Superstition (Stuart A. Vyse, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition:

Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]
Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines superstition as “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.

In a 1956 essay, psychiatrist Judd Marmor proposed a definition of superstition: “beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs.”

Although everyday experience suggests that superstitious beliefs and behavior are widespread, it is probably impossible to determine accurately the extent of their popularity. Undoubtedly many believers are reluctant to confess their superstitions for fear of ridicule. Furthermore, some superstitions are exercised infrequently or in private, making it difficult to observe them directly. Superstitious behavior is as widespread and various as humanity itself.

Superstitions Forming Part of a Cosmology or Coherent Worldview

Some behavioral scientists believe that all religion is superstitious, a misguided faith born of ignorance. Others hold that only “pagan” religion, with its magical rites and rituals, is superstitious. Although science and religion have traditionally been cast as antagonists, in reality they speak different languages. Religious faith exists without need of proof, while science is built upon proof. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould adopted a similar view when he described science and religion as two “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated as NOMA) both leading to profound but differing fields of knowledge. For our purposes, this means that basic questions about the existence of god or heaven do not fall within the domain of science because they are inherently untestable. Anyone who adopts these beliefs must take them “on faith.”

Other Socially Shared Superstitions

The great majority of superstitions come to us as part of our culture. People teach us rules, such as “black cats bring bad luck,” that were once taught to them. Many of these rules are concerned with important human events: birth, marriage, illness, and death. A number of popular and scholarly books catalogue these common superstitions—for example, Anthon Cannon assembled a list of 13,207 superstitions and folk beliefs indigenous to the state of Utah. With cultural superstitions, the primary challenge for psychology is to identify the factors that influence our acceptance and explain why these beliefs persist in the face of conflicting evidence.

“Occult” Experiences of Individuals

Many people accept the validity of ESP and communication with the dead. Assuming they are not supported by science, mere endorsement of these things represents paranormal belief, but if you actually employ these ideas in your life—for example, to communicate with your deceased grandmother—then by our definition these occult beliefs would be superstitious. In the case of ESP, we are particularly fortunate because the scientific community has given it considerable attention.

In the late 19th century, societies of “parapsychology” were established in Britain and the United States, and soon a number of parapsychological laboratories began investigating such phenomena as mental telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis. From 1935 to 1965, Duke University maintained a famous department of parapsychology, and in 1969 the Parapsychology Association was admitted to membership in the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Yet despite its outward appearance as a reputable science, parapsychology has failed the crucial test. Years of research have produced no conclusive support for the existence of ESP; many of the studies have contained serious methodological flaws, or have produced results impossible to replicate. Therefore, ESP is either paranormal or superstitious, depending upon the role it plays in the believer’s life. Other experiences that fall into this category are ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists, and premonitions.

Personal Superstitions

The last category includes superstitions held only by an individual. This encompasses a large group of beliefs and actions that are neither learned from nor taught to others. Wade Boggs’s pre-game ritual is an example, as are the lucky shirts, hats, numbers, and colors common to athletes, gamblers, businesspeople, and others. Although this classification scheme provides a simple lexicon of superstition, it is not without inconsistencies. For example, many superstitions—not just Jahoda’s “socially shared” category—are at least partially shaped by social influence. The mere popularity of lucky hats and other magical clothing belie a social or cultural contribution to personal superstitions, and many reported occult experiences also share common elements. Superstitious beliefs of all kinds are undoubtedly encouraged by a social environment rich in believers. Nevertheless, these categories help to structure the discussion that follows…


For any given individual, feelings about superstition may range from complete rejection to total endorsement, and the people who fall at opposite ends of this continuum may differ in other important ways.

Common folk wisdom holds that a number of subcultures are by nature particularly superstitious. These people are said to practice superstitions that are either unique to, or characteristic of, their group.

The reputation of superstitiousness extends to a variety of sports, both professional and nonprofessional. Other traditionally superstitious groups include gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.

The popularity of sport combined with the fact that its participants are a traditionally superstitious group make athletes, particularly professional athletes, the most famous of all superstitious people.

College students are not famous for their superstitions. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers. Yet superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure, and when it comes to examinations, many college students are genuinely fearful.


Most games of chance are just that. Their outcomes are random events, completely out of the player’s control. The lottery player cannot will a “lucky number” to come up; the roulette player has no power over the spinning ball. Nevertheless, many gamblers act as though they were playing games of skill. In some games, such as blackjack and draw poker, the player uses a strategy to decide when it is best to draw a card and when it is not. Furthermore, by understanding the odds, one can become a skillful bettor. But most gambling games do not involve skill.

Yet gambling is as old as human civilization itself. It was popular in ancient Egypt, Persia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. In England, dice-playing appeared during the Roman occupation, and by the 18th century gambling had been institutionalized in public gaming houses. Historically, many gamblers have put faith in “luck” and the belief that chance events are, to some extent, under their control. Today similar beliefs are found in various “systems”—some published in popular books—for winning the lottery or betting on horse races, as well as in many personal and social superstitions of the gambling subculture.

Craps is a game of pure chance. There is no skill involved in throwing dice. The movements of the clicking, tumbling cubes conform only to the laws of physics and probability, and as long as the dice are not weighted or rigged, every throw is a random event.

The influence of social structure on superstition

Students, athletes, and gamblers are social groups that involve varying degrees of group activity. The differing social structures of these groups parallel the kinds of superstitions they adopt. Group activities produce socially shared superstitions.


Athletes, college students, and gamblers provide interesting examples of superstition among narrowly defined social groups, but they are also relatively small segments of the population. What about the rest of us? Who are the most and least superstitious among us?


A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups; however, there are some exceptions.


Many studies of age differences have shown that older people are more skeptical than young people, but others have found the opposite relationship… Taken in total, the relationship between age and superstitious or paranormal beliefs appears to be complicated; it is safest to say that, at this time, no general statement can be made about age on magical beliefs.


Obviously, education does not make one immune to superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Indeed, most published studies of paranormal belief have used college students as subjects. Yet we might expect that higher education, particularly in the sciences, would lead to increased critical thinking and greater skepticism. The research on this point is somewhat mixed, but there is some evidence that formal education does lead to skepticism. In addition, there is evidence that certain academic fields are associated with greater skepticism than others. Although research suggests that education plays an antagonistic role in relation to superstition and the paranormal, the results are not clear cut.


There are some similarities between religious and superstitious belief. Although one is celestial and the other terrestrial, both can involve an act of faith. As we have seen, even the scientifically minded person must oft en trust an educated authority. Furthermore, the border between these concepts is blurred when religious groups promote testable practices, such as faith healing, that fall within the domain of science. The evidence suggests there is a relationship between religious and paranormal belief, but it is complicated.


The entire book can be read here:

Drinking & Gambling (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Rudder, pp. 168-171; 268. The two vices of drinking and gambling are highly censured in Orthodox Christianity. Consuming the remainder of the Holy Chalice, though many times can render a priest slightly drunk or “buzzed,” is not considered the same as getting drunk (unless of course, the priest is in the habit of using excessive amounts of wine, way more than necessary to commune the faithful, in the knowledge that there will be enough during the consummation to get a “buzz.”).

Playing cards of every sort are banned for Christians, including Solitaire which has a penance of no Communion for up to 30 days. Pokemon and similar cards are also banned for Christians as it is believed they are a gateway indoctrination to the occult.

Gambling of every form is forbidden as well (Casinos, lotteries, raffles, etc.). When the monasteries were first being established, there was apprehension about holding raffles and lotteries in case it was breaching ecclesiastical canons. However, it was discerned that it was okay for laypeople to hold raffles and lotteries for the monasteries and donate all the money afterwards (both lay people and the monasteries which the raffle is for will donate the prizes).

The 52 Demons in Playing Cards by Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos
The 52 Demons in Playing Cards by Archimandrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos


If any Bishop, or Priest, or Deacon wastes his time by playing dice, or getting drunk, either let him desist from this or let him be deposed. (Apostolic Canons XLIII, LIV; Canons IX, L of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; Canon XXII of the 7th Ecumenical Synod; Canons XXIV, LV of Laodicaea; Canons XLVII, LXIX of Carthage)


Those in Holy Orders are to stand before all men as living examples as a reflection of all good order and virtue, and as promoters of the performance of good works. But inasmuch as some of them stray away from what is good and virtuous, and spend their time playing dice, (which includes playing cards and other games,) not to mention drunken carousals and merrymaking with food and drink. The present Apostolic Canon, taking cognizance of this, proclaims that any bishop, priest or deacon who occupies himself with such indecent activities shall either cease doing them or be deposed from Holy Orders.


Likewise Apostolic Canon XLIII ordains that those clergymen, and also laymen, who occupy themselves in drunkenness and gambling, shall either cease or be excommunicated. Not only are clergymen forbidden to get drunk, but neither are they even permitted to enter taverns at all to eat, according to Apostolic Canon LIV and Canon IX of the 6th Ecumenical Synod and Canon XLVII of Carthage and Canon XXIV of Laodicea, nor are they allowed to own a tavern shop at all, according to the same Canon IX of the 6th Ecumenical Synod.

Moreover, all clergymen and all laymen are forbidden by Canon L of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod to play dice or cards or other games. In the event that they are caught doing so, clergymen are to be deposed, and laymen are to be excommunicated. In addition to these prohibitions, Canon IV of Laodicea proclaims that they must not hold banquets by agreement or with contributions collected from a number of persons gathered together at the same time and place, whether they are in Holy Orders, that is whether they are clergymen or laymen. Canon LXIX of Carthage commands that Christians cease holding banquets and balls (or dances) and games to the memory of or as feasts to martyrs and other saints, such as those customs that are peculiar to the (pagan) Greeks and due to their deception and atheism.

But neither ought Christians eat and drink to the accompaniment of musical instruments and evil and demonic songs, according to Canon XXII of the 7th Ecumenical Synod.

Playing cards from 1829 depicting heroes of the Greek War of Independence with Ypsilantis as the King of Spades
Playing cards from 1829 depicting heroes of the Greek War of Independence with Ypsilantis as the King of Spades

The Nomicon of Photios (Title IX, Chapter 27) says that ordinance 34 of the fourth Title of Book I of the Code decrees as follows: If any bishop or clergyman plays dice or other such games, or holds communicates together with those who play them, or sits by and watches them being played, he is to be cut off from every holy liturgy, and to lose the stipend he gets from his bishopric or clerical office, until the time allowed fixed for his repentance. But in case he should persist in his vice even after the expiration of the time limit given him for repentance, he is to be driven out of the clergy with all his estate, and become a member of the legislature, or, in other words, a secular official of that political state in which he was a clergyman. Those clergymen who participate in hunting spectacles and other theatrical exhibitions share the same penalty. It is permissible, however, to a bishop when he sees the prompt repentance of any clergyman doing these things, to reduce the time of the penalty of suspension in proportion, and accordingly to give him permission sooner to officiate in his holy capacity, according to Canon XXXIX of the same (7th Ecumenical Synod), titular ordinance64 of Title I of the Novels. Justinian Novel 123, according to Armenopoulos, commands that clergymen guilty of getting drunk or of playing dice shall be excommunicated and be shut up in a monastery. See also Canon XXIV of the 6th Ecumenical Synod.

The names of the 52 demons and the card they are patrons of.
The names of the 52 demons and the card they are patrons of.


Let any Subdeacon, or Readers, or Psalti, who does similar things either desist or be excommunicated. This applies to any layman. (Apostolic Canon XLIV, LIV; Canons IX, L of the 6th Ecumenical Synod; Canons XXIV, LV of Laodicaea; Canons XLVII, LXIX of Carthage.)


This Canon, too, orders that any subdeacon, or readers, or Chanters who does similar things, such as are prohibited by the above Canon XLII, or, in other words, who plays dice or cards or any other games, or who spends time in drunkenness and eating and drinking bouts, shall either cease from such indecent acts, or failing to do so, shall be excommunicated. In the same way laymen as well, who spend time in the same way shall either cease doing so or be excommunicated from the congregation of the faithful. See also the preceding Canon XLII.

Footnote 64 on the Apostolic Canons, The Rudder,  p. 298

See also divine St. Chrysostom where he proves that anyone playing dice or other games is the cause of many evils: “Addiction to the playing of dice has often resulted in blaspheming, damage, wrath, quarrelling, and thousands of other even worse misdeeds” (page 564 of Volume VI, Discourse 15 to a Statue). Aristotle classes among thieves all those who play dice and cards, saying: “A dice-player however and a pickpocket, and a robber (or highwayman) are among the unfree. For they are profiteers” Ethics Nicom., Book 4). On this account Justinian Novel 123 strips such players in Holy Orders from every right to hold any holy service and commands that they be shut up for three years in a monastery. In an attempt to cure those who get drunk, Basil the Great says: “Let fasting cure drunkenness; let the Psalm cure any obscene or shameful melody; in all offenses, let mercy redeem you from sin”.

(Discourse against drunkards). Hence it appears that those who vomit as a result of drunkenness ought to be corrected rather by such cures as fasting and almsgiving.)


The occult meanings of the symbols for Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds.
The occult meanings of the symbols for Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds.


From now on nobody, whether a clergyman or a layman, is permitted to gamble (or play dice). In case anyone be caught doing this, if he be a clergyman, let him be deposed, but if he be a layman, let him be excommunicated. (Apostolic Canons XLII, XLIII)


These Fathers forbid everybody to gamble, or, in other words, to play dice, or cards, or checkers and chess, or any other such games, whether he is a clergyman or a layman. Anyone that should play these games after publication of this Canon, if he is a clergyman, shall be deposed from, but if he be a layman, he shall be excommunicated. See also Apostolic Canon XLII

For the Orthodox understanding of playing cards, see Archimadrite Haralambos Vasilopoulos’ book, The 52 Demons in a Deck of Cards: