Of all the traditional Western superstitions, Friday the 13th has the strongest connection to religion and the Christian faith in particular.
Over the years, there have been a variety of theories of the origin the Friday the 13th superstition, but like many explanations of folk practices and beliefs, these accounts often have the flavor of post-hoc, just-so stories with little to back them up. Some commentators point to Norse mythology and the killing of the benevolent god Baldur by the evil Loki, who crashed a gathering of twelve gods in Valhalla to form an unlucky grouping of thirteen. Others point to the Wiccan religion and the practice of witches gathering in groups of thirteen on the sabbath. But in his book 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer finds the earliest references to the thirteen superstition in 17th Century England. At that time, the belief took the form of the traditional taboo against seating thirteen people at a table—a direct reference to the Last Supper, the historic assemblage of thirteen men for the eucharistic seder at the heart of one religion’s emergence from another. According to Lachenmeyer, this first thirteen-related superstition was—from the 17th through 19th Centuries—widely understood to be inspired by the Last Supper, and only later, in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries did Friday become associated with the fear of the number thirteen.
On the day after the Last Supper, a Friday, Jesus died on the cross, and Friday was commonly known as “hangman’s day,” upon which criminals were executed. Eventually, these Friday fears were combined with the taboos of the number 13 to make one of our most popular superstitions.
There appears to be a connection between Friday the 13th and Christianity, but is there a connection between superstition and religion more generally? As the author of a book on the psychology of superstition, I am often asked to speak on Friday the 13th, and on those occasions I am sometimes asked, “What is the difference between religion and superstition?” This is always an uncomfortable moment for me. Whatever I say is likely to offend someone in the audience. As a secularist and a rationalist—but also, I hope, a reasonable person—I endorsed Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science has domain over the natural world, and religion has great power to provide its adherents with answers to questions beyond the reach of science. These two domains sometimes bump up against each other, for example, when someone claims that intercessory prayer can promote healing. But because human health resides in the natural world and we have access to sophisticated methods of acquiring knowledge about health outcomes, I believe we should insist on evidence to back up such a claim. Religious assertions about the existence of heaven or the immortality of souls are inherently untestable, properly within the domain of religion, and, by definition, taken “on faith.” But if propositions are made about the natural world, I would place them in the sphere of science and ask to see the proof.
All common superstitions make claims about the natural world, and as a result they fall within the domain of science rather than religion. They should be substantiated with evidence, and if the data do not support the claim, they should be classified as magical thinking. For example, if Friday the 13th is unlucky, then we should be able to find support for this claim in the frequencies of automobile accidents and hospital admissions. So far the evidence is lacking.
But a deeper answer to the question of the relationship between superstition and religion acknowledges that they play similar psychological roles. Both provide the solace of filling gaps in our understanding of the world. Lucky superstitions, such as the power of rabbit’s feet and the baseball player’s pre-game ritual, help us cope with uncertainty, giving us an illusory sense of control over important outcomes that—despite our best efforts—remain subject to chance. The taboo superstitions, such as the fear of black cats and the number thirteen, bring their own anxiety, but they also impose a kind of order on the unexpected calamities that befall us. In a similar way, religion provides comforting answers to unanswerable questions, such as, “What happens to us after we die?”
Our quest to find comfort in an uncomfortable world is utterly human and entirely understandable, but the superstitious person fails to recognize that there is a better alternative. Many core religious principles are simply beliefs for which there may never be objective evidence. As a result, we each make our own decisions about whether to adopt these ideas into our personal systems of belief. In contrast, superstitious claims are testable, and if they fail the test, they should be discarded. We have developed simple yet powerful methods for improving our understanding the natural world. We should employ them to substantiate the things we believe and do. The psychological benefits of credulity alone are insufficient justification for a life of magical thinking.
Stuart Vyse is professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition