The Superstitious Worldview

I recently read a book about an autistic boy, Christopher, who creates order in his universe by counting cars. If Christopher sees four red cars in a row on his way to school in the morning, he will have a Good Day, and if he sees five red cars in a row, he will have a Super Good Day. But four yellow cars in a row (he hates yellow) forebodes a Black Day, which means Christopher doesn’t eat lunch or speak to anyone.

Lately, I’ve observed similar ways in which people find order in their (own) universes. For example, if the Red Sox win, it’s a good day. 

If the Red Sox win, and the Yankees lose to another team, it’s a great day! If the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a match up at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, then it’s an AWESOME day!! Woo-hoo!!

Okay, it may seem absurd to believe that the success or failure of the Red Sox orders the universe, but these beliefs are very real. Trust me. I’ve witnessed the heartbreak and the joy (Jimmy Fallon’s character as a crazed Sox fan on “Fever Pitch” is no exaggeration).

In the context of ordering their universes – not only do people attach great emotional significance to random events completely out of their control — they create paganistic rituals that they swear have real effects (i.e., wearing the same shirt when the Red Sox play against the Yankees will transcend the laws of physics and help the Sox win. Or, if you avoid the number “13”, you’ll stave off bad luck in general).

We know from our own experiences that being righteous and following all the rules will not guarantee a good outcome. And we may feel uncomfortable praying for frivolous events like the Red Sox winning (even though the Sox winning or losing directly influences your mood for the entire day).

How do superstition and ritual play into our own attempts to create order and predictability out of a chaotic universe?

Are you superstitious?

If so, how do you think superstitious beliefs fit into the directive of the First Commandment: “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me”?


  1. Well, I recognize that many of my “things” in this vein may be exaggerated and symptoms of my illnesses, I think on a less, shall I say, “compelled” level, that some of these sorts of things contribute to one’s sense of belonging to something greater/larger than ones’ self.

    The interest and superstitious rituals involved with sports, for example. It brings a sense of commonality with others that perhaps helps someone express individuality in a way that is focused around a community object/event, that is, perhaps, “safer”, less “odd”, than expressing ones’ individuality about something more eclectic.

    That isn’t exactly how I want to express it but as I only slept from 5 am to an hour ago (7 am) I’m operating on little at the moment! Lol.

    I wish I could speak to other rituals/superstitions/repetitive thinsg one does to create order in their universe, but I have so many, and they become or are obsessive and compulsive (given my anxiety disorders), that that is probably outside the realm of what you are looking for.

    I will say, though, that regarding autism, my daughter is high-functioning, and I see many of the things SHE does to make sure theirs order according to her desires, is possibly, in some cases, an attempt to ward off anxiety of not knowing what an unfamiliar situation warrents or of things not being the way she is familiar with (which is one aspect of autism; that the person becomes anxious if things are different than usual, etc.) Heck, I know that the things I do are an attempt to ward off anxiety, I suppose. Set deeply in place after much of a lifetime of them, without knowing why.

    In a world filled with stress, doing the familiar, the repeatable, the routines and beyond that interest us, offers a way of relieving that stress and relaxing in a way that isn’t necessarily unhealthy, obsessed, or unacceptable. It depends on to the degree to which it is taken, the motivation behind it, and how accepted such behavior and the degree of it is in society. Not that society should define who we are, but it does provide a way of measuring excess against the norms.

    I do think that there are many for whom the type and degree of behavior approaches a form of worship.

    I also think, though, that just about everyone has quirks of this nature, that are maybe just an aspect of their personality, their interests, their way of relieving stress, that doesn’t necessarily interfere with or take precedence over the Gospel and what they know to be true, spiritually. What they know of God, and worship of Him.

  2. Ewww. Many typos, punctuation, and grammatical and composition errors, even. Ugh! I’m going back to bed . . . I hate these sorts of errors; it makes me feel like I come across as an uneducated goober.

  3. queuno says:

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made conscious and deliberate efforts to eliminate vestiges “superstition” from my life, mostly because superstition smacks of predestination and runs counter to my world viewpoint. I don’t have “lucky” shirts or ties. I don’t wear my team’s baseball cap when watching a game, unless it just happens to match my shirt. etc.

    The whole Red Sox “curse” talk always annoyed me — no one was willing to recognize that the Red Sox usually had the wrong mix of players, management, and ownership. Even in those rare occasions when they did get it right, someone else was always better.

    [I grew up in Cleveland, and it would annoy me when Bostonians would bemoan their baseball failures. I’ll take my Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers and stack then against your Patriots and Celtics. We were the ultimate ‘cursed’ city — so nyah, nyah, nyah. Now I’m glad that Boston won the World Series, because it removes the only remotely “interesting” tidbit about their franchise — the so-called “curse” — and reduces the Sox to an older version of the Arizona Diamondbacks — just another team with a World Series title and nothing else remotely interesting about them. If you measure the worth of a team by its success, then the Red Sox are less of a franchise than the Florida Marlins. So there.]

    People don’t succeed or fail because of omens or icons or “fate”. They succeed or fail because of the relative performance of every object in the system. There is almost no such thing as “luck”. There may be “good fortune”, even undeserved fortune. But outside a lottery or gambling, “luck” (bad or good) is usually the manifestation of preparation and work. You can’t influence a baseball game by yelling at the TV.

    If the pantheon of lessons we teach our children, the idea that there is no luck, and superstition is a just mental crutch, might rank in the top 10.

  4. Elisabeth, you have gotten things tragically mixed up. I used to have a superstition like this when I was a kid. If the Yankees won and the Mets lost, it was a GREAT day. If the Yankees lost and the Mets won, it was a TERRIBLE day.

    Now why you want to name the-team-that-must-not-be-named and bring them into this is beyond me.

  5. queuno says:

    [Just a note on the Sox before I’m branded as a Yankee-lover: Yes, I hate the Yankees, too, except that if I have to pick between the Sox and the Yankees, I’ll take New York. If only because they act the way an overspending superpower is supposed to act: Bold and confident, not shrinking and complaining (like Boston). Oh, and George Steinbrenner is from my hometown. Gotta root for the local boy done good whenever you’ve got to pick between two evil powers.]

  6. I want to clarify, I’m not promoting a, “let’s be part of the herd” mentality, but I do think there is a place and purpose for fun, harmless rituals and traditions that you have, create, what have you, and becomes a part of your family experience. I suppose I’m more talking about those who know that what they do or wear doesn’t affect outcomes, but they have a tradition in their family of getting together on the third Saturday in October to watch a certain team, and they all wear the team colors, and so forth.

    I suppose tradition could apply to any rituals/superstitions, that are not seriously believed that something will or won’t happen because of them; that these are done for fun, and enrich the family experience of an event, but are not ideals or rules to follow or obey.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    Fascinating post. I would be remiss not to point out a certain irony here: Many, many religious practices are seen by non-believers as utterly superstitious. The Catholic view of the eucharist is seen by Protestants as superstitious. Many Jewish sabbath practices seem superstitious to gentiles. LDS temple garments are seen by, well, everybody who isn’t wearing them as superstitious. The list could go on and on. Can’t think of a faith group that doesn’t have some practice that looks superstitious to outsiders.

    Superstition is in the eye of the beholder. So to answer Elisabeth’s question in the post: Are you superstitious? I think that any honest person of faith would have to answer the question, yes.

  8. annegb says:

    Yes, I’m superstitious. I haven’t broken a mirror since I was 7 years old.

    If I see a penny, and it’s heads I pick it up and expect a good day. If it’s tails, I turn it over and leave it for the good karma.

    If I spill salt, I throw some over my shoulder.

    Everybody in my family laughs, but I think I’m making their world a little safer.

  9. su·per·sti·tious ( P ) Pronunciation Key (spr-stshs)
    Inclined to believe in superstition.
    Of, characterized by, or proceeding from superstition.

    su·per·sti·tion ( P ) Pronunciation Key (spr-stshn)
    1. An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.

    a) A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.
    b)A fearful or abject state of mind resulting from such ignorance or irrationality.

    I guess I would say, for superstition and superstitious, which goes right back to superstition, that number 1 would definitely apply to me, in the religious vein. It is a separate definition than a, b, and c under the 2nd definition . . . which second definition would be more what you (Elisabeth) are posting about in regards to worldly rituals and superstitions. I just thought I’d throw those definitions out there for people to chew on.

  10. I always knew you were the salt of the earth, annegb! Good people.

  11. Mark IV says:

    Elisabeth, thanks for a thoughtful post.

    I don’t think of myself as being superstitious, but a disinterested observer might think I am. Religious people do things that don’t have any logical explanation. Roman Catholics say the Rosary, Muslims bow towards Mecca at certain times, Mormons hold family home evening. When it comes right down to it, much of my life is built around assumptions that I hope are true, and which I believe are grounded in some reliable evidence, but which I could not blame another person for not accepting.

    And now on to the important part of your post! It’s spring, the snail’s on the thorn and the bird’s on the wing, and even though Chewbacca is now patrolling center field in the great and spacious building, the dirtbag idiots are in first place in the AL east, so God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.

  12. Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for your comments!

    Mike – I’ve heard of many people characterising religious beliefs and religion as an organized form of superstition. So what distinguishes true faith from superstitious belief?

    Acccording to the Catholic Church’s catechism, superstition is a sin:

    Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.

    It seems to me that this interpretation of superstition quantifies the difference between superstition and faith by saying the former is a reliance on “magic”. So, when we have faith, we hope that God answers our prayers according to the laws of answering prayers instead of waving a magic wand to answer them? Or is “superstition” just reserved for people whose beliefs we don’t agree with or understand?

    As for the Red Sox, the Curse of the Bambino was finally lifted in 2004 when the Sox won the World Series after 86 years. But the rabid fandom of Red Sox nation (universe) has yet to diminish.

  13. queuno says:

    Regarding #7 and #9 — superstition would appear to be in the mind of the PRACTITIONER, not the OBSERVER. Superstition is analogous to faith — the value of the superstition benefits only the believer. So it doesn’t matter if external viewer X regards temple garments as superstition or not — the critical element is whether or not active garment wearer/practitioner Y has a superstition about garments.

    No one should give a rat’s patootie about X’s viewpoint, except when ridiculing the BoSox fans who think that the act of trading someone decades ago caused Bill Buckner to miss a grounder (greatest moment of my sportsfan life, to that moment).

  14. Elisabeth says:

    queuno #13 – looks like you’re in for a string of bad luck. heehee!

  15. queuno says:

    I deliberately waited until 12 was posted, refreshing the page and then pasting in my comment. Thanks for noticing. :)

  16. Actually, I was going to say that, from the definition of Superstition, that it seems to be in the eye of the observer, andnot the practitioner.

    Upon re-reading the definition, I am NOT superstitious in matters of my religion. I do not see it as irrational (somehow that word slipped by me, before). And yet, non-Mormons would see perhaps much of our religion as seemingly irrational. I’m not sure, at least in matters of religion, that anyone would say that they themselves are irrational. It may be ILLOGICAL, which is the word that caught my eye before, but then, I think that for one to have faith there almost has to be illogic in it, somewhere.

    Kind of afield from the original post, regarding religious superstition, but then maybe not. Lol!

  17. As Elisabeth pointed out in her post, I think superstition has a lot to do with imposing order on the universe. Superstition purports secret laws of the universe, like weird laws of gravity, that if you do x then y. The difference between this superstition and religious faith is that with faith, we are not talking about cosmic laws of mirrors or red cars, but belief in an actual individual with whom a relationship is possible.

  18. I don’t know, maybe wearing my lucky shirt is why my team won. Or maybe the power of my lucky shirt plus your lucky shirt minus the power of his lucky shirt was enough and that’s why our team won. Yeah, we understand a bit of causation, but maybe there are other forms out there. Maybe God’s just doesn’t like BoSox fans and, finally, after 86 years of whining got tired of hearing it and that’s really the reason they won.

    I have no reason to believe in ‘alternate’ forms of causality, but you never know, and if there’s no negative to wearing my lucky shirt, why shouldn’t I? I used to get upset when people said they would “pray for [me],” but I realize now that it can’t do any harm and might actually help, even though I have no reason to believe it will. From my view, there’s no difference between the two.

  19. Partially bc I believe the world is magical and partially bc I think we have more power to affect change when we consciously or subconsciously determine to, I think superstition is really potent. We look for examples and evidence in the world to prove our points of view, it makes us feel safe and like everyone has said, it helps us make sense of a world that is very chaotic.

    I recognize that people are separating religious beliefs from superstition and sometimes I agree and sometimes I dont but I do think that there’s a fluidity between them. I wear garments bc they’re a part of my belief, part of the commitment I made, part of my religious tradition and part habit. One time I got hit by a car while riding my bike. I didn’t get hurt too badly and a lot of people in my ward attributed it to my garments. That may have been true, I dunno, but I think that’s a superstitious part of the belief in garments.

  20. Because I am superstitious I make a point of breaking a mirror every seven years.

  21. Lamonte says:

    Elizabeth – first of all danithew #4 has the correct perspective on baseball. But putting that aside I must say that I am also superstitious even though I hate to admit it. For me it is the “flow” of daily activities. If I get off the blue line subway and run up the stairs to catch a yellow line just as it’s pulling up then it’s a good day. If all the red lights turn green a few seconds before I reach the intersection, then it’s a great day. If I reach into my sock drawer as I dress in the dim light of morning – trying not wake my still sleeping wife – and pick out the perfect pair of socks to match my other clothes, then it’s a good day. You see the trend. And, of course, when the opposite of all those experiences happens, it’s a bad day.

    I work in a government building where the cafeteria was closed down recently for renovations. In the interim, a small “grab-n’go” was set up in another part of the building. If you bought one of the prepared sandwiches with a soda and chips the price, including tax, was $6.66. It was amazing how many people were bothered by that. They would even go to the point of buying a small piece of candy just so they wouldn’t get the $6.66 lunch. I think I was one of them.

  22. Once my Laotian sister was wearing an egg around her neck for a holiday tradition–Chinese New Year, I think? She said it’d be good luck. When I told her what some of the American superstitions are (not walking under ladders, breaking mirrors, etc) she thought I was making fun of her.

  23. My D&D group has all sorts of superstitions about what will bring them luck on dice rolls.

    One guy says his luck is better if the dice stays on the book.

    Another likes to keep his dice in a container, because “they marinate in the luck”

    Another thinks that if you roll multiple dice together, they create a synergy.

    Personally, I like to leave the dice up on a “1”, with the idea that they’ll want to choose a new (better) position. Although, scientifically, it would seem that the opposite would be true. (I should note that my luck has not been good of late. Anybody know where I can get a loaded 20-sided?)

  24. CS Eric says:

    My mother was very superstitious, no matter how many times I told her it was bad luck to be superstitious. I think it was mostly because her first, failed, marriage was on a Friday the 13th. So what day did my brother get married for his second marriage? Yep, Friday the 13th.

    You never know how a superstition will start. My wife was a HUGE American Idol fan last year, and after every show voted as many times as she could for Bo Bice. Then, during the final results show when Bo lost, the phone call came that her father had died earlier that day. We still watch this year, but she doesn’t dare call.

  25. queuno says:

    There’s a “suthern” tradition that you should eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s for good luck? You know how awful those are? We ate them the first couple of years we lived here b/c ward members brought them over. We stopped and things haven’t gotten any worse.

    And the restaurant isn’t much better…

    queueno, whistling “Indian Fever”

    [The Red Sox would only be in first place in one other division. Barely. So they’re not exactly a juggernaut. Does anyone forget that they’re the most expensive team to ever win a World Series? Way to buy that title, Boston. :) ]

  26. FHL #23, Now I’m humming “Luck be a lady tonight…”

    Stick with me baby, I’m the guy that you came in with, Luck be a lady tonight…

  27. Mark IV says:

    Does anyone forget that they’re the most expensive team to ever win a World Series?

    True enough, queno, true enough.

    Perhaps I have a perverted sense of humor, but the realization that the pinstripes are the most expensive team to ever LOSE a world series brings a cheery smile to my face.

  28. Kristine says:

    Oh, queno, you should have hoppin’ john at my house–I swear I could convert you to black-eyed peas!

    My favorite play on the garment superstitions is Sister Fonda LaMode’s joke about “if I accidentally wear them inside out, will I suck harm unto myself?”

  29. Kristine, LOL!! I gotta wonder some days if that isn’t the root of my problem….

    I don’t have much to say about superstition, but I love that book, Elisabeth. It’s one of the best I’ve read in years.

  30. queuno says:

    Back to a more serious subject –

    CNN and others are trying to frame the Patrick Kennedy debacle (was taking a bad combo of drugs, thought he was late for a House vote at 2am, crashed his car) with the question as to whether this is the “Kennedy Curse”.

    Why can’t we just say, “this is no curse, but yet another example of the sins/irresponsibility of the father following onto the son”?

    If there is a Kennedy curse, wouldn’t have been that Teddy didn’t suffer the same fate as his brothers? Since when is blatant irresponsibility a “curse”?

    [I’m not virulently anti-Kennedy, but anti-Camelot, if that makes any sense.]

  31. JA Benson says:

    We moved to a small, charming southern town fifteen years ago. At the time, I thought that we would move again that spring; so I didn’t bother to plant tulips. After all I didn’t think we would be around to enjoy them. Fifteen years later we are still here and I still do not plant tulips because my superstitious belief that if I plant tulips we will move. I really do not want to move.

  32. Elouise says:

    And then there’s the concept of the holographic universe, which states that everything–every thing–in the universe is part of All That Is; that we are all One. By this worldview, the death of a butterfly in Indonesia has an effect on the rain forest in Washington, etc. By this view also, the prayers of strangers can influence the healing of someone halfway around the world. In this paradigm, critical self-talk ( “I’m a loser,” or “The Sox have been jinxed because they sold Ruth” e.g.) can have a negative influence on one’s growth and development. A good deal of research indicates that the color pink has one effect on moods generally, the color red quite another. Taking each of these seriously as I do, by some definitions, then, I am fairly superstitious. In any case, I agree with Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio.” (Horatio was a Philosophy major with a Psych minor; Hamlet vice versa, methinks.) Thanks for a dandy blog, Elisabeth!

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