A reader comments:
You write that “Superstition in this first sense seems to involve a failure to understand the causal structure of the world or the laws of probability” and that it is a “necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a belief's being superstitious is that it entail one or more erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of nature.” I’m curious about what you think of the following case:
A young Christian claims to be harassed by demons. He experiences the harassment, he claims, only during the late hours of the night in his room. His pastor advises the kid to anoint with oil, in the shape of a cross, the door frame to his room (the idea being that such an anointing will “ward off” the demons).
Do you think this is superstitious? After all, oil is in the relevant sense “material stuff” just as much as a plastic Jesus is. However, the oil is not intended to have a causal effect in nature, but in “the spiritual realm.” I think examples like this are common among religious people. It may not be hard to find one that intuitively counts as superstitious (as another example, consider how Catholic priests are often asked to bless houses or rooms before a Catholic takes up residence in them). What you think of these kinds of cases?
The more examples the better. Yours is importantly different from the plastic Jesus example in which a power is imputed to a physical thing that it cannot have, the power to protect the vehicle and its occupants from a natural threat. (Contrast this with the power a properly fastened seat belt has to prevent the driver from going through the windshield in the event of a crash.) In your example there is imputed to a physical stuff, oil, the power to protect against a physical or spiritual threat emanating from a purely spiritual being. Since this is a power that oil cannot have, whether applied in the shape of a cross or not, I would say that this type of practice and the underlying belief are superstitious as well.
It is worth noting, however, that a false belief can have a real effect. Believing, albeit falsely, that he has done something efficacious to ward off demons, the kid may feel reassured and comforted. The pastor's belief that the kid's daubing the door frame with oil will have a beneficial psychological effect on him is not superstitious.
I once knew a chess player who always wore the same ridiculous little hat, filthy and tattered, at tournaments. This was his 'lucky hat.' Donning it, he geared up for chessic combat. This may or may not be a superstitious practice depending on the underlying belief. If he believes that the mere donning of the hat directly influences the outcome of games, then the belief is superstitious, or at least bears one of the marks of a superstitious belief. But there would be nothing superstitious about the belief that donning the hat puts him in a fighting frame of mind, which in turn does have a real effect on his play.
Or consider an airline pilot who suits up prior to a flight. Donning his uniform, he steps into his role. 'Looking the part' he inspires confidence in himself and in his passengers. This confidence has a slight but real effect on his performance in the cockpit. So far, nothing superstitious. Superstition would come into the picture if the pilot thought that the mere donning of the uniform enhances his skill set, that the insignia, say, have the power to confer upon him good judgment or motor control.
This is a difficult topic. Surprisingly little has been written on it by philosophers. In the JSTOR database I found only four articles, three from the 1930s. If we don't know what superstition is, then we won't know what genuine religion is either.