Faith in God and the four-leaf clover

London, England - CHURCHGOERS in Britain are still highly superstitious and centuries of preaching the Gospel have failed to banish belief in omens and portents of good and bad luck.

According to a study, nearly all churchgoers admit to practising superstitious behaviour such as crossing their fingers for luck, touching wood for protection or throwing spilt salt over their left shoulder.

The Christian Church has always been highly antagonistic towards superstition, believing it to be irrational and linked to paganism. Through the Dark and Middle Ages, anyone suspected of using traditional charms to secure good or bad luck for themselves or others would usually be burnt at the stake or drowned. The victims were nearly always women.

The research was carried out by a team at the University of Wales, Bangor, led by Leslie Francis, Professor of Practical Theology and the country’s leading exponent of the sociology of religion.

Interviews with churchgoers into superstitious belief and practice were part of a wider survey of 40,000 people’s non-traditional beliefs. Dr Francis, Emyr Williams and Mandy Robbins carried out in-depth surveys of the beliefs of more than 150 worshippers at eight Anglican churches in Wales.

About one quarter believed that it was lucky to find a four-leaf clover, to have a black cat cross their path and to see a money spider. A similar proportion believed that it was unlucky to open an umbrella indoors and a sixth believed that it was unlucky to pass someone on the stairs or walk under a ladder.

Eight out of ten admitted to crossing their fingers for luck, nearly as many had touched wood for protection and more than seven in ten had thrown salt over their shoulder.

In the paper, to be published in the Journal of Implicit Religion, the authors say that the findings contradict the hypothesis that Christian teaching precludes superstitious beliefs.

Dr Francis said that more research was needed into what churchgoers believed and how this compared with what non-churchgoers believed. He said that religious leaders could draw lessons from the study about how to ensure the survival of religious belief. He also said that the survival of superstitious belief might be because liberal theologians from the 1960s onwards had challenged traditional doctrine without placing traditional superstition under the same scrutiny.

“If these kinds of things resist secularisation, so, too, can traditional religious beliefs if people take the trouble to pass them on. It also intrigues me that so many people in church congregations have not tested these practices against the doctrines of their faith. People are holding in their heads different sets of ideas, which in some senses are incompatible.

“I am not criticising them for that. But it seems to me that those of us who occupy church pulpits and make assumptions about what is in the heads of people in the pews could benefit a lot from just sitting back and finding out what is really in their heads.”


Number 13

The number is considered unlucky because there were 13 at the Last Supper. The superstition was given added force when the poet Matthew Arnold defied it by seating 13 people at a table, and died within a year

Crossed fingers, touching wood

Crossing fingers to ward off bad luck might be related to the symbolism of the Cross and the power of making a covert sign. Touching wood more likely dates from pagan rituals related to trees

Charms, four-leaf clovers, crosses, crucifixes

Thought to derive from mankind’s love of decoration evolving alongside a search for meaning


The devil got a blacksmith to shoe his hooves and howled with the pain. Since then, whenever the devil sees a horseshoe, he tiptoes past

Stirring Christmas pudding

Comes from the collect for the Sunday before Advent in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer: “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.”


As a spider attracts its prey, so one hopes to attract money by spinning or doing other hard work

Black cats

Why black cats have been considered lucky since the time of the Egyptians is a mystery. Everyone agrees, however, that they are only lucky if every hair is black


Opening them indoors was thought insulting to the sun god or the deities who protect the house

Wishing wells

Wells were associated with good health and prosperity. Many were thought to hold waters with healing powers


On theory is that the necessity of salt to life gave it a redemptive value, and thus spilling it could seem bad luck, unless the devil were appeased in some way