This is an old post I wrote before I had fully assimilated disciplines like social evolution and the role of genetics behind the human urge to tell stories. Read it with a pinch of salt.
I can believe that superstition exists because it works; that it has fought for survival against a physical-only interpretation of reality and has stood its ground. It has passed the Darwinian evolution test.
But because that may not satisfy many, let me try and answer the question: Why are we superstitious?
It is easy to trace individual superstitious practices to their roots and say how they started. But that won’t really answer the question. The real question is why. Why do human beings have this need to believe in strange things? Why have people imagined incredible fantasies since the beginning of time? Why has the tangible side of existence consistently failed to satisfy mankind?
Stark atheists would say superstitions are signs of a weak mind that can’t handle reality and therefore must come up with fantastic explanations for things. I find that strange, seeing as how everyone is superstitious at one level or another.
When you yell, “Come on! Don’t do this to me!” at a hung computer, you are being superstitious. It’s a machine, it can’t hear you, and you know it. If you feel the loss of your favourite pen, that’s superstition too. At a physical level, pens are just pens. The importance you assign to one pen over others is imaginary. The same goes for people being sentimental about their cars and motorcycles, people saying, “The damn door broke my nose,” and people cursing the weather. Nobody is utterly free from irrational behaviour (even though some might want to pretend that they are Vulcan). Human beings have this instinctive tendency of thinking up imaginary truths.
A recent scientific study by Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, points in the same direction:
The findings of Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, suggest that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force. His work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain. They suggest people are programmed to receive a feeling of spirituality from electrical activity in these areas.
I believe that the act of storytelling roots from this tendency. As far as we know, man is the only animal that tells stories. We read books, watch plays, we pay to go sit inside movie theatres and allow ourselves to be moved to emotion with a narrative we know to be false, even if it is for a short while. This behaviour falls under the same category as the little personal superstitions I referred to in the previous paragraph.
There is something inside us that craves the imaginary. It is something inherent to human nature, something that makes us human, something that is essential to the human condition. There are those who believe that with the advent of modern science and the spread of education, the world will soon be rid of all superstition. I don’t think that will happen. Superstition is not rooted in ignorance. It stems from the same part of us that creates stories and myth.
What we call superstition is thriving in the modern world. Storytellers are some of the most prosperous and well-known people on the planet (writers, filmmakers, actors). Every year, more and more people spend their money to immerse themselves in imaginary worlds and situations. In fact, this is practically the age of imagination.