I once had a friend, Jeff, who was raised Catholic but who had long given up his religious faith. If asked, Jeff would, without hesitation call himself an atheist. Yet Jeff still had obvious traces of Good-Luck Religion in his soul.
Jeff and I once did a two-week trip to Mexico where I first saw his residual religiosity. Mexico, as you may know, is drenched in Catholic culture but a very different Catholicism than the flavors that exist in the USA or Europe. Latin American Catholicism has interesting mixes of colorful folk magic, imagery and holidays.
All that unabashed folk superstition makes the sightseeing fun (living it would be different, of course). As a tourist with a ticket home, superstitions can be visually fascinating. I am not implying that Catholicism in the USA does not have superstitious stuff — I am just acclimated to it. It is just that the silliness of unfamiliar superstitions is more obviously humorous. And during our trip, I joked with Jeff about these superstitions to tease his old inner believer.
During one of my jokings, Jeff said, “Sabio, when you joke like that, could you please not stand near me — I don’t want to get hit by lightening.” He was sort of serious — just like he sort of still ‘believed’ parts of his former Catholicism. You see, Jeff never fully lost his old beliefs (especially those instilled in our younger years). We hang on to contrary beliefs easily. See my post here on other counter-intuitive belief phenomena.
My friend’s residual Catholic belief was that “Good Luck” part of most religious folks. Religion offers magic power to ward off evil but if religion is not honored, it can also invite evil. This part of a religion persists more than we may wish even after our defection. Here is a story of an atheist girlfriend whose childhood Buddhist superstitions came out clearly during a bad airplane flight.
For many people who say they believe, it is more like crossing their fingers: a good-luck sign to ward off misfortune and sadness. “Wait, either you believe or you don’t” is what we hear from many theists and atheists alike. But they misunderstand how the human mind works. They misunderstand the many functions of religion and the various ways people use religion.
Part of the many benefits religion offers believers is “Good Luck”. By confessing their beliefs, the believer is actually just crossing their fingers for good luck. Good-luck religion can be powerfully comforting.
This is part of a series to show that belief confessions are often far more than just truth statements. Sometimes our confessed beliefs are signals of belonging, sometimes they are just like crossing your fingers or carrying a rabbit foot in order to ward off bad fortune in an uncertain world.