Many atheists, myself included, not only lack belief in a God or gods, but also reject the idea of other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, psychics, or fairies. We are skeptical that certain rituals such as prayer or laying on of hands can bring about some hoped for outcome by calling on the favor of a higher power. Atheists generally disbelieve anything that lacks strong, reproducible evidence. It follows, then, that atheists are not superstitious – that atheism and superstition are mutually exclusive. They are. And yet, there does seem to be a part of human nature – some remnant of our primitive ancestors – that is compelled to engage in rituals, no matter how small, in order to ward off evil.
Confession time. I knock on wood to keep bad luck away. I cross my fingers for good luck. I knock 3 times on the airplane before boarding to prevent a crash. Being in the medical field, I never ever comment on what a slow day it is. I’ve even been known to throw spilled salt over my left shoulder. I’m not really sure what throwing salt is supposed to accomplish, other than a gritty floor, but I do it anyway. I don’t worry about walking under ladders, broken mirrors, or black cats crossing my path. That would be silly.
The bulk of my superstitions are related to my daughter Sarah’s seizures. We have identified a few reliable seizure triggers such as illness and over-heating. However, for the most part, her seizures tend to occur randomly. She may go an entire week with only 1 or 2 seizures and then have 4 or 5 in one night for no apparent reason. In a good week, I avoid talking about or even thinking about how many days have passed since her last seizure because I don’t want to “jinx” it. If asked directly, I will knock on wood or cross my fingers when saying that she is doing well. Not to do so is to invite sure disaster.
Tantamount to blaming the weatherman for the weather, I sometimes catch myself blaming Sarah’s service dog, Alfie, for seizures. Alfie lets us know that Sarah is going to have a bad night by licking her intensely. He will follow her around the house, refusing to leave her side, and lick her legs nonstop. I mistakenly believe that if I can interrupt the alerting behavior, the seizures will be prevented. So, I send him to his mat to lie down. Fortunately, Alfie is not susceptible to such magical thinking and refuses to stay, returning to his girl’s side after a couple of minutes.
Why do I perform these little rituals? I don’t really believe that I can prevent a plane crash by knocking on the door frame before boarding, but I knock anyway. There are several explanations for this.
An obvious source of much superstitious behavior is cultural conditioning. We are trained from childhood to say or do certain things at certain times. I say “bless you” when someone sneezes – not to ward off evil spirits, but because the society I live in considers this the appropriate polite response. In Argentina, instead of knocking on wood, people touch their left breast or testicle to ward off bad luck. In ancient times, misfortune was blamed on the will of the capricious gods. People went to great lengths to appease the gods and avoid attracting their attention. This attitude remains deeply ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness. Merely speaking something aloud, or naming it, calls the gods’ attention. I avoid mentioning seizure-free days out loud lest some spiteful deity overhear and send more convulsions. I regularly post on Facebook when Sarah is having a particularly bad spell, but you will never see my status update proclaiming, “We’ve gone 5 days without a seizure!!”
Many people believe that their rituals work because of the phenomenon known as the placebo effect. This is well described in medicine and psychology. If you believe that snake oil will treat your ailment, you may experience an improvement in symptoms despite the fact that there is no actual medicine in the substance you are ingesting. A commonly used plot for bad sit-coms has the insecure star believing his success comes only from the power of a lucky token, but after unknowingly losing the token, he discovers he could win the game (get the girl, beat the bad guy, etc) without it.
Confirmation bias is another way our brains trick us into believing things that aren’t true. We are wired to notice and remember things that confirm what we already believe to be true and ignore the instances that run counter to our belief. Many of my fellow epilepsy parents believe that their children’s seizures are worse during the full moon. Every time a seizure cluster occurs within a few days of the full moon, their belief is reinforced. Seizure clusters that occur at other times of the month or months without a full moon-related cluster do not create as strong a memory. Belief in the power of prayer is much the same. We were very interested in enrolling Sarah in a research study for a new medication, but were turned away by the center closest to us. Eventually, we were able to enroll her in the same study at the Mayo Clinic. On hearing this, one of our more religious friends exclaimed “Prayers answered!”. I wanted to ask him who the heck prayed that we would have to spend thousands of dollars traveling to and from Minnesota in order to take part in this study. What about the prayers that we would get into the local study, or the prayers that her seizures would respond to the first dozen drugs we tried and failed? What about the thousands of devoutly religious people all over the world praying for a cure? Our ability to enroll in this study does not prove the power of prayer – it’s just another example of confirmation bias: He prayed for it, it happened and now his belief in effects of prayer are reinforced despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary.
This post from Atheist Living gives, what I believe is the most powerful reason that people engage in superstitious rituals:
In today’s more scientific world, superstitions persist for the same basic reason they began: A belief in superstitions gives people an illusion of control in an uncertain world.
I have absolutely no control over Sarah’s epilepsy. Knocking on wood or crossing my fingers creates the comforting illusion that I can prolong a seizure-free spell. The research study Sarah is in is a randomized, placebo-controlled trial, meaning that participants are randomly assigned to receive study drug or an indistinguishable placebo. In the days leading up to our first trip to the Mayo Clinic, I told everyone I was sure she was going to get placebo. I felt like, if I even suggested the possibility that she would receive the study drug, I would jinx her. Even though there was a 50/50 chance of receiving either compound, I couldn’t bring myself to even whisper the hope that she would get the real drug, as if my words had some magical power to influence the randomization process.
The bottom line is, I don’t believe in any of these superstitions. They are either habits developed over a lifetime or behaviors rooted in my sense of powerlessness over the circumstances of my life. It is highly likely that I will knock on the airplane the next time we board a flight for Minnesota, and if you sneeze, I will say “bless you”. I will eat black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day next year, not because I believe it will attract luck and money in the coming year, but because I like black-eyed peas and greens. On the other hand, I will end this blog post by brazenly stating that Sarah is currently enjoying a period of remarkably good seizure control. It has been almost a week since her last seizure and, assuming she makes it tomorrow, she will have gone to school every day for 2 full weeks – practically a record for her. If she has a bad night tonight, I will remind myself that she is already overdue for a seizure cluster and will not fall into the trap of believing that my blog post somehow triggered it.