Saturday, April 30, 2011

Secular Superstions

We are all prone to supernatural bouts of thinking. It's just the way our brains are wired to process information. We detect patterns that aren't always there. Such flawed reasoning is extremely obvious when it comes to superstitious customs and practices. Even so, the common belief that religion is the only place for this sort of blinkered reasoning is not necessarily true. Religion is not the only place that contains obviously silly superstitious beliefs (e.g., you will go to hell if you don't believe in God, eating a cracker and some wine turns into the literal blood and flesh of a 2,000 year old dead Jewish dude, etc.) In fact, the secular world is chock full of superstitious beliefs. Here are a few of them.

Above is a typical parking lot in Japan. You might think that they have made a numerical mistake. 1, 2, 3, 5...? What happened to 4? Well, 4 is pronounced "Shichi" in Japanese and sounds nearly identical to the way you pronounce the word "Shi" which means "death." Therefore, Japanese avoid using the number four in public areas such as parking lots, hotels, and hospitals. 

However, such a concept is entirely familiar to Westerners, since the number 13 is treated the same way, and hotels and other tall buildings regularly omit the 13th floor (even though we all know that there are still technically 13 floors). Next time you're in the city, and you take the elevator, check to see if all the numbers are there or if it's missing a 13, because you may be able to find remnants of such superstitious modes of thinking existing in our everyday culture.

When we are kids we don't step on cracks, because we're afraid it will break our mothers' backs. All fun and games, but some people take these things serious. A lot of OCD people have trouble stepping on cracks, because of what they were told when they were children. If you've ever dashed into a building during a rainstorm and neglected to close your umbrella soon enough, well, a lot of people will give you sharp looks and frown at you. An open umbrella is not only dangerous, since you could poke out an eye, but it's also a sign of bad luck. So is walking under a latter or breaking a mirror. None of it true, of course.

Occult practices such as, astrological signs, horoscopes, hand reading, psychic readings, fortune telling is all fake. While certain herbal remedies are healing or soothing, most everybody knows that homeopathic remedies are bunk.

Sneezing is where you find the most commonly respected of all superstitions. Even I cannot break the habit of saying "Bless you" anytime somebody sneezes. Oh, and that old wive's tale about vitamin C preventing colds is, sorry to say, completely bogus. 

Weddings are another place that you find rampant superstitions. Something borrowed and something blue, and all that business about the groom not seeing the bride on the wedding day, are still taken extremely seriously by couples getting married.

Urban legends such as drinking Pop-rocks and Coke will cause your stomach to fill with gas and explode, ending in your gut splattering demise, is just flat out false--after all, we all have that built in safety mechanism called flatulence to deal with such things. Speaking of which--lighting a fart on fire--impossible. No matter how many times I have tried, I have never been able to get a single fart of mine to ignite (it has been brought to my attention, however, that you can actually light a fart on fire). It's not just a superstitious myth! But the Pop-rocks and Coke thing... definitely a superstition.

It's no surprise that such blinkered thinking prevails in every culture and society, after all, our brains are evolved only to necessitate our survival, not to be brilliant. I know I harp on religion a lot for the amount of superstition it contains, but I feel such comments are justified. After all, religion often protects its superstitious beliefs in a shroud of uncritical piety--so as to better keep the faith. This is something I cannot abide by, and which is probably one of the reasons why I am so critical of religion. Even so, I just wanted to be fair, and show that I can critically detect other flawed reasoning as well. It's everywhere. 

So what are some of your favorite (or not so favorite) superstitions?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist