A superstition is a belief that an action, object, or circumstance can affect a situation even if they are in no way related. The cause and effect have no natural link, but are believed to be connected through magic or chance. Superstition can be active, like throwing spilt salt over your shoulder, or passive, like a black cat crossing your path causing bad luck.
Superstitions are thought to alter luck, for good or bad. Fear-inducing superstitions are probably misinterpretations of the events surrounding a tragedy, but most are so old, we don't know exactly where they came from. In the same way, good luck charms are probably an attempt to recover the circumstances that led to a good result.
Religion and superstition are often connected because of the mystical, unknowable character of the supernatural. In ancient history, as knowledge of the God of Noah was lost, people personified natural phenomenon. The moon, sun, rain, good growing seasons, fertility, and harvest were assigned patron deities who, if mollified, could bring people what they needed. As religious rituals developed, a dance was thought to bring rain and a sacrifice was thought to bring a successful trade—even though dancing has nothing to do with rain, and sacrifices have nothing to do with trade. Today, some superstitions are given weight by a religious authority, such as the Catholic Church claiming the saints have the power to act on behalf of a petitioner. Because superstition relies on unseen forces, atheists and agnostics often consider anyone who believes in God to be superstitious. Basically, a religious rite is superstitious if the petitioned does not exist or does not have the authority the petitioner believes it to have, or if the rite is being used to try to manipulate or force God into acting.
The Bible is clear that supernatural beings do act, for harm or good. God and His angels work for our ultimate good, while demons try to destroy us. For instance, the Jewish Law includes sacrifice and certain rituals, and promises blessing in return. But there is a middle step. The burning of a calf does not directly impact the growing season; but it is obedience to God, and God promised that if the Israelites obeyed Him, He would bless them (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). Demons, on the other hand, are attracted to those who want to see them, but all their actions toward us are malevolent. The difference, then, is if there really is a power that appreciates the action and can act correspondingly.
In 1 Kings 18:20-40, Elijah went to great lengths to show the foolishness of superstitious beliefs. He challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown, their god against the God of Israel. When their non-existent god failed to act, Elijah even taunted them—"Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened" (1 Kings 18:27 NASB). God did act (1 Kings 18:38), showing the Israelites how foolish they were for their superstitious beliefs.
Paul also dealt with superstition. While teaching on Mars Hill, he pointed out a monument to "an unknown god." Years before, the people had been saved from calamity by a god they did not know, and built the altar in thanks. The Greeks and Romans had so many gods that they set aside a place to worship the ones they hadn't even discovered yet, in hopes that fortune would come their way and disaster would be averted.
Places around the world still hold some superstitions—beyond the garden variety horseshoes and broken mirrors. None of the islands of Hawaii have a paved road completely ringing the island—to do so would be to block the Menehune from being able to come and go as they wish. Feng shui, the Chinese art of arranging living spaces according to mystical energy levels, is a big business. And email chain mails that promise good fortune if forwarded to ten friends are ubiquitous.
Superstitions fail on several levels. Scientifically, if an action and a result have absolutely no connection, then performing the action cannot bring about the result. Biblically, if the action is calling on a deity, force, or power that doesn't exist or doesn't have the ability to respond, then the action cannot bring about the result. If the action is done in hopes that God will act, then it had better be an action God approves of, performed with a humble, submissive attitude. You can't force God's hand by rubbing a rabbit's foot.
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