What is Superstition?

Black cat superstition
Will a black cat crossing your path bring bad luck?. Rubberball/Mark Andersen/Getty Images

Question: What is superstition?

Answer: Broadly defined, superstition is a belief in the supernatural — which is to say, a belief in the existence of forces or entities that do not conform to the laws of nature or a scientific understanding of the universe.

Examples of superstitions include belief in magic (e.g., spells and curses), belief in omens (good or bad), belief in good luck charms and rituals (a lucky penny, throwing salt over one's shoulder to avoid the "bad luck" incurred by spilling same), belief in divination (fortune telling and prophecy), belief in astrology (i.e., that our fates are determined by the positions of the stars and planets), and belief in ghosts or a spirit world beyond what can be explained by science.

One of the best known superstitions of the western world is the belief that Friday the 13th is unlucky. It's instructive to note that there are other cultures in which the number 13 isn't regarded as especially foreboding, and where the numbers 4 or 7 or 17 might be considered unlucky.

Etymology

The word superstition comes from the Latin super-stare, usually translated as "to stand over," but there is some disagreement over how to properly interpret its intended meaning. Some argue that it originally connoted "standing over" something in amazement, but it has also been suggested that it meant "surviving" or "persisting," as in the persistence of irrational beliefs. Still others say it meant something like overzealousness or extremism in one's religious beliefs or practices.

Several Roman authors, including Livy, Ovid and Cicero, used the term in the latter sense, distinguishing it from religio, meaning a proper or reasonable religious belief.

A similar distinction has been employed in modern times by writers such as Raymond Lamont Brown, who wrote, "Superstition is a belief, or system of beliefs, by which almost religious veneration is attached to things mostly secular; a parody of religious faith in which there is belief in an occult or magic connection."

Magic vs. religion

Other thinkers categorize religion itself as a type of superstitious belief. "One of the meanings of superstition in the Oxford English dictionary is a belief that is unfounded or irrational," biologist Jerry Coyne has said. "Since I see all religious belief as unfounded and irrational, I consider religion to be superstition. It’s certainly the most widespread form of superstition because the vast majority of people on Earth are believers."

The word "irrational" is often applied to superstitious beliefs, but there are certain conditions under which superstition and rationality may not be so incompatible. What's rational or reasonable for a person to believe can only be decided within the framework of the knowledge available to them, which may, in point of fact, be insufficient to provide a scientific alternative to supernatural explanations. This is a point science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke touched on when he wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Last updated 11/03/15