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I'm interested in the difference between the idea of ritual versus supersition. As an example of my struggle, let's say that someone has a behavior whereby: if they enter a house in one door they have to exit through that same door.

Let's also say that it was their grandmother's idea, and that they follow it still today, even though they don't know why. That they are anxious about it, and if someone visits, they will gently request that the visitor follows these rules.

Is this superstitious or ritualistic behavior, and why is it either?

  • The easiest answer is that ritual usually equals, "a behavior done as a result of a belief or social custom or possibly an anxiety issue". Superstition is typically not so much the actual act of performing a "ritual" but rather the idea that you need to perform some ritual or believe in a certain aspect of the supernatural and so on. For example it would be totally fair to say: "People who are superstitious often have ritualistic behaviors.". This would not be a strange statement. – Kace36 Jul 19 '17 at 6:08
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Ritual and superstition do not mean the same thing.

let's say that someone has a behavior whereby: if they enter a house in one door they have to exit through that same door.

To complete your example, let's say they believe that if you do not leave through the same door, you will suffer bad luck.

  • The superstition is that if you do not leave through the same door, you will suffer bad luck.
  • To avoid bad luck, this person therefore performs the ritual of always leaving through the same door.

Another example:

The Aztecs used to sacrifice humans to appease the gods.

  • The ritual is human sacrifice.
  • The superstition is the belief that human sacrifice will appease the gods.

Another example:

Every Sunday for the last 20 years, we have had a BBQ with our neighbours.

The BBQ can be argued to be a ritual. However, there is no superstition involved here. No one expects negative consequences from failing to show up at the BBQ. They just like attending it.


To summarize:

  • A superstition is a belief. More often than not, it either focuses on something that must be done (a ritual) or something that must be avoided (the ritual would then be described as the avoidance of such a situation)
  • A ritual is something you do, an action you take. It carries the connotation of being done consistently (or repetitively). It's possible that the reason for the ritual is a superstition, but that is not a guarantee.

An example of a ritual that is not a superstition, is the habit of sports games to start by singing the national anthem.
There is no superstition about singing the national anthem (or failing to do so). It's just a tradition that is being continued.


Let's also say that it was their grandmother's idea, and that they follow it still today, even though they don't know why. That they are anxious about it, and if someone visits, they will gently request that the visitor follows these rules.

Is this superstitious or ritualistic behavior, and why is it either?

As the grandchild sticks to doing this; it is a ritual. It is repetitive behavior that the person chooses to repeat.

Assuming the grandchild has no idea why the grandmother did it, then it cannot be called a superstition. At best, you could call it a tradition (conscious mimicking of the grandmother), or learned behavior (subconscious mimicking of the grandmother, by virtue of never having considered not doing so).

To slightly elaborate:

That they are anxious about it, and if someone visits, they will gently request that the visitor follows these rules.

If the grandchild does not know the reason why it is done; there's no reason for the grandchild to expect other people to also do it.
I think the grandchild can only ask this of other people because they believe failing to do so will bring unwanted consequences (which means they must be aware of the superstition)

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  • I suppose that you would have to include implied consequences in the definition of superstition. Since a large amount of superstitious behavior is carried out with no identifiable concept of consequence on the part of the subject. – j. doe Jul 18 '17 at 13:23
  • @j.doe: That is arguable. Even "bad luck" is an explicit consequence, though incredibly vague. "Implied" and "vague" are not the same thing. I doubt many people would heed a superstition if there was no mention of consequences at all. – Flater Jul 18 '17 at 13:26
  • Firstly thank you for your responses, I appreciate the time, and thoroughness. I think that I would go further than I went earlier. Very often it is simply a present sense of extreme unease that drives superstitious behavior; this can be completely without an explicit idea of future consequences, beyond the continued bad feeling. – j. doe Jul 18 '17 at 13:38
  • @j.doe: Unease is not a conscious decision, but a personal experience. That would argue in favor of learned behavior. E.g. Alex' incapability to even consider violence in A Clockwork Orange. – Flater Jul 18 '17 at 13:46
  • I'm not sure that I follow. Are you saying that a conscious decision is necessary for superstition? In my previous comment the formula was encounter a superstitious situation -> feel unease -> act to stop the feeling. The conscious decision happens in the last step. – j. doe Jul 18 '17 at 13:56

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