Oct 22

Walking Under Ladders and Other Absurdities

In Brief — In January of 2017, the author contemplated a piece on superstition and how we all fall victim to some really silly mythical beliefs. After a period of simmering, this piece takes a cynical look at the phenomenon. [Written in May, 2017.]

What Fools These Mortals Be (Shakespeare) —

I confess! I used to throw spilled salt over my shoulder to avoid bad luck. I knock on wood. I know it’s a silly habit, but I still do it. I cross my fingers…or at least say it fairly often. And I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in myths like deities and an earthly Jesus. If I do stuff like this, what do others do? Are we captive to myths? Belief in a deity is a myth, but the majority of people on Earth are captives of this myth. This deserves exploration.

Common Myths —

We are all gripped by bushwa, by false beliefs. Some of it is force of habit, but some of it is really serious stuff that dominates our lives. Given that these myths have power over us, it’s necessary to turn a spotlight on them and raise awareness of the baloney that lurks in the in the shadows of our subconscious. This is the spotlight illuminating common myths.

  • Walking under a ladder — While it is a practical fear that a can of paint or a tool may fall on you, it’s an old myth that a ladder resembles a medieval gallows or that the careless walker blasphemes the Christian Holy Trinity triangle.
  • Friday the 13th brings bad luck — This one is widely believed and is an example of confirmation bias, i.e., that because the believer may have experienced misfortune on a previous Friday the 13th, the believer will look for bad luck when that day rolls around again. Another reason is that Jesus was allegedly crucified on a Friday. In Spanish-speaking countries, bad luck is associated with Tuesday, not Friday.
  • A black cat crossing your path — Even though cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt and cats are frequent household pets, their association with the devil and witches makes them evil. In, Japan, however, black cats are believed to be omens of good luck.
  • Knocking on wood — Depending on which myth you want to believe, this superstition is either good or bad. Pagans believed that trees were inhabited by spirits who would bring good luck to a person who touched a tree. Christians believe that a wooden cross representing the one on which Jesus reputedly died carried good luck. Makes you wonder why crucifixion is considered lucky.
  • A rabbit’s foot is a good luck protective talisman — This Celtic myth…or maybe American-Caribbean voodoo, is believed to confer protection on the owner. Seems to me a three-legged rabbit whose foot adorns a key chain could dispute this.
  • Breaking a mirror results in seven years of bad luck — A mirror doesn’t just reflect your image it is believed to capture your soul. Given the fact that the number seven is often associated with good luck, it’s a long time to burden the breaker with bad luck. That’s a heavy psychological weight to carry around and could doom the believer to years of needless misery.
  • Wishing on a wishbone — Divination with bird bones goes back many centuries, but this one involves a belief that if one gets the larger piece in a contest with an opponent, the winner gets his/her wish. Presumably, this is a way of predicting the future. About that fifth race at Hialeah.,,?
  • Bad luck comes in threes — This one is another good example of confirmation bias. How often have you read about an airplane accident, and you were on the lookout for additional instances of bad luck? By George, they appeared! You had primed yourself for two more and, sure enough, they happened… but you ignored the additional ones. You just confirmed that bad luck comes in threes.
  • Crossing your fingers — This dates back to early Christianity. Crossing one finger over the other is supposed to approximate the Christian cross and was a sign of good luck. It was reportedly a signal to another Christian that s/he was among friends. Sort of like the secret symbols of fraternities. Cults, maybe? Just askin’.

These are just ten of perhaps hundreds if not thousands of superstitions. But you know something really astounding? Most of the billions of people on the planet believe in the biggest myth of all: a deity for which not even the most miniscule dust mote of evidence has ever been produced proving that a deity exists. Neither a loving deity nor an evil one. Nada.

There are numerous sincere believers who are devoted to bettering the lot of their fellow humans. These are truly practitioners of humanism, but they’re not followers of the superstition they purport to embrace.

All that said, this piece is about the little superstitions that we all carry with us. What are yours?

The Weekly Sampler—

As a reminder, go to the Archives on the right side of the page and click on the month and year of that week’s featured Sampler. If you wish, go to the January 15, 2017, blog (“A Simple Reading Assignment”) for more thorough instructions.

If you want to read the entire piece, simply click on the box titled “Continue Reading.” When you want to read the next piece, simply swipe your cursor across the one you have been reading and you will find the next one. Do this every time you want to read the next piece.

Don’t miss the Comments and my replies. Even though the Sampler pieces are from the past, feel free to comment…or not.

Go to the Archives on the right side. Click on December 2016.


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  1. Of course I don’t believe any of your ten superstitions. That doesn’t mean I don’t play with them. When I knock on wood I actually knock on my head (wooden head). when cutting up a banana for breakfast I won’t give either Chris or myself 13 pieces. I absolutely positively thoroughly know that the 13 thing is nonsense but I do it for fun.

    Most of us don’t actually use critical thinking on a daily basis to test such things as superstitions, we just go along with biases of all kinds. These kind of people are, or do. . . . . . . . . .
    Kinda like superstitions.

      • Don Bay on October 23, 2017 at 10:05

      Many of us simply mouth the superstitions without believing in them. I do and so do you. Unfortunately, way too many people actually believe that malarkey. Dave’s mother did. It’s similar to a deity: Do believers actually believe that cancer or war or deadly shootings are the work of a beneficent God who loves his creations?

      People will believe what they choose to believe without regard to the fact that it’s wrong. Logic and rationality aren’t the strong suits of humans.

    • Dave Meyers on October 22, 2017 at 17:20

    My Mother carried a four-leafed clover laminated between two small sheets of plastic, about the size of a postage stamp, in her purse for most of her life. My sister now carries the very same one in her purse since my mother’s passing in ’83. I thank my lucky stars that I don’t believe in that sort of thing to keep me safe.

      • Don Bay on October 23, 2017 at 09:49

      You’ve given a good example of the superstitions we either believe in or use. I wonder if the people who carry four-leaf clovers really believe it brings them luck.

      Do you really thank your “lucky stars” that you don’t believe in that sort of thing or are you putting us on?

    • Donna Boe on October 24, 2017 at 05:21

    I enjoyed your list of myths – kind of followed them for fun, but not really believing they made a difference in my future. It is interesting the source of some of these myths. I liked four leaf clovers – but mostly for just the thrill of finding them -and six leaf, even seven or eight leaf clovers – fun! As you know, we disagree on the “most astounding myth.”

      • Don Bay on October 24, 2017 at 06:40

      Superstitions are either knee-jerk common or consciously chosen. The 4-leaf clover myth of good luck is widely believed…at least in the U.S. See Dave’s comment. Without knowing, I suspect the 6,7 and 8-leaf plants aren’t even true clovers, but they’re fun myths just the same.

      I’m thoroughly aware of the belief in divinities, but what counts is how that belief is practiced. Your concern, compassion and empathy are really humanism in my book, and their place in your life is obvious. No matter what it is called, it is admirable and should be part of the lives of all believers.

      • Don Bay on October 27, 2017 at 06:32

      Apologies for my recent goof on art in my blog piece “Art: The Good, Bad and Ugly.” The urinal in several museums was by Marcel Duchamp, not Robert Rauschenberg. Duchamp was known as the father of the DaDa movement. This alleged joke by Duchamp shows the power of the mavens of the art world.

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