Jul 08 2010

The origin of religion-2: The power of religion and other superstitions

When investigating the origin of religion and other superstitions, an important fact to bear in mind is that it is not just humans that base their behavior on imputing meaning to meaningless correlations. There is evidence that even animals do this, suggesting that this instinct comes from a fairly primitive part of the brain, and developed early in our evolutionary history before we branched off from those species that share this trait. We all have heard of Pavlov’s experiments with conditioning responses in animals. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner did an interesting experiment with pigeons. After the usual ones where pigeons were trained to peck at a button in order to obtain a food reward, he then did an experiment where the rewards were given out randomly. What he found was that after awhile the pigeons started going through what seemed like rituals, specific repeated behaviors. It seemed as if they were trying to figure out which pattern of actions had caused the rewards to appear in the past and were repeating them in order to ’cause’ the rewards to appear.

What is extraordinary is that superstitious beliefs, although formed on the flimsiest of evidence that can easily be explained as coincidence, tend to be hard to shake off. What is more, superstitious people strongly resist any real test of their beliefs because that might ‘harm’ their lucky charm. Or they find some explanation to shrug off any failures.

I know Sri Lankans who will not put nail clippings in the trash but insist on flushing them down the toilet. Some don’t know why they feel they must do so, except that they were told as children that to do otherwise would bring bad luck. The practice likely originated from the belief that witch doctors could more easily put an evil spell on you if they had some piece of your body. Since nail clippings are among the easiest tissues to obtain unobtrusively, flushing them made it harder for your enemies to put spells on you.

Some superstitions and religious rituals, especially involving food, originated out of common sense health precautions during times when people were not as aware as they are now of the causes of disease. But over time, those sanitary practices evolved into rigid rules of religion or superstitions as people forgot the reasons for them. In the worst cases, these rules can be used in abusive ways but in others they are simply amusing. I recall a story of a woman who always used to trim the ends of the roast before putting it in the pan and into the oven. When her daughter asked her why she did this, she replied that she learned it from watching her mother and assumed it had some cooking benefit. Becoming curious, she asked her mother why she did it and her mother said that it was because her mother did it. When she asked her grandmother, her grandmother explained that it was because she had had a very small oven and oven pan, and usually had to trim the roast to make it fit in the pan.

Religious beliefs, like superstitions, continue because people do not bother to stop and question why they do something and whether it makes sense to continue the practice. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion reflect on the extraordinary hold that religious beliefs have on otherwise rational people.

Despite the illogic of believing that some great being in the heavens, capable of creating not only the laws of physics, the principles of evolution, and the vastness of time also cares a great deal about whether or not you use your left hand to clean up after defecating, eat a cracker while sinless, or not mix cheese with chicken, we still seem to sup it up like mother’s milk.

An acquaintance of mine is a cricket fanatic and during the last cricket World Cup I asked him if he had watched the final game live with other fans at a public screening. He said no, that he had watched it at home because then he could do ‘pujas’ (prayer rituals done by Hindus) at his home shrine in order to help the Sri Lankan side win. (Depressingly, this person is a faculty member in the medical field, showing that an education in science does not inoculate one against superstitions.) What was particularly interesting was that he told me this the day after Sri Lanka had lost convincingly to Australia, and yet he seemed unfazed by his god’s lack of action and to not draw the obvious conclusion from this that his pujas had not helped in the least. He will no doubt do his pujas again on future occasions, the way religious people pray for things despite overwhelming direct personal experience that their prayers will not be answered. And when his team wins, he will no doubt ascribe their success to his pujas.

(Note: The psychic octopus Paul’s prediction that Spain would upset Germany in the World Cup semi-final game came true, continuing his winning streak. Is the octopus really psychic? It seems like just a matter of time before people start worshipping Paul as a god, since he seems to be more successful than the existing gods. I personally think that Paul does not have any psychic powers at all and is merely an extremely knowledgeable and astute soccer fan. Even though he has apparently only predicted games so far in which Germany plays, it has been reported that if he is not too exhausted, he will pick the winner of the Spain-Netherlands final too.)

But while we can often find plausible reasons for many superstitions, the origins of religious beliefs lie far back in time, making their sources much harder to determine.

Next: Do people have a ‘religious gene’?

POST SCRIPT: The power of belief

In this clip, Richard Dawkins covers an experiment on dowsing that shows how strongly people want to believe in their superstitions and refuse to accept any evidence that goes against their beliefs. He also discusses Skinner’s pigeon experiment.


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  1. 1

    Mano, I’m a long time reader of your column and I love it! Being an atheist I also skeptical of superstitions and I don’t believe things without evidence. However, regarding the location of underground water, pipes, wires, etc I have personal experience that this can be done by anyone. For years I worked as a cement finisher and we were often called out to farms and other remote areas and asked to build a concrete floor. Oftentimes the ownere would say, “I think there’s a gas,water, electric line here somewhere”. We were prepared for this and always carried a short piece of wire in our trucks. By bending the wire at 90 degrees, holding it loosely in your hand and walking slowly over the suspect area, if your wire crosses anything buried underground, the wire will turn and line up with it. I know you are hesitant to do this kind of experimentation and I don’t blame you. I’d like to encourage one or more of your readers to try this with a piece of wire, about a foot long, bent at 90 degrees and walking slowly over a length of garden hose. Be sure the wire is held loosely enough to turn. If you suspect that knowing there is a hose there, have someone blindfold you and place the hose after. I’m not advocating superstition here by any means but am trying to demonstrate that at least this one example is not simply a superstition.

  2. 2


    The catch is with the kind of test you suggest is that cannot really conclude anything. If you miss it, was it due to some mistake on your part? If you get it, was it luck?

    That is why double-blind tests of the kind shown in the Dawkins video are so essential in investigating such things. Then we can compare with random chance and put confidence limits on it being a real effect.

  3. 3

    Mano, I see your point and I have over the years found underground lines including streams coming out hillsides, gas lines, electric, etc. One one ocassionI even mapped out a septice field on a grid. I was only told that there was a field in this general area. Also, in my years of construction work, I have never hit any kind of buried service, be it gas, water, electric, cable. I can safely say I have done this at least 40 to 50 times without error.

    I am confident that I could pass Richards test on this. I think that the science behind this is that almost everything has a magnetic field and magnetic fields align themselves. A magnetic field in the underground subject, a magnetic field in the wire. Given that, there’s no magic, but a lot of science.

    I appreciate the time you have taken to respond to this.

  4. 4

    Jack : I have had experience of using the rods to find a water pipe many years ago. In this case I was helping to find a leak under a driveway and we came across two pipes, we didn’t know which was gas and which water and had to call out someone from the local water board. He used the rods and found the correct pipe, case closed ? Not quite. We had a fairly good idea that this was the correct pipe to start with and I think there was therefore an unconscious stimulation of the hands to make the rods move, when we all tried it too the same thing happened but by this time we knew for certain that we had the right pipe and despite not being aware of moving the rods I am sure that is what we were doing. Your magnetic field hypotheses seems unlikely as, as far as I’m aware, flowing water doesn’t create one.

  5. 5

    Thornavis is right that flowing water does not create magnetic fields. The magnetic field idea is popular in explaining things because it is a subtle effect that acts in a magical way. Who as a child has not been fascinated by a compass needle moving mysteriously? I recall that Einstein’s interest in science was triggered by this.

    But it takes quite a bit of effort to have wires move due to a magnetic field and it requires electric current as well. In my classes I have showed demonstrations on how a magnetic field can exert a force on a current carrying wire but it requires quite an elaborate set up.

  6. 6

    Mano, last week I was so sure that this worked and that it had science to back it. This weekend, I had someone hide three bottles of water under three containers. We did this 5 times with the other person switching which containers had a bottle under it. My helper determined this ahead of time and wrote down the three positions. I would take my brass rod and try to determine which container had a bottle under it. I could not see what my helper was doing and I had her move out of sight of the test area when I was doing my picking.

    To my surprise and dissapointment I could NOT accurately pick which container had water under it or not!! I completed the round of 5 attempts and recorded my picks after each one, then compared my results to the list my helper had compiled. I had failed, not miserably, but enough to convince me that this does not work all the time.

    A broken watch is right at least twice a day but it’s practically useless unless it works all day, every day.

    So, after this test I admit that this is not reliable even though I’ve relied on it for years. It does reinforce the idea that if it can’t be proved scientifically, then there is no reason to rely on it.

    Thanks for replying and spending your time on this Mano, much appreciated!!!

  7. 7


    I cannot tell you how impressed I am. Do you realize how extremely RARE it is for someone to actually test a strong belief and then, if the results are negative, to actually change their minds?

    If everyone were like you, superstitions would disappear practically overnight.

  8. 8

    Mano, I have no problem changing direction in the face of evidence, that’s probably why, even though brought up as a Catholic, I have been an atheist for 30 years or so. As for doing the test, this seemed to me the only way I could prove that it worked under controlled conditions. I have to admit that the results were exactly opposite of what I had hoped for and expected.

    I don’t know how RARE I am, but I agree that if everyone applied reason to their ENTIRE life, not just the non-religion part, we would all be much better off.

    Thanks again!

  9. 9
    Tony C. - Student - Psychic

    As a student of everything “para normal” this is a pretty interesting dialog.

    Superstition runs so deep in all of the cultures of society, it would be interesting to see how those memes have evolved ion just the last 50 years (since the emergence of telecom, etc)

    Is there a source for finding a list or cache of tests like the one described? I’ll do some further scratching on this and post my findings here if so>

  10. 10

    The discussion of dowsing reminds me of the time we had had an employee of the water company out to do some work. We mentioned that we couldn’t find out water line. He pulled a pair of bent rods out of the truck, swept them over the area, and said “There!”

    No, we didn’t test the results…but I was quite bemused to see a professional using something from folklore!

  11. 11
    Mas telecom news freak

    I think not just Richard Dawkins, but we need to also put a strong balance in viewing superstition phenomenon..

    There are things where most people considered as “something from folklore” but actually have a science standing point, let’s say in other parts of the world..

    but for sure if we extend our travel to Asia and Middle East..there are things of what Einsteins referred to as “other things”..

    but i hope we all got where Richard points are pointing to..

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