Having in mind writing a novel one day, I read through a book (E. A. Waite, The Book of Ceremonial Magic William Rider and Son LTD London 1911) looking for atmosphere.  As one might expect, the subject is pointless, poorly documented, tasteless, boring, repetitious and generally with no use at all.  The author has no use for any of it at all.  Nonetheless I found it was giving me the creeps.  This was interesting, and I puzzled over it until I figured out the narrative technique that was the cause.  It was more than I had expected to gain.  If anybody wants to know the trick I’d be happy to say.  Just drop me a note at

There was one other thing, which I shall take the time to mention.  Waite offers his choice for a definition of “superstition.”  There are a number of definitions of the word, and I suppose you could categorize them into definitions made by people who feel a need to distinguish between superstition and religion and those who do not.  Believe as you will and use the word accordingly.  But I was interested to know the opinion of a capable sounding scholar who had immersed himself for years in a subject he acknowledged to be superstition, and indeed the book was forthcoming beyond my expectations. 

According to the author a superstition is a behavior that survives the destruction of a belief that originally underlay it.  The ancient Romans might sacrifice to their gods and it be their religion.  Were I to do the same thing, not believing in those gods, and expect to profit from it, that would be superstition under this definition. 

Similarly if I rode a horse regularly I might as saddling the animal remark, “Let’s go for a trip.”  The belief would not be that the horse understood English, but that the words were part of a routine that the horse might find reassuring.  On the other hand if I were to say the same thing while preparing to start my car, with no expectation that the car could experience anything to do with anything like reassurance, that would be superstition.

The nice thing about the definition is that it is objective.  The meaning does not depend on the belief of the person using the word, only on the belief of the person engaged in the behavior.

Looking at science, it means we are all vulnerable.  If I carry on with behavior that is consistent with my belief in the relevant science as I know it, this is not superstition.  But like the Red Queen, I must always be on guard and moving as science is always changing; this is no bad thing.  On the other hand if I behave in a fashion that is consistent with science as it once was, and the science has changed, then I am superstitious or ignorant. 

Around fifteen years ago the science was quite clear.  The less you marry kin the better in every way.  Then I ran across the first real evidence to the contrary, the way civilizations fall.  Over the years I have turned up a vast amount of further evidence in support.  But I find that people still cling to their superstition in a most stubborn way.

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