy. It’s like democracy, a good thing if we could ever get it to work. In the meantime, all those nice words have been abused so thoroughly that I no longer know what they mean.

  11. 11
    Dave B

    Your fellow freethought blogger, Richard Carrier, has given the best definition of the supernatural I’ve ever heard:

    “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.

    http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

    There’s also a great post about this definition as it relates to creationism on the Less Wrong wiki:
    Excluding the Supernatural

  12. 12
    coragyps

    “now I ain’t superstitious
    but a black cat crossed my trail” – Willie Dixon

    I think Triffid Pruner is pretty close on a definition. But, as Mr Dixon wrote, it’s only superstition if it’s you thinking it, not me.

  13. 13
    Sercee

    Just a note that the ladder one is a bad example: “bad luck” may not be the right phrase, but walking under a ladder does significantly increase your chances of something falling on your head (tools, paint from a worker above, the ladder itself if it’s haphazardly leaning against the wall). Some supersitions evolve (devolve?) from good advice of once upon a time. I recall hearing that breaking mirrors was 7 years of bad luck because they were expensive and it took about that long for a servant to pay back their boss…

    The rest of it I agree with. I always feel bad for black cats, they get an awful rap.

  14. 14
    BecomingJulie

    In the UK, a black cat is usually considered to be *good* luck.

    Considering that omens are just as likely to be perceived positively as negatively, things probably even themselves out around the world.

  15. 15
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    That’s pretty much it. Superstition is codified magical thinking about… whatever. Doesn’t need to appeal to obvious or “normalized” woo-woo beliefs/concepts like luck or karma or ghosts or whatever.

    Sercee

    You make a good point: Some obvious common sense behaviors have been shoehorned into superstition, maybe because when you can get people to listen to reason, you can scare them with the looming threat of a curse. Walking under ladders is dangerous for real reasons. Breaking mirrors, once upon a time, was incredibly expensive accident. (Maybe one that cost a servant seven* years of wages or further indentured servitude.) *Seven probably being a mystical or otherwise idiomatic colloquially used number.

  16. 16
    laconicsax

    This is one of those rare occasions where I’m actually quite happy to simpy cite the dictionary. Most definitions are in line with the one you give in your post and often go further in subsequent definitions (“a system or collection of such beliefs” or “a custom or act based on such beliefs”).

    The degrees to which the religious go to deny the superstitious nature of their religion is remarkable. I was at a cousin’s bar mitzvah and one of the prayers in the book actually included a prayer for “an end to superstition.”

  17. 17
    kreativekaos

    Secree@10, F[disappearing]@12:

    Interesting observations.

    Concering TriffidPruner’s point @ 6,… ” Superstition is the association of an effect with a particular cause in the absence of any verifiable connection between them.” ,… I would say that verifiability is a changing condition, improving and refining over time with increased knowledge of the natural world and improved technology to explore it.

    A pre-Columbian Mayan, may –for the available technology and scientific knowledge of his/her time–think that the tearing out a human heart clearly coincided with crop-saving rains or the ending of a terrifying total solar eclipse. It obviously could only have only coincided occasionally by chance, but to someone living in a pre-technological, non-scientific society, chance connection could be considered a sort of crude ‘verifiability’ that would satisfy someone living in a relatively primitive culture:
    tear out heart–> crops saved or eclipse ended (again, even if results were rarely consistent with actions)

    What passed for ‘verifiability’ in their minds and in their societies at their level, –a connection between perceived ‘Gods’ and natural processes or social events– could be construed as a certain ‘verifiability’ within the limits of their understanding. In our time, culture, and level of understanding we ‘verify’ causes of natural events through our level of scientific understanding of nature and our technology–our ‘tools’ for understanding– with no need for ‘Gods’ of any sort. Their time/culture/level of technology and understanding of nature was a connection between ‘Gods’ and natural events –through chance coincidence of sacrifice and result.– the ‘verification’ that they used and understood for their level. (?)

    1. 17.1
      Len

      I agree with this. Verifiability will change over time as science discovers more about how the real world works. That’s why it’s important to always refer to the latest scientific understanding when evaluating things. People who want to stick to bronze-age (or earlier) levels of verifiability should not be given the chance to do anything that could affect other people, like make laws.

      Other than that caveat, I agree with TriffidPruner’s definition.

  18. 18
    kreativekaos

    Exactly, Len.

  19. 19
    aziraphale

    ‘so that we can share it with people and say, “This is why I describe your belief as a superstition.”’

    Why would you want to say that? It has a feel of the ad hominem about it. If you think that their belief is without adequate reason or evidence, why not just say that – and back it up?

    1. 19.1
      demonhellfish

      “Ad hominem” does not mean what you seem to think it means: http://plover.net/~bonds/adhominem.html

      Assuming you mean that calling somebody’s beliefs superstitious would be insulting to them, that’s generally true. That’s a feature, not a bug.

      Most people already have access to a clear, visceral understanding of the kind of wastefulness and nonsensical inconvenience associated with using magical thinking to make every-day decisions. That emotional understanding can be evoked with the term “superstition”.

      The problem with random unanchored magical thinking is that it might fail to be aethetically optimal; the problem is that it actually had bad results; people should feel bad about being superstitious, which they mostly do, and they should feel bad for holding nonsense beliefs about cause-and-effect. Calling those nonsense beliefs superstitious teaches them to do better.

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