Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I've been debating over at Thinking Christian for a long time. I was surprised to learn that the Christians there are very superstitious. It's not what I expected.

Some people confuse superstitious belief with belief in the non-material. There's a big difference. Superstition is an alleged way of knowing, not a category about which stuff is known. For example, I can have a superstitious belief about the physical location of missing wedding ring. Obviously, the location of the ring isn't remotely non-material in nature. What makes my belief superstitious is the array of subjective data that I use to reach my conclusion. If I believe that the ring is located beneath an old tire because I had a dream that a pot of gold was hidden under a rubber tree, then my belief is superstitious.

Superstition relies on meaningful coincidence. The number 13 is said to be unlucky. If I win $13 on a slot machine, I anticipate something bad happening. If later that day I lose my wedding ring, I'll blame the loss on winning $13. Yet, had I later found a $100 bill lying on the street, I would not correlate that discovery with having won $13, because the number 13 is associated with bad luck and not good luck. In other words, I cherry-pick significant events to confirm my superstition, so my superstitious belief cannot be discredited through this methodology. Had I won $14, I would be upset about losing the ring, but would just say it was bad luck and think nothing of a connection between 14 and the loss. Superstition is an atrocious way to come to insight about anything.

Superstition seems to be much more powerful when it demands action on our part. We can't really help waking up on Friday the 13th, so most people just go about their day as normal. However, superstition holds more sway over us when we are decision-making. I consider myself very rational and relatively impervious to superstitious thinking, but even I feel a psychological tug when I do only 13 reps in my workout. My gut prefers to do 12 or 14.

Superstition becomes stronger still when ritual is involved. There is anxiety about not performing the ritual, and there is poor methodology in confirming the effect. I suspect that we all have the mental circuitry for this kind of thinking, but not all of us activate those circuits. Ritual supercharges these circuits.

The bottom line is that superstitious belief is a psychological trap, and ritualistic superstitious thinking is a psychological steel trap. Once you fall prey to this kind of thinking, you are guaranteed to have personal, subjective confirmation of your belief. If you believe that prayer will have an effect, it will. You will always find something you can attribute to having said the prayer.

None of this sounds remotely problematic to the theists over at Thinking Christian. I found this surprising. I honestly expected them to be above this sort of self-delusion. I can see how having a superstitious relationship with God would deeply affect their thinking. They are unable to put on the "No-God Glasses" as Julia Sweeney calls them. They cannot objectively consider questions about theism without betting on the number 13.

I wonder whether knowing of the existence of this trap is enough to entice a person to give up superstition.

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