How deeply held are our superstitious beliefs?

Posted on August 9, 2007


Another book that I have started on is The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland by Steve Roud. The book, as the name suggests, is an alphabetical listing of various superstitions that have been recorded as extant at some time in the British Isles. Roud has written an introduction in which he explains his approach and makes a number of interesting points that I will need to take into account. The most pressing point, I find, is what he says about how superstitious we are:

It is common in popular works on superstition to claim that we are still very superstitious; depending on your definition, this may be true, and anyway it makes good copy. Undoubtedly, there are still people who would be described as ‘very superstitious’, and it would be a very bold person who claimed to have no superstitious beliefs at all. Nevertheless, from the evidence prsented in this book […] it is clear that, as a society, we are immeasurably less superstitious than we used to be. This is true on all levels – we do not know so many superstitions, we do not believe so deeply, we do not act upon them so much, and the ones we still posses have generally been sanitized to mean ‘bad luck’ instead of ‘someone will die soon’. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say, in comparison to a hundred years ago, that we play at being superstitious.

Roud goes on to ask the reader what they would do in a number of situations that correspond to traditional superstitions but which sound mosty ridiculous to a modern mind.

The general point is very well made – we may still be superstitious but we are nowhere near as superstitious as we used to be. This is a point that I have not payed as much attention to as I should. It is also a very important point regardless of whether you are interested in examining the value of the Enlightenment hope that superstition will die out, whether you are wondering just how damaging superstition is, or whether you are considering what it means to believe in a superstition – all issues that I find particularly interesting.

All in all, the point Roud makes reminds me of the point made by Jahoda that superstition is much like disease – it will never be completely eliminated as we will remain susceptible to it but it can still be counteracted and to a degree prevented.