Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge.But religions certainly exploit many of these tendencies and mix them up with larger moral questions. One example is "Insha-Allah" (by the will of God). Growing up in Pakistan, we were told that we always have to say Insha-Allah for a future event. For example, I will be going to a conference next month - Insha-Allah. The point here is that everything is run by God and so by stating your own plans and not acknowledging God can be perceived as a challenge to God's omnipotence. In some odd ways Insha-Allah can be thought of as an equivalent to "knock on wood" - you have your plans but you want to add this extra bit without much cost. So when superstition is tied-in to larger issues then the line between religion and superstition gets quite blurry.
These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality, community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.
The article also talked about the development of religious beliefs amongst children:
Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.From this it appears that we impede the development of rational thinking in kids by replacing one set of magical thinking with another. On a related note, Paul Bloom gave a lecture at Hampshire College last October as part of our Science & Religion lecture series, and he talked about how young kids have a dualist view of the world that later then transforms into religion. Check out his excellent article Is God an Accident? from the Atlantic Monthly (Dec 2005).
It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. "The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer," said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they're just losing faith in the efficacy of that."