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Strangely, superstition has once again become a rampant phenomenon in our society. Based on fear or ignorance, devoid of logic or scientific justification, superstition always retards humanity’s progress.
A social norm since ancient times, superstition persists, like racial or religious prejudice, because it passes unquestioned from one generation to the next and then to the next. For centuries, inherited culture and erroneous religious beliefs have significantly contributed to the development and expansion of superstitions – which may seem more prevalent in some cultures than in others, but exist everywhere.
The Baha’i teachings support the essential harmony of science and religion, and have quite a bit to say about superstition, including these two definitions from Abdu’l-Baha’s writings and public addresses:
How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition …
If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition.
Every culture’s social norms – its generally-accepted ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving – include folk beliefs, rituals, taboos, and superstitions. Currently, even in our scientifically-sophisticated era, societal acceptance of superstition and misinformation has led to a widening belief in conspiracy theories, based not on factual information but on supposition.
Religion and Superstition
Superstition is common among the followers of many different religions, and these superstitions have driven many people away from religion. Those who consider themselves secular often think that all religious beliefs and dogmas are nothing but superstition. However, although religious superstitions are widespread, religion in its true essence provides meaningful divine education.
The Baha’i teachings say that the primary cause of religious superstition is man-made interpretation and misrepresentation of sacred writings – often by clergy and leaders of religions. Baha’is believe that the writings and prayers revealed by the founders and prophets of true religion are meaningful and conform with spiritual reality, while individual opinions coming from doubtful sources may reflect a distorted perspective.
Among the superstitious, some feel that a connection exists between what they believe and a supernatural or unknown force, such as fate. Often they have no rational reason for such beliefs, basing them instead on their assumptions or emotions. Irrational notions can then lead to behaviors like wearing certain symbols or charms to protect a person from bad luck, believing that touching wood will ward off undesirable consequences, or avoiding certain actions, like walking under a ladder, that supposedly result in negative outcomes.
Superstition in Our Daily Lives
If you’re superstitious, you’re not alone. According to a 1996 poll from the Gallup Organization, twenty-five percent of Americans define themselves as very or somewhat superstitious. For example: one common superstition, the belief that the number 13 is unlucky, has endured for centuries. Researchers found that fully nine per cent of the people they studied dreaded staying on the 13th floor of a hotel due to an irrational assumption that doing so would bring bad luck – and if assigned a room on that floor, would ask for a different one.
In fact, due to the prevalence of the belief that living on the 13th floor of a building can bring negative consequences, some buildings have labeled the 13th and 14th floors “14a” and “14b” to avoid the use of this number. In other buildings, the floor numbering simply skips a number, going from 12 to 14. In some cultures the number 4 is unlucky; in others, the combination of “666.” Many believe that crossing the path of a black cat or breaking a mirror may bring on bad luck. Even the origin of the saying “God bless you” after someone has sneezed comes originally from the belief that such an act represents the exit of the devil from one’s body.
Superstition is often characterized by a belief that behaving in a certain way will have a particular outcome, even though there is no credible reason for holding such a belief. Those who are superstitious may think that by performing a certain action they can prevent or reverse an unpredictable event or challenge. It follows that they also fear that something harmful or unlucky may occur should they fail to carry out the gesture. Such notions are rooted in the beliefs of ancestors who did not have access to the scientific knowledge available today. This begs a question: Why do such beliefs linger in today’s modern world? Might these superstitions represent a psychological and emotional search to protect ourselves from the unknown, or to control that which is out of one’s control, in spite of the knowledge derived from science? This may explain the popularity of belief in phenomena such as ghosts, magic, and astrology, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
The Baha’i teachings are clear on this issue. In a speech he gave in the United States in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha said:
Man must free himself from the … thorns of superstitions … that he may discover reality in the harvest of true knowledge. Otherwise the discovery of reality is impossible, contention and divergence of religious belief will always remain and mankind, like ferocious wolves will rage and attack each other in hatred and antagonism. We supplicate God that He may destroy the veils which limit our vision and that these becloudings which darken the way of the manifestation of the shining lights may be dispelled in order that the effulgent Sun of Reality may shine forth.