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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