When I arrived at Branford College as a plucky first-year student, I was told by upperclassmen never to step on the seal in the Branford courtyard. If I did, I would fail my exams, or have my internship applications denied, or not graduate — the story always changed. But to this day, I’ve never stepped on the seal.
Recently, I revealed this to a friend — “just in case,” I said. He, a skeptical Philosophy major, explained to me that I’m simply restating Pascal’s wager. Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician, argued that human beings might as well gamble that God exists: believing in God either results in infinite gain or finite loss, while not believing offers only finite gain or infinite loss. In terms of the Branford seal, why not believe stepping on it is bad luck? There is no harm in at least pretending it is. But this idea has the same issues as Pascal’s wager: theoretically, any other stone has an equal chance of being cursed. Perhaps by avoiding the original stone I have actually stepped on another that will result in me not graduating. This is no less likely.
The word “superstition” comes from the Latin superstitio, which first appeared in the 5th century BCE as a loose translation of the Greek word deisidaimonia — “fear of the gods.” By late antiquity, superstitio was used by the Greeks and Romans as a derogatory term for Christians. Since Greek and Roman philosophers thought it was irrational to believe that gods could be more evil than human beings, Christians, who feared their god, were deemed “superstitious.”
As a result, “superstition” began to refer to those who fell outside of the principal religion. Later on, when Christianity began to dominate Western societies, those who were not Christian could be classified as superstitious.
But the development of modern science in the 17th and 18th centuries changed the meaning of superstition. According to Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, “Anybody who believed…supernatural [things were] occurring in the natural realm was superstitious.” While superstition used to be the other to religion, it is now the other to science. To Martin, science is, like many religions, a belief system. He explained, “When we say science, we don’t mean truth, we just mean whatever counts as truth by professional scientists now. And by professional scientists we mean people who hold chairs in good universities in departments that we call ‘‘sciences.’” Martin concluded, “Superstition is simply somebody else’s religion.”
The American Federation of Astrology — if we choose to trust their statistics — estimates that as many as 70 million Americans read their horoscopes every day. If astrology were a religion — which, in practice, it very well may be — it would be the second most practiced religion in the United States. In 2012, the National Science Foundation estimated that only 55 percent of Americans rejected astrology as “unscientific,” which means that 45 percent believe it to be scientific.
Michelle Lim, GH ’20 (Libra), describes her relationship with astrology as “post-ironic.” Growing up in Singapore, Lim’s family practiced astrology, palm-reading, and feng shui. “It wasn’t even religious,” she told me. “It was just a ritual that you do back home.” What we may call superstition was Lim’s childhood; for her, it was all real until she turned 18. She read her horoscope religiously before exams to get an idea of how nervous she should be. “It was printed in the cheap newspapers back home in Singapore; they would give it out everyday for free.”The rooms of Lim’s house were painted to match the colors of her family’s Zodiac signs. They stuck up coins along their walls to improve the feng shui. “There’s this page-by-page calendar that my grandma uses, where everyday it would tell you, based on your Zodiac, how your day is going to be. She would tear it off on my birthday and give it to me as my birthday present.”
Since coming to Yale, Lim’s relationship with superstition has changed. “Now I believe it post-ironically… I’m not being ironic about it… I’m past irony. I can see that there is an irony there.” Lim still reads her horoscope daily. “Last week, I had a lot of choices for my full-time job after graduation, and I was really stressed. And then my horoscope said, ‘Having too many choices is a good thing, even if you don’t like them all.’ And that just made me feel less stressed.” Lim is comforted by these horoscopes — they often improve her days. “I don’t believe it, but it’s a useful framework.” Lim chose her room in her residential college by sending pictures to her parents, who used feng shui to make sure the orientations were correct for her. “Science can’t explain everything. Especially living in a post-truth world, where everything that was certain is now wrong, everything that was wrong could be right. I’m open to believing something even if it’s not right — if it’s not factually right.”
Lim, a Computer Science major, first interned in Silicon Valley the summer before her sophomore year. She is an avid user of Co-Star, which she calls a “meme” among the Silicon Valley community. Co-Star is an astrology app, known for its remarkably specific horoscopes. “Most horoscopes ask what month you were born. Co–Star asks what minute,” the website advertises. “Powered by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers,” Co-Star is a great union between science and superstition — infallible, some might say. The app currently has over three million registered users. And it is not the only astrology app on the market. There’s Pattern, the Daily Horoscope, TimePassages, Astro Guide, and Astrology Zone, to name a few. Susan Miller, the founder of Astrology Zone, was referred to by the New Yorker as “the doyenne of popular astrology” and by the New York Times as the “queen of astrologers.” She writes over 40,000 words per month for her horoscopes, and each of the 12 star signs gets a hyper-specific reading. Lim believes this hyperspecificity lends to an easier suspension of disbelief. It’s like watching Harry Potter, she said. The magic isn’t really there, but it is quite fun to pretend it is.
Since coming to the United States, Lim has been exposed to many folk superstitions that are popular here. “There’s the common knock on wood thing, that I really care about… If everybody seems to believe it or think you should do it, I figure there is no harm [in] doing it. And for the very non-zero chance that it is an issue, the amount of effort I put into just knocking, it’s so little. So it’s more of a ‘Why not?’” With her other superstitions, like astrology, Lim is more careful about the social implications. “Everyone here [at Yale] is very… truth-oriented. Something is true or something is wrong. If you say [you believe in astrology] here, it’s like you’re crazy.”
“Astrology is a good thing to talk about because it embodies everything bad about superstition,” began Eitan Minsky-Fenick, BR ’22 (Capricorn). “It lets people make excuses for their behavior and what happens to them… It’s bad because it does all that and it doesn’t even give people community. Religions do well because they give people community.”
It would be a mistake to call Minsky-Fenick, an intensive Physics major, a superstitious man. Instead, he looks to science. “If I were superstitious I would say, ‘The fourth washing machine doesn’t work until you kick it,’ because I kicked it once and it worked. If I were mathematically correct and doing science correctly, then I would make sure. I would try that washing machine a few times, some of those times I would kick and others of those times I would not.” He then went on to describe in more detail the distinct elements of this washing machine experiment.
But science and superstition are “a similar beast,” he admits. “They come from our innate desire to pattern match — to figure out what things are working for us in a quick and easy way. Science is being super careful about what superstitions you make. Science is pattern matching, but it’s really careful pattern matching. It’s mathematically correct pattern matching.”
In conversation with Minsky-Fenick, I mentioned Lim’s comment that science cannot explain everything. “I don’t really like this concept of ‘There are things science can’t explain,’” he responded. “Yeah, there are things which apparently don’t coexist with science correctly, but that probably means that thing is wrong. It very infrequently means the science was wrong. And if it does mean the science is wrong, that is usually good for the overall scientific world because then you learn more about the universe.”
Minsky-Fenick is not against all things non-science — he describes himself as religious. But that does not mean he accepts all other beliefs. “If someone believes some weird shit that really doesn’t follow the notions of science that I know, something that I know isn’t true based on the collective wisdom of hundreds of years of scientists, then, yeah, I think less of them. I think, this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe I shouldn’t think that. Maybe it’s wrong of me to think that. But I do think that.”
Ikept thinking about Minsky-Fenick’s claim that superstitions can’t build community the way religion can. It reminded me of a story my aunt had told me about the solidarity she found through the psychic medium Thomas John. About three years ago, her husband passed away. He died of a heart attack on the couch in his home in Illinois. He was not old or in bad health, so the news was shocking. It hurt the whole family, especially my aunt. She began to spend large portions of her paychecks on psychics, both private viewings and large shows. She wanted to communicate with him, to keep their relationship from truly ending.
In June 2019, she attended a Thomas John show. John told the audience he was seeing the letter S. He asked anybody with a connection to this letter to raise their hand. My uncle’s name started with an S; she raised her hand. Another woman raised her hand at the same time. Her loved one’s name also started with S. John then gave a month: April. Both of their loved ones had died in April. John gave a year: 2017. Again, the same. The other woman was sitting right behind my aunt. It seemed like fate. My aunt took the woman out for drinks afterward, and they talked for hours about their shared experience. They found out more commonalities between them — they didn’t live too far apart, for example — and they felt comforted by this coincidence. John had united them, and they were now able to console one another in their grief.
Unbeknownst to her, the New York Times had revealed a few months prior that Thomas John, along with several other big-name psychic mediums, was using Facebook to find information about his audience members so that he could spout facts about their dead loved ones at his shows. It took quite a long time for anyone to catch his ruse — most of his audience was in mourning, after all. But at least those in grief found solace for a while.
“For me, it’s mostly about bad luck,” Ugonna Nwakudu, PC ’23 (Aquarius), told me. “Personally, I’m always worried about whether I have good luck or bad luck. If I’m really hoping to get something, I don’t want a streak of bad luck to suddenly come and mess it up for me.” Nwakudu self-identifies as “extremely” superstitious. She throws salt over her shoulder when she spills it, she throws coins into fountains, she avoids stepping on cracks, and, like Lim, knocks on wood. “Just in case,” she says. “I don’t want to see what would happen if they actually come true.”
Superstitions about luck seem to be ingrained in Yale tradition. As a first-year living on Old Campus, I walked past many tours for prospective students as they were just beginning in front of the Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue. I could hear the tour guide reciting a rehearsed line that rubbing Woolsey’s toes brings good luck and can get you accepted to Yale. Tour guides then include a quippy line of their own: “I don’t know if it’s true, but I rubbed it last week before my chemistry midterm, and I got an A,” or, more captivating: “I rubbed it on my Yale tour, and here I am.” Suddenly, a crowd of eager high school juniors and seniors vigorously rub the foot. Their parents often take photos of them, foot in hand.
I have been told never to touch the foot — “people get drunk and pee on it.” I have no way to prove the validity of this statement, although for one reason or another the shoe has taken on a vibrant yellow sheen to separate it from the bronze exterior of the rest of the statue. An effect of constant rubbing or the acidity of urine? The world may never know.
On the subject of this fetishized foot of T.D. Woolsey, Nwakudu said, “I don’t want to say it’s weird because then I sound like a hypocrite. I don’t know. I think it’s all about seeing someone else do it versus seeing myself do it. When I see all the tourists crowding around like, ‘Oh, I hope my child gets into Yale,’ it just seems weird. But probably some other time I would definitely walk up to the statue and be like, ‘Give me some good luck on this exam.’”
Nwakudu, a prospective Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology major, has had trouble resolving the cognitive dissonance between science and superstition. Superstition, to her, is a vestigial remnant of a more religious period in her life. Nwakudu, who has come to identify as a deist, finds comfort in superstition. “I think I like having the power, the control, over my life. So [with] anything I can do, even if it seems ridiculous, it’s comforting that I can have the chance to control my fate.” Nwakudu considers herself a paranoid person. But, through her superstitions, she has found a way to ease her anxieties: “Even if I throw a penny into a fountain and wish for good luck and something bad still happens, I’m still at least comforted by the fact that the initial action of throwing a penny will lead to something good further down, even if it isn’t as immediate as I wanted it to be.”
OnNov. 3, Jimin Uliniaq Hong posted the following request on the “Yale Free & For Sale” Facebook group: “looking for spiritual mediums: Far shot, but is anyone on campus from a shamanistic tradition/possess some ‘6th sense’/incorporate such practices from day to day/have strange stories to share from direct experiences/hold a somewhat coherent, cohesive, systematic spiritual worldview that does not fall under well-recognized religions?” Although I am not a spiritual medium, I responded.
Hong, a graduate student pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, is a leader of the on-campus organization (W)holy Queer, along with Chihiro Tsukamoto, a third-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in Medieval Studies. (W)holy Queer is an LGBTQIA+ interfaith group that offers monthly dinner conversations about religion, spirituality, and queerness.
As an ex-evangelical Christian, Hong has recently discovered a fascination for Korean Shamanism, as a result of conversations with friends as well as random videos popping up on her recommendations on YouTube. “I know so many queer Korean-Americans who are trying to go back to their roots by means of connecting with Korean Shamanism, in particular,” Hong said. “I think queer subpopulations, because they’ve already broken one form of norm and barrier, are more prone to exploring things outside the normative boundaries in other aspects as well.”
Tsukamoto qualified Hong’s statements: in the ’60s and ’70s, as Wicca and Paganism became more popular in the U.K. and the U.S., they attracted many queer people who had been excluded from their “home religions.” “Just because they were pushed out of church doesn’t mean they were going to completely disavow any kind of spirituality, so I think they were attracted to more nature-based religions, to older forms of religions that weren’t as homophobic.” Yet these religions are commonly referred to as superstition in the U.S. today. It’s as though queer communities are being attacked from all sides — pushed away from one religion and mocked for the new religion they choose.
Tsukamoto and Hong talked about several possible explanations for the origins of religions: mental illness, collective consciousness, demons, near-death experiences, and psychedelic drugs. Hong specifically requested that I mention the last one. But Tsukamoto made it clear that many religious practitioners, even those that would be deemed as superstitious by many Americans, can determine what is real spirituality and what is not. She told me the story of a woman in rural Taiwan who claimed to hear voices of spirits. Her family, both nervous for her health and excited by her possible prophetism, took her to nearby Taiwanese shamans. The shamans, listening to the woman, came to the conclusion that she was simply mentally ill, not a medium between the spirit world and our world. Shamans, Tsukamoto concluded, know the difference.
To many, science can’t explain everything. Hong recently watched a YouTube video of a deliveryman who inquired to a shaman about his career. “After getting only his name and birthday, the shaman said, ‘Have you been to a jail for murder?’ and he said, ‘No.’ He constantly denied it, but it turns out he did go to jail for murder. And the shaman was saying, ‘It says in your birth chart that you must have gone to jail.’” The internet makes stories of the improbable more accessible to mass audiences. It is becoming easier for the general public to search for non-scientific explanations.
“I don’t like the word superstition,” Hong commented, “Because it almost feels a little derogatory coming from people who are not superstitious. It’s dismissive to consider things as substandard to better knowledge, more scientific and Western.” “Let’s get the terms defined here,” said Tsukamoto. “Superstition is a belief in something that’s irrational. Whether you are of this particular religion or not, you cannot call somebody’s religious tradition irrational because there is a logic and tradition behind it, and a reason for people doing the things that they do.”
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense officially recognized several Heathen, Pagan, Wiccan, and Druid faith groups. “[These] are huge victories for these minority religions,” Tsukamoto commented. This action is indicative of a growing recognition for these nature-based religions in the United States. It is no longer acceptable to refer to them as superstition. Such a statement is religious persecution. The designation of Shamanism, Vodou, Wicca, Paganism and other religions as “superstition” otherizes these faiths that have already been otherized by racism, ethnocentrism, and homophobia.
Would it be fair to group astrology and other superstitions together with these religions? Probably not. But astrology has been a place of refuge for many people, much like other systems of belief. Most things we call superstition are simply sources of comfort for people like Lim, Nwakudu, my aunt, and even me. Even if science is not on my side, I will never step on the Branford seal. But maybe it’s just because I’m a Sagittarius.