Applied CT


Here are some concepts that are worth to understand

  • How do we define religion?
  • What is magical thinking?
  • What is superstition?

Related Links:

Are we hardwired to believe in God?

  1. Information
  2. Internet
  3. Religion
  4. Ethical issues
  5. Science
  6. Politics & Social Issues
  7. Conspiracy Theories
  8. New Age Beliefs
  9. Freedom of speech
  10. Radicalization
  11. Education


1. How do we define Religion?

Despite the  broad usage the word religion, defining it clearly does not come easily. What turns a simple belief system into a religion? As  with the definition of religion unfortunately, there seems not to be a general consensus because the select definition determines what belief systems are considered religions and which are not.

Definitions of religion also depend on perspective of the analysis, for example astructural analysis focuses on all the components that embody a religion, such as rites and rituals, symbols,  myths, dogmas, and organisation, while a functional analysis would concentrate on the social function.

Definitions of religion have been offered based on the personal experiences of the definer. Whereas definition provided by Atheists may focus on the negative aspects of religion, in the other hand definitions provided by believers are likely to focus on its  positive aspects.

Accoring to Alston (1967) religion is as particular form of magical thinking. It includes a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies and is characterised by the following

  1. Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  2. A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  3. Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  4. A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  5. Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  6. Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  7. A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  8. A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  9. A social group bound together by the above.

Furthermorewhat turns a mere set of mystical beliefs into a religiondepends on the whims of political fashion, the numbers of followers of a particular religion and the weight of their votes.

The official recognition by the UK charities commission of the Druid Network as a religion  is a good example of how political power decides what a religion is.  Druidry is an ancient pagan tradition best known for gatherings at Stonehenge every summer solstice. The 350 members of the Druid Network fought for nearly five years to be recognized as a religion under the semi-governmental Charity Commission, which requires proof of cohesive and serious belief in a supreme entity and a moral framework. After initially rejecting the Druid Network’s application, the Charity Commission decided this in October 2010 that Druidry fit the bill. That means Druids can receive exemptions from taxes on donations — and now have the same status as such mainstream religions as the Church of England. The charities commission deliberated that  “There is sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law” .

Religion and Cult

In Anglophone countries it is customary to distinguish religion from cult.  While in English the word cult is often seen as pejorative term referring to a small groups whose  belief and practices are considered strange, in other languagse such as Portuguese, a cult refers to the activities and/or  the place of meeting of religious people. Brazilian and Portuguese Catholics, often describe other Christian approaches as cults to specify that these other groups practice different rituals from those in the Catholic church. The adepts of these non-catholic groups often refer to the building where religious rituals  forego as the cult to stress that it is not a Catholic church. So if you ask someone what will they be doing next Sunday a catholic would reply  “ I go to the church” whereas a non-catholic Christian would say “ I go to the cult” without implying any pejorative meaning.  In academic studies of religion “cults” are seen as new religious movements. In this sense Christianity has its origins in a cult which succeeded in spite of  the widespread rule of  Judaism.

How does religion differ from magical thinking?

Alston’s definition mentioned above refers to religion as a particular form of magical thinking, but  the followers of such religions would not be so keen in accepting this claim. Describing religion as a form of magical thinking is equivalent to implying that religion as a whole is a superstition based construct.  
In the sense that people take religious beliefs for granted without having a need for proof or evidence of what they claim makes it a superstition.  Among many of these claims are miracles, divine intervention, and other myths that are assumed be untrue because they do not conform with what is presently known by scientific enquiry and therefore are fated to become  irrational beliefs or delusions.
We have seen how superstations can form in the brains on animals and Man.

In chapter 1 I suggested that the frequency of an event  leads to the establishment of a belief. In the case of religion, the frequency of a meme  and not the event is the factor that contributes to the reinforcement of  a belief. For a system of beliefs to be classified as a religion, we need to look at its components. A religions involves certain common components.

  1. Supernatural agency: Spirits, gods, magical forces
  2. Myths & Dogmas:Narratives  that explain causation, the lives of others, the workings of nature.
  3. Ritualisation:Reinforcement mechanisms that promote the beliefs of the group
  4. Codes of conduct: Rules that  aim the uniformity or standardisation of group behaviour. Taboos, etc


2. What is Magical Thinking?

Magical thinking is the association of two completely random events expecting they influence a partciular outcome as if one had the power to cause the other. This is causal reasoning by association of two independent events.

Zusne and Jones (1989) defined magical thinking as the belief where

(a) transfer of energy or information between physical systems may take place solely because of their similarity or contiguity in time and space, or
(b) one's thought, words, or actions can achieve specific physical effects in a manner not governed by the principles of ordinary transmission of energy or information.

Magical thinking is one of the most ancient mental processes that seek answering unexplained phenomena.

The most primitive for of learning in all animals with the most rudimentary neronal plexes, constist of establishing associations between cause and effect, but in magical thinking such associations are explained by the presence of mystical agents such as invisible intentional forces or entities. For example, if you believe that crossing your fingers brought you good fortune, you have associated the act of finger-crossing with the subsequent welcome event and imputed a causal link between the two. Giving meaning to coincidences is also considered a process of magical thinking.  This is described in critical thinking as the post hoc fallacy translated into the colloquialism “putting the cart before the horse” which describes the act of explaining the origins of an event with the consequence rather than the cause. This associative mental process is in the origin of superstitious  behaviour.


3. What is Superstition?

The main feature of magical thinking is it association between cause and effect,  and this can be observed in religion,  and superstition, where  the correlation between cause and effect is between religious ritual, such as prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense.  

As I write this, I hold in my hand a copy of the Times 7 Jan 2011. The heading of page 37 refers to the Romanian Government’s decision to charge a 16% income taxes to Romanian witches. The authorities believe that the black magic business is a lucrative one  with annual witch incomes reaching about 15,000 Euros, significantly above the national average. 

Witchcraft, divination, astrology, exorcism and other superstition based practices are profitable businesses, in everywhere in the world. These practices touch the deepest fears and anxieties that afflict  humans.  

Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any process in the physical world linking the two events and as such it is considered to be a form of magical thinking which will be discussed in detail in chapter 7.

The psychologist Gustav Jahoda (1969) proposed four categories of superstition:

1.Superstitions forming part of the cosmology or coherent world-view These would be superstitions related to religious belief. While some authors sustain that all religion is superstitious, a misguided faith born from ignorance, others attribute this only to “pagan” religions with its magical rites and rituals. Nevertheless all religious hold beliefs that fall in the adopted definition of superstition. Miracles would be included on this category.
2. Other Socially shared superstitions These are superstitions learnt from the social group where we were raised.  Black cats crossing our path may have different meanings in different countries. While in some European countries it represents bad luck, in others it stands for  good luck.  In Portugal breaking a mirror predicts  7 years of bad luck and opening an umbrella inside the house is seen as an  sign of bad luck , but this superstation could only have originated after umbrellas were invented.
For many Catholics it is customary to draw the sign of the cross three times with the right hand thumb each time a person yawns to  prevent the devil from entering the body through the opened mouth.
3. “Occult” experiences of individuals These superstitions relate to paranormal experiences such as Extra Sensorial Perception (ESP) and communication with the dead, premonitions, dreaming about events that happen latter, etc.
4. Personal superstitions These are superstitions held by one individual like a particular belief in  some lucky pieces of clothing  such as a lucky hat, socks, an amulet or specific individual rituals.

All religions have a component of superstition, this is one of the many featires that makes them different from philosophy.

References: Alston, WP (1967)- “Religion,” in Paul Edwards (org.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Nova Iorque: Macmillan and Free Press, 1967), vol. 7, pp. 140–145.


Books for Beginners

  • Ahluwalia, L. and Bowie, E. (2016)-Oxford A Level Religious Studies for OCR: AS and Year 1 Student Book: Christianity, Philosophy and Ehics.
  • Ahluwalia, L. (2008)- Undesrtanding Philosophy of Religion for AS & A2 OCR-Textbook (A level RE)
  • Mayled, J. (2010)- GCSE Religious Studies: Philosophy and Applied Ethics
  • Frye, J. (2017)-AQA A-level Religious Studies Year 1: Including AS
  • Kansal, A. (2012)- The Evolution of Gods: The Scientific Origin of Divinity and Religions
See also Claryfying SASHAR