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.