Initial thoughts on superstition and the supernatural

Posted on June 20, 2007


Superstition and belief in the supernatural seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, there appears to be (at the very least) a mutually supportive relationship between the two. On the one hand, supernatural beliefs create a context in which particular superstitious practices may be thought to be effective or necessary. Thus, if one believes in evil spirits, the way is open to thinking that there are ways of protecting against them or getting them to do ones biding. To put it another way, supernatural beliefs will include or entail beliefs about supernatural causal connections that may be used to one’s possible advantage. On the other hand, the seeming effectiveness of superstitious practices requires supernatural explanations, such as are offered by supernatural beliefs. This can be seen in the case of lucky talismans: it would be difficult to give a naturalist explanation for why rabbit feet ‘bring’ luck given that luck is not a category that exists outside the context of our needs or wants.

Given the apparent connection between supernatural and superstitious beliefs it becomes interesting to consider whether we can even talk about superstitious beliefs that do not at least entail supernatural ones. Consider the belief that there is a causal connection between wearing a particular jumper and doing well on mathematics exams. This belief is open to either a natural or a supernatural explanation. A natural explanation might be that the person in question feels more comfortable while wearing it or, to chose a less positive possibility, that they have crib-sheets inside the sleeves. The supernatural explanation might be that the jumper once belonged to a great mathematician and still carries something of that genius with it. Only in the case that the explanation given is a supernatural one can we talk about a superstitious belief. Similarly for practices, it only seems appropriate to call them superstitious if the people engaging in them give supernatural explanations for their meaning. The cases where no explanation is given seem to be indeterminate.

There are several issues this way of seeing the relationship raises:

It does not actually explain superstition, only transferring much of the weight of the problem onto the category of ‘the supernatural’.

Martin in Inventing Superstition suggests that people have distinguished superstitions before they distinguished supernatural events and entities. To what degree is this a problem?

What about Skinner’s ‘superstitious’ pigeon? How should we think about practices of that sort when they lack a first-person explanation?

What about medical myths such as “Don’t stand in a draft or you’ll catch a cold” that do not appear to have supernatural explanations?