Can Atheists Be Superstitious?

Earlier this year, my father and I were trying to find our way through a labyrinth of dilapidated tents at a stereotypically muddy music festival. It was cold, it was raining, and it was getting dark. Our own tent was not within sight.

The mud had far exceeded a “reasonable” volume, and we were amongst the fair few unhappy campers who had decided to call it quits and pack up early. The problem was getting back to our tent.

“We seem to be on the right track to finding it,” I said.

“Ooh, it’s dangerous to say that,” countered my father.

He was suggesting that I was tempting fate. I know he wasn’t joking, because I asked him.

It was a small exchange, but what he said surprised me very much because it was the first time I had seen him express anything vaguely superstitious. My father is an atheist and does not believe in the supernatural. For him to suggest there was a connection between something I’d said and a possible outcome must have meant that his disbelief was not 100%, I thought.

What reminded me of this  was an Observer quiz/article asking readers to question their level of atheism or belief. To participate, you are instructed to shout the following statements out loud:

I dare God to make my life miserable.
I dare God to make my home catch fire.
I dare God to turn all of my friends against me.

According to the article, if you can’t do it, you are either a confirmed believer, or someone whose head says they’re an atheist but whose heart can’t quite accept it.

“Or maybe you’re just superstitious and think that talking about something bad makes it more likely to happen.”

I’d assumed that “superstitious” would be under the “confirmed believer” category; I thought that only believers were superstitious. But since it had its own category, it sounds like they’re saying that you can be an atheist and be superstitious. This is what reminded me of my dad, and how I am used to thinking that atheists do not believe in anything supernatural.

But is that really the definition of atheism?

According to Dictionary.com, atheism is

1.

the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

2.

disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
And according to Google, it is:
  1. disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
Neither actually mention anything about superstition. So at first glance, it would seem that there is room for superstition in atheism. But surely people who hold beliefs in any kind of magic must also believe that there is a higher power influencing those connections? It seems strange that someone would be able to believe in a higher power without believing in God.
Of course, not everyone is either an “atheist” or a “believer.” There are people who are confirmed agnostics, and there are also people who classify themselves as “atheists” or “believers,” but who admit that they are not 100% certain. I imagine that most of us fall into this category. I don’t think you can be 100% certain of anything.  Also, I don’t think that everything is as clear-cut as it seems. There are different levels of conviction. Some of us are capable of having different attitudes on different days.
Even the concept of belief in a deity is difficult to pin down as being one thing. Some people think of god as the universe, or as everything. Other people imagine him/her/them to be more personified, like a creator. There are also people who believe in more than one god, or who see gods as the symbols of different qualities.
This is the same with atheism. You can be an atheist who doesn’t believe in a certain kind of god, but who believes in something other people would consider to be god, but you don’t. Like the universe. Admittedly, it’s a bit hard not to believe in the universe. But my point is that your definition of god could be different from other people’s, and that is why you consider yourself to be an atheist.
And then of course, not everyone thinks about what it means to believe what they believe. Or why they believe what they believe. If they did, their beliefs might change. What is belief, even? If you don’t actively think about the fact that you believe something, do you really believe it, or is it just a thought pattern?

With all this in mind, I can see how I can’t make a blanket statement such as “Atheists aren’t superstitious,” when atheism itself remains difficult to define.

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19 thoughts on “Can Atheists Be Superstitious?

  1. I’m an Atheist – in the sense that I don’t believe in God as a man or a personified being. I don’t believe in religion and I don’t believe in the bible. I do however believe in an ”energy” – and that is why I am indeed superstitious. For me positive energy leads to positive outcomes. Just like negative energy leads to negative outcomes. Its all energy. So yes, I’m an Atheist who is superstitious. Just not the cross a black cat, walk under a ladder, find a penny, break a mirror kind of superstitious.

    My superstition is related to attracting the kind of energy that we ourselves produce. That is why I wont ask ”God” to make my life miserable, burn down my house or turn my friends against me. Not because I’m a ”confirmed believer” in ”God” – but rather because having those kind of negative thoughts is bound to produce negative outcomes that I would prefer to superstitiously avoid!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That makes sense. I, too, believe in an “energy.” Perhaps that’s why I also find it difficult to shout dares to God to make my life miserable (although I think it’s more due to the fact that I have neighbors >.< And that my life is already miserable LOL) I don't know whether or not I call that energy "God" but if I shouted those dares, there would be that nagging "What if" feeling. It's funny because before I properly thought about it, I wouldn't have called that "superstition." I'm used to thinking of superstition as only being the ancient broken mirror kind of stuff. If I properly think about it, people have all kinds of personal superstitions that they make up for themselves like wearing "lucky" socks, tapping mugs before they drink from them, not stepping on the cracks in the pavement etc.

      I also think that if something bad just HAPPENED to occur soon after I'd dared "God" to make my life miserable, I wouldn't be able to get rid to that nagging feeling that it might be because I'd shouted those things. THAT would make my life miserable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are a very wide variety of superstitious or supernatural beliefs in the world, many of which do not include or need belief in a god or “higher power”. Magic, ghosts, alien abduction, fortune telling, spirits, fairies, etc. Most atheists I’ve met reject such superstitious beliefs, but there are exceptions. Even more weirdly, there are some atheistic religions. At least, that seemed very odd to me when I learned about it, since most of my life I’d only known about theistic religions and assumed that theism was part of what it meant to be religious. But then, I’d always assumed having a holy book was a standard part of religion until I learned otherwise, too.

    For example, Buddhism is not a theistic religion. The other example I know of is the Church of Satan. They don’t believe in a literal Satan or other deity, but magic is part of their religion.

    As for the definition of atheism, I sometimes use the somewhat circular definition that an atheist is a person who calls themself an atheist. The lack of belief in any gods seems to be the most common explanation that I see self-professed atheists (including myself) use when explaining what their atheism is. As for what “god” means, I generally think of that in the sense of how I see it used most often–a creator god, or an extremely powerful supernatural being, or maybe even some sort of supernatural life force. Sometimes people might say that God is the universe or something, but to me that just sounds like taking something that we already know about and then labeling it “God”.

    In any case, word definitions can be tricky, especially when different people use them to mean different things, and dictionary definitions lag behind changes in the language. There isn’t always a good way to account for every usage of a word. Sometimes it’s better to just go with the most common usages.

    Anyway, good post. You got me thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All atheist means is you dont believe in a god. i believe in the power of good and bad thoughts. i believe that life DOESNT end at death. I sometimes through salt over my right shoulder if i spill it. i wont split a pole while walking. breaking mirrors give you seven years of bad luck. and their isnt such a thing as coincidence. but i still dont believe in a god or gods, therefore im STILL atheist.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. To be fair i am an agnostic atheist. though i dont believe a god or gods can or does(and i HOPE they dont ) exist i wont say its not possible. Ill say i dont believe in a god or gods but i wont say with absolute that there isnt. If i spoke with an absolute of anything id break my belief of questioning everything and leaving room to be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree about leaving room for other possibilities. I get annoyed when I hear people saying “God doesn’t exist” rather than “I don’t believe in god.” I don’t think anyone can be absolutely sure of anything, even basic beliefs that we take for granted.

      Thank you for reading my post and sharing your views.

      Like

      • I don’t think absolute certainty is necessary to say that no gods exist. That isn’t what people mean when they say that unicorns don’t exist. I don’t see why the statement ought to have a different meaning when it’s about God.

        When I say there are no gods I mean it in the same way as when I say there is no Loch Ness monster. That doesn’t mean I’m not open to other possibilities, though. Credible evidence of the existence of either would change my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think I understand what you mean, but I’m not 100 per cent sure. Are you saying that you don’t need to be absolutely certain of the fact that there isn’t a god to be able to state it as a fact?
        Well, I suppose if we only stated things we were absolutely sure of, from a philosophical point we’d get nowhere, because we can’t be certain of anything! (At least, that is what I believe.) So I understand what you mean.
        Hmm, considering that point, I do think it can be a little disrespectful to express one’s views in such a way when they are around people who possibly believe in God. Views about God, that is.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that is what I mean. You can never prove with absolute certainty that something doesn’t exist, whether that’s God, the Loch Ness monster, or a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. So that’s why I often express my lack of belief in any gods as “No gods exist”.

        I don’t think it’s necessarily disrespectful to say that around believers. Many religious believers think nothing of asserting their beliefs as facts while around people who they know don’t share their beliefs, or saying “God does exist” to someone who has said they don’t believe in God. Just because religious believers do it, too, doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for atheists to do it. But atheists get a lot more pushback for stating their position as fact than believers do, in my experience.

        Context matters, though. The appropriateness of saying “there are no gods” is different in different situations. For instance, if you’re at a funeral with religious believers, that’s not a good time to go around saying “there are no gods” to everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is such a good point. I would never have noticed how people have different attitudes to atheists stating their beliefs as facts to theists doing the same thing in the opposite direction. I’m glad you pointed that out. It’s true.
        I personally tend not to state my opinions about God as facts – by that I simply mean that I precede what I say by “I think” so that my tone doesn’t come across as preachy.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not that simple. There are multiple definitions of the word, and language changes over time. While that is certainly the definition I see used most often, especially by atheists themselves, I have never seen it in a dictionary–which means very little in practice. Dictionaries always lag behind the actual usage of words.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I understand the god thing, but as for dictionaries I don’t have a reference to discuss it, but I’ve used research on definitions(especially religion) in a lot of my writings(many I havnt put out yet) maybe next I’ll work on something with atheism, educate myself a bit more.

        Like

  5. I find superstition rather humorous and interesting. I have OCD and attended therapy due to this. It was funny trying to tell my therapist that I’m am atheist and how I value logic and reason, yet the two get thrown out of the window when compulsions come into play. I know that nothing that will happen to me if I keep the music volume on an odd number, but it still takes a therapist to help convince me.
    This is why I try to sympathise with those that worship as they feel a compulsion to do so, however this compulsion does not make it right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading my post and sharing your thoughts.

      I too have experienced that feeling of KNOWING that nothing bad will happen to me if I do or don’t do a certain thing, yet something compels me to do it anyway. For example, sometimes when I’m trying to choose which mug to make tea in, a “voice” at the back of my head tells me “Don’t pick that one, something really terrible will happen if you do, like your family dying,” (You can laugh, I won’t be offended LOL) and I KNOW that OF COOOOURSE my family won’t die just because I picked the striped mug, but I still avoid it and go for the fat, round one from IKEA. Just in case.

      Now, this hasn’t happened to me recently, and I’ve managed to stop it by forcing myself to use mugs that feel “bad” (the bad ones are different each time) but before the indecision was noticeable because I’d stand by the mug rack for a relatively long time trying to choose the right mug or convince myself that it didn’t matter. (There were “lucky” mugs as well as “disastrous” ones.)

      Then, also, I had this thing of HAVING to look at the cupboard, then the curtains and then the light, in that order, every time I walked into a certain room or simply felt the urge. And people noticed it. I was asked whether my eyes hurt or my fringe was bothering me, which was embarrassing.

      There were a few other things like that, that I KNEW were silly, yet I still did them out of “superstition” or habit, and didn’t think too much about them. And I didn’t believe that it was because of God or a Creator, I knew it was just me. Well, actually, about the mug thing, I did kind of think there was some kind of magical force behind that for a while, but not God. Again, I permit you to laugh out loud.

      I didn’t have persistent anxiety about these things throughout the day or anything like that, but they were still noticeably weird and arbitrary compulsions.

      I get what you mean about the volume thing! I have an Apple computer, and the volume buttons make that sort of “popping” sound whenever you tap them. Sometimes, when I adjust the volume in a certain direction (louder or quieter) I have to then adjust it back the same number of “pops” in the other direction, and then the same number of “pops” back to how I want it. I don’t know if that makes sense?

      I can see how it does really help to have someone else tell you that something doesn’t matter.

      I never thought of the idea of people feeling a compulsion to worship! That’s an interesting point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can relate to what you are saying as my mind works in a very similar way! I’ve been taught to sit with the uncomfortable feeling that you get by say, picking the ‘bad’ mug, as the more you pick the good mug, the more your mind is convinced it is good in some way. So it gets better despite feeling wrong in the first place!
        And yeah I believe that if we can feel guilty for picking the wrong cup, how guilty will some people feel for not going to church?! The stakes are much higher and it would be interesting to look at comparisons between OCD and belief. Not everyone is in this same boat, although I bet plenty are 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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