SUPERSTITION AND OCCULTISM
A superstition is an irrational belief about the relation between certain actions (often behaviors) and other actions. The practitioner believes that the future, or the outcome of certain events can be influenced by certain specified behaviors. Not only do notions of "good luck" and "bad luck" give rise to many superstitions, such as the belief that it is "bad luck" to wear gold and silver together, the whole notion of "luck" is itself a superstition.
Superstition may be expressed in the terminology of religion, giving rise to skeptical thinkers' opinion that all religion is superstition. Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. "Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). For Christians just such fears might be worn proudly as a name: Desdemona.
By its definition superstition is not based on reason. Many superstitions can be prompted by misunderstandings of causality or statistics. Others spring from fears, which may be expressed in religious beliefs or practice, or to belief in extraordinary events, supernatural interventions, apparitions or in the efficacy of charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens and prognostications.
Any of the above can lead to unfounded fears, or excessive scrupulosity in outward observances.
Fanaticism, some argue, arises from this same displaced religious feeling, in a state of high-wrought and self-confident excitement. Such unquestioning loyalty can apply to politics, work, and ideologies as well as religion; indeed, it can even be focused on sports teams and celebrities. See Baseball superstition for a series of such examples.
Whatever the cause, superstition can lead to a disregard of reason under the false assumption of a divine or paranormal form of control over the universe. A gambler might credit a winning streak in poker to a "lucky rabbit's foot" or to sitting in a certain chair, rather than to skill or to the law of averages.
An airline passenger might believe that it is a medal of St Christopher (traditional patron saint of travellers) that keeps him safe in the air, rather than the fact that airplanes statistically crash very rarely.
SUPERSTITION AND BEHAVIOURAL PSYCHOLOGY.
The behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior". He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they continued to perform the same actions:
- One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. ("'Superstition' in the Pigeon", B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 )
Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment also shed light on human behavior:
- The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else. (Ibid.)
Like the pigeons, many people associate behavior (head-turning or worship of God(s) ) with an external phenomenon (delivery of food or conquest by a foreign power) that was not necessarily connected in any way with personal behavior. Any misfortune could thus be interpreted as a sign of divine disfavor, whether or not the individuals who suffered bore direct responsibility.
The word occult comes from Latin occultus (hidden), referring to the 'knowledge of the secret' or 'knowledge of the hidden' and often meaning 'knowledge of the supernatural', as opposed to 'knowledge of the visible' or 'knowledge of the measurable', usually referred to as science. The modern term's meaning is often imprecisely translated and used as a term for 'secret knowledge' or 'hidden knowledge', in the sense of meaning 'knowledge meant only for certain people' or 'knowledge that must be kept hidden'. For most practicing occultists, however, it is simply the study of a deeper spiritual reality that cannot be understood using pure reason or material science. The ancient Greek term for occult is esoteric.
Occultism is the study of supposed occult or hidden wisdom. To the Occultist it is the study of Truth, or rather the deeper truth that exists beyond the surface: 'The Truth Is Always Hidden In Plain Sight'. It may be considered by some to be a 'grey' area, perhaps larger than any other in the realm of religion. It can deal with subjects ranging from talismans, magic (alternatively spelt and defined as magick), sorcery, and voodoo, to ESP (Extra-sensory perception), astrology, numerology, lucid dreams, or even religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. It is all encompassing in that most everything that isn't claimed by any of the major religions (and many things that are) is included in the realm of the occult. Even qabalah has been considered an occult study, perhaps because of its popularity amongst magi and Thelemites. The 'Wise Men' in the bible who visited the Infant Jesus are said to have been Magi of the Kabbalah. It was later adopted by the Golden Dawn and brought out into the open by Aleister Crowley and his protege Israel Regardie. Since that time many authors have added insight to the study of the Occult by drawing parallels between different disciplines. One of the most notable organizations is Ordo Mentis which created a system of magick from the roots of many different systems and styles.
Direct insight into or perception of the occult is said not to consist of access to physically measurable facts, but to be arrived at through the mind or the spirit. The term can refer to mental, psychological or spiritual training. It is important to note however, that many occultists will also study science (perceiving science as a branch of Alchemy) to add validity to occult knowledge in a day and age where the mystical can easily be undermined as flights-of-fancy. An oft-cited means of gaining insight into the occult is the use of a focus. A focus may be a physical object, a ritualistic action (for example, meditation or chanting), or a medium in which one becomes wholly immersed. The previous examples are but a mere sample of the vast and numerous avenues that can be explored.
The beliefs and practices of those who consider their activities "occult" or part of "the occult" in the more usual western interpretation 'hidden knowledge' (ceremonial magicians, and so on) are generally far from being secret or hidden, being found very easily in print or on the Internet. This ready availability is historically recent and corresponds to a reduced interest in traditional religion and the promulgation by occultists of the perception of the occult as a broad term for a radical alternative to orthodoxy. As there are huge amounts of authors of the occult in the modern age, it is important for the student to question the validity of all books and to cross reference numerous times with other authors on the same subject. 'Beware False Prophets'. Most mass printed Occult knowledge is however, only for beginners. The sourcing of the more in-depth and advanced work can be a 'trial-of-spirit' in itself.