On Tempting Fate: Not Even Skepticism Can Cure My Irrational Fears

I’m a Ph.D student. I don’t write this to brag or infer that I’m an authority on any subject matter. Instead I write this because it’s central to this one cognitive failure I make again and again. Despite thinking of myself as a skeptic, I am almost always apprehensive about “tempting fate” in regards to my educational goals.

About once a week a bunch of us in the international studies department meet up for beers at a local pub to unwind and relax after a grueling week of graduate studies, conferences, presentations, and other associated work. A master’s student from another department often tags along since his girlfriend is in my program. He and I share the same name, and in order to alleviate some of the confusion, he suggested everyone call me Doctor Cowboy. I’m working on a doctorate and often wear a cowboy hat, so I can see where he’s coming from, but I also had to decline that title.

I feel as if it’s bad luck or tempting fate to call me Doctor prematurely—not to mention I haven’t earned the title yet. This is a major cognitive failure on my part. There’s absolutely no rational reason to think allowing people to call me Doctor will have any impact on whether or not I graduate the doctoral program. And the worst part is that I knew this was irrational even when I told him not to tempt fate.

Whether or not I earn the title Doctor depends solely on how much effort I’m willing to put into earning the title. But this is so important to me that I’m stupidly superstitious about a very trivial nickname. I guess this goes to show you that even Western educated, skeptical atheists can make classic errors in thinking. But I don’t judge myself for it. I know humans are hard wired to attribute cause everywhere.

And even though I’m publicly confessing that I often make this error, I’m going to continue to make it.

I don’t think I’m alone here, either. I bet some of you atheists out there secretly fear tempting fate too.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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6 Responses to On Tempting Fate: Not Even Skepticism Can Cure My Irrational Fears

  1. Sometimes I’ve wondered about that phenomenon myself. Personally, I don’t wish to tempt the Fates (or count chickens before they’ve hatched, etc.) because I know how much of an ass I’d feel like if things went wrong. Sure, I recognize that doing something prematurely might not affect the outcome, but I also know that it can bring about an unnecessary and undesirable outcome.

    Is it superstition, or is it simple, predictive reasoning? It’s hard to tell sometimes.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I definitely agree with you about the making an ass if I fail bit. That’s a huge part of it for me. My family is counting on me, etc etc, —that’s another blog post right there—and because of all of the reasons I subject myself to this torture, I don’t want to take any risks. But… I still mock people who throw salt over their shoulder.

  2. A few months ago, a loved one was in the hospital (he’s fine now.) During the several days he was there, I tried everything I could think of to take my mind off it because I knew he was getting the best care possible, and besides visiting (which I did) there was nothing I could do to improve his medical condition. I knew that. I’m an atheist. I was tempted to pray because old habits die hard. I didn’t. But I did avoid watching atheist YouTubers during his hospital visit. It doesn’t even make any sense. I was reading atheist blogs and writing in my own at the time, but somehow me watching Hemant Mehta would tempt fate, and listening to Hasa diga Eebowai from Book of Mormon would cause harm to my loved one. That was of course ridiculous, and I tried to force myself to do these things knowing it wouldn’t do anything, but I could never sit through a whole video. I’d like to reiterate, my loved one is fine, thanks to the hospital care he received, not thanks to a deity.

    I realize there’s a theist in the wings waiting to go “ah-ha! That proves you still believe!” But I beg to differ. It’s a persistent superstition leftover from my religious days. Does the fact that I still run to my bed after I turn out the lights prove I believe in monsters? Of course not. Not intellectually anyway. But there’s a more primitive part of my brain going dark=danger. I think superstition is a bit like that.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I think you hit the nail squarely. Personally I’ve been an atheist since conception, but as a child dark=danger was a very real reality. Is it leftover religion for me? No. Leftover ignorance about the world? That’s very probable.

  3. joober says:

    I can relate to this because I have a similar hesitation. I don’t like to celebrate my birthday before that day has actually arrived. For some reason I think it is tempting fate to celebrate another year before it actually happened. It makes no sense because there is no way me celebrating a birthday prematurely has any bearing on my odds of dying but I’m still hesitant.

    Glad to know I’m not alone in being a sometimes irrational rationalist. 🙂

  4. Everyone has a few irrational fears. Human beings aren’t 100% rational no matter how much education or logic they swallow. You’re doctoral student who may very well be stressed out. That is normal. What would truly be irrational is if you actually believed being called doctor prematurely would jinx you.

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