F Rosa Rubicondior: Superstition News - Why Religions Are Mass Superstitions

Monday 20 November 2023

Superstition News - Why Religions Are Mass Superstitions

Aztec human sacrifice ritual
(cf. the Christian blood sacrifice, or crucifixion)
3 Reasons Why Superstitions Work | Psychology Today

In an article in Psychology Today, as part of a series on magical thinking, American psychologist, Dr Mark Travers, PhD, explains why people are superstitious. It's clear from his explanations that religions perfectly fit the definition of superstition and the reasons people are superstitious also explains why people are religious.

I've précised his article below and added my own commentary to show how his definition and explanation of superstition fits the definition of religion and explains religious rituals.

Key points:
  • There are deep psychological reasons why many people engage in superstitions.
  • Superstitions can give people a sense of control or comfort.
  • They can also serve as personalized coping mechanisms.

First, his definition of superstition:
Superstition is the belief in supernatural causality, where certain actions, objects, or rituals are believed to bring about specific outcomes, whether good or bad. While some may dismiss superstitions as irrational, there are deep psychological reasons why many engage in such beliefs. The enduring allure of superstitions transcends time and culture, offering insights into our desire for control and order in a chaotic world.
Taking the first sentence of that definition, it perfectly describes belief in a god or gods, that a god or gods influence and control events in the real world, and religious rituals such as prayers, special hand movement and body postures can bring about specific ends. Even behaving in proscribed ways, thinking proscribed thoughts, or carrying out rituals without the required precision and timing can bring about bad ends.

In other words, the belief that superstitious rituals can bring about control and order is comforting in a confusing and chaotic world.

The illusory benefits to the individual of adhering to superstitions are:
  1. The need for control

    As individuals, people feel powerless against major events in what is an unpredictable and sometimes threatening world, so the belief that rituals such as prayers can influence events in their favour gives an illusory sense of security.

    There is experimental evidence that 'good luck' rituals can enhance performance in tasks such as sports, driving, memory and even anagram games. These improvements come from improved perception of 'self-efficacy' and improved confidence, coming from the belief that an influential agency is now looking favourably upon the performer having been impressed by the ritual, or the ritual has driven a hostile agency away.
  2. A popular superstition when I was a teenager and smoking was normal, was to strike every match in the box except the last one on the same side of the box. The last match was then struck on the 'virgin' side of the box and a wish made. One person I knew did that 'religiously' for the whole of Ted Heath's premiership, always wishing he would lose the next election. He said it was to remind himself that we on the left had a job to do. Heath lost to Harold Wilson in 1974, having unexpectedly won in 1970.
  3. Cultural and Social Influence

    Participating in collective rituals enhances a sense of belonging and identity - key motivating factors in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Superstitious beliefs and behaviour are learned through social influences, or memes, and so form an integral part of the religion memeplexes that are a significant part of local cultures.

    One study showed a link between shared superstitious rituals and an illusion of divine involvement and the belief that there is a meaning to life.
  4. Coping Mechanisms

    People under pressure, especially where high performance is expected, will frequently perform 'good luck' rituals either to ward off evil influence or to ensure divine support. Footballers will frequently put their socks and boots on in a particular order and lace their boots in a particular way. Making the sign of the cross, touching wood (while saying 'touch wood') or crossing fingers are favourite Christian good luck rituals; people in Islamic cultures, even non-religious ones like my niece, will say 'Inshalla!' (If Allah wills it) if anyone seems to be predicting the future, such as "We'll see you next week", or "Have a safe journey!".

    In fact, these rituals are examples of what the American psychologist, B.F.Skinner, called operant conditioning, based on his work with conditioned pigeons, in which a reward becomes associated with a pattern of behaviour but where the link is purely random or unpredictable. The superstitious person then becomes convinced that the ritual needs to be performed correctly or more elaborately for the reward to be given.
The conclusion is that religions are superstitions that provide an illusory sense of control where there is none, of group affiliation and identity in world in which the individual can become anonymous and isolated, which reinforces the superstition as normative social behaviour, and of relief from pressure in the illusory belief that rituals can invoke divine guidance and assistance or drive away malign influences.

Thank you for sharing!

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