On Prayer and Superstition

By Anjum Altaf

Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed.

At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the demands of performance, spectators have no similar vehicles – prayer and superstition serve as substitutes. And given that there are many times more spectators than participants we witness the huge outpourings of prayer and superstition that we do.

There is no getting away from chance – we live perpetually in shadow of randomness. One of the first lessons I learnt in a class on decision-making was that there is no inevitable one-to-one relationship between the quality of a decision and the quality the outcome: it is quite possible for a good decision to lead to a bad outcome and vice versa. The reason: the randomness that is not under the control of the decision-maker. To take examples from cricket itself: a batsman trips while taking a perfectly safe single; or completes a suicidal single when the fielder throws to the wrong end.

We can consider this unavoidable randomness as the residual element outside human control and treat it as such believing that over time its effects on our lives would even out – ‘win a few, lose a few’ as they say. But the human psyche is generally uncomfortable with the phenomenon of randomness. It feels a need to attribute a specific cause to a happening. At the same time, it cannot help assign a central role in the happening to itself. And thus begins the entry into the world of superstition: if only I had not scratched my ear the unfavorable outcome would not have occured; because I had fasted all day, the favorable outcome was attained.

There are others who go a step further and attribute the randomness to an external agent, a condition that is captured in the old saw ‘Man proposes but God disposes.’ And here we begin to enter the domain of prayer. If that is indeed so, then appeasing the god and invoking its blessing in our favor makes eminent sense. And, of course, while one is at it, it seems negligent to leave anything to chance – prayer combined with the superstitious offering would be even more potent than either alone. Why not?

(This also suggests that there would be more fervent resort to prayer the greater the belief in an external agent.  Indeed, we do see more evidence of it in South Asia than we do, say, in Australia.)

As aids for the alleviation of nervous anxiety prayer and superstition can be considered pretty harmless; a quick scratch of the ear or an invocation to a god for good luck is just one more amongst the many idiosyncratic acts that make up our lives and we are at liberty to indulge.

Is it possible, though, to go too far to the point where negative implications ensue? It can be argued that organized prayer begins to approach the tipping point. An individual plea to send the lucky break one’s way seems qualitatively different from a mass supplication for divine intervention in a game quite independent of the quality of the effort involved. From here it is a slippery slope to the argument that victory or defeat is in God’s hands and there is nothing that one can do to alter a pre-ordained outcome.

The world on the other side of the tipping point can become increasingly puzzling giving rise to a number of seemingly counter-productive scenarios. It is possible following a defeat, for example, to allocate even more time to prayer instead of analyzing the weaknesses that might have contributed to the negative outcome. I always wonder at how little public attention is devoted to pushing to fix the glaring problems in the organization and management of cricket in Pakistan and yet how ardently prayers are offered for it to win every match it plays.

Indeed, it is possible to venture even further and argue that prayers go unanswered because of divine punishment for moral lapses thereby triggering a momentum for actual changes, voluntary or coerced, in the way lives are lived.

Even more perplexing is the stage where such beliefs transfer from spectators to the participants themselves who turn into evangelists. I can never get over an interview after a hockey match in which Pakistan had lost to South Korea. Asked what they had done the night before the match, the South Korean captain said they had been watching videos of Pakistan’s earlier games; the Pakistan captain said the team had been praying all night. Pakistan was at the top of world hockey with very little prayer and slid to the bottom the more it resorted to supplication. I continue to puzzle how this correlation is reconciled.

A similar trajectory can be discerned in the case of superstition. Scratching the ear or wearing only one sock or fasting for a whole day is in a different league from consulting an astrologer and separating two individuals because the stars have not lined up right. This, of course, is amongst the less devastating consequences of superstition. Inflicting physical pain on oneself or others on the advice of seers is not unheard of.

I suppose it can be argued that collective focus on a single desire via prayers or acts of superstition can generate psychic energy that telepathy can convey to the participants in an endeavor. In other words, participants can be energized by the knowledge that a multitude is making special offerings for their success. This could generate an edge out of the psychological desire not to let down the supporters. But, needless to say, there are many other ways to let a team know of the support of its fans. Much is made of this argument of psychic energy in the domain of healing – a patient is supposedly uplifted by the feeling that people are praying for his or her recovery. There is something to this as long as the patient does not leave everything to prayer – which just reiterates the relevance of the tipping point.

Unlike chance, the extent to which we rely of prayer and superstition to ensure favorable outcomes remains under our control. One could, I suppose, limit them to the point where they add variety and spice to life but do not begin to order the nature and pattern of existence itself. I suppose it might be difficult for some to determine where one world ends and the other begins – the very act of engaging in such a calculus might involve letting go of the belief in faith. Who knows where one might end if one takes that first step?

For a related post, see An Idiosyncratic Road to Better Governance.


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8 Responses to “On Prayer and Superstition”

  1. Vinod Says:

    I find one of the reasons I resort to prayer is to gain a detached perspective. When I pray I get to detach from whatever has absorbed me to that point and see life in its whole – all the facets of it at that point in time and life through time itself. This restores balance in me and calms me.

    I seldom view prayer as directly affecting outcomes although I don’t rule that as a possibility. I view it as necessary to my emotional well being as I go through life. It gives me the perspective I need to determine what the right course of action is in the circumstances I am in.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vinod: This is in the spirit of meditation and reflection which fulfills an important role in life. The variant of prayer mentioned in the article is oriented towards either asking for a favor outright or as an exchange for something. No doubt there are many stops on the spectrum and I was curious to see if there is some point beyond which prayer loses its meditative function and simply becomes instrumental. And, if and when it crosses that point whether any negative consequences ensue.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    It is just a coincidence but Stanley Fish has a column in today’s NY Times that goes over related ground. Fish is asking why at sporting events reporters ask empty questions and the players give empty answers neither of which add any real information or insight to the proceedings. His explanation:

    “What exactly is the use of such talk? It’s not communication or the imparting of information or even a command, although it often takes the grammatical form of a command. It’s more visceral than anything else; it satisfies an almost bodily need to say something, not in order to alter the world, but in order to effect, through words, a release from inner pressure. It’s like a valve letting off steam.”

    This is very much how superstition was explained in the post – a visceral act satisfying a need to do something to release inner pressure.


    • Vinod Says:

      I think that pressure builds when we attribute too much of the external circumstances to our own actions.

  3. Vinod Says:

    The reason that I think religion and prayer will continue to be a dominant factor in human behaviour is because human beings are fundamentally emotional beings and rationality takes constant unsustainable effort. The only thing consistent about us is our inconsistency.

    And for the most part, this very nature of ours keeps us interesting. :)

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vinod: Religion and prayer at the personal level are fine. Inconsistency is also to be expected. I feel there is a problem when religion and prayer are used to get people to do things that are of debatable virtue and employed as excuses to mask issues of accountability. To give an example: Imagine the construction of bridge in which the state has cheated on the quality of materials and on supervision. Mass prayers are organized at the opening to solicit divine grace for the longevity of the infrastructure. When it collapses, killing innocent people, the outcome is attributed to divine will. The leaders express sorrow and prayers are organized to pray for the souls of the victims. Nothing changes.

    • Vinod Says:

      Anjum, I think it is important that when arguing for people to interrogate their choices and behaviour without hiding behind the veil of religion, one should not forget that such arguments are found in religion itself. I would rather have a reformation within religion than call for removal of religion from public space. I don’t think there’s going to be much sympathy for such a call. That is because it would be calling people towards a divided existence – religion in their personal space and irreligiousness in the public sphere. It would be creating a different kind of inconsistency in people, again something unsustainable. I would rather support reformist movements within a religion that emphasize on universal values.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Vinod: I did not intend to suggest that religion should be removed from the public space although my comment was open to that interpretation. That option is not reasonable in the South Asian context. I was articulating the concern that religion is misused by public authorities for various purposes including avoiding their own accountability. The reality is that if there are people who can be misled on the basis of religion, they would be quite liable to be misled on some other platform (e.g., nationalism) even if religion is removed from the public space. I keep thinking of the way out of this dilemma. The traditional answer is public education but when one sees what is transpiring in the US, for example, it seems clear that education by itself does not lead to the ability to see through rhetoric that rests on ideology whether it is of religion or nationalism or democracy. I am afraid, I don’t have a good enough answer at the moment.

        Watch this talk from Cambridge University on how almost every society is averse to its citizens asking questions or learning the art of asking questions:


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