Religion and Superstition

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Superstition isn’t nearly as well-circumscribed as most people think it is.  We have all heard stories about major-league baseball players who take three small sips out of the water fountain, drink the first, spit the second to the right and the third to the left, before going out to bat, or who wear a particular pair of ancient “lucky” stockings to the game, etc., etc.  Fear of the number thirteen has caused many hotels to stop using that number for designating floors:  they now call the thirteenth, the “fourteenth,” as if that would really make much difference. And we have black cats walking under a ladder . . . and on, and on. These examples certainly fit one of the definitions given in the OED for “superstition”: “a tenet, scruple, habit, etc. founded on fear or ignorance.”


What about tarot cards which are supposed to tell us the future, and horoscopes, and palm readings?  These don’t seem to be tenets, scruples or habits, but faith in them is founded on ignorance.  All but the superstitious know that there is no metaphysical connection between physically unrelated events on the one hand—like the positions of the stars, the creases on our palms, or a sequence of cards—and future events or aspects of personality on the other.  But that still leaves us with the question:  “Why do we think such things in the first place?”  Why should we have this sense of being somehow connected to the way that the world works?


There is yet another way of “thinking” that sheds some light on this, a family of vague feelings for which we don’t have an expressed belief, and they are very definitely not tenets, or scruples, or habits, but they are certainly related to the things we have been talking about.  You may turn on the television and see that your favorite basketball team is ahead.  From that moment on they begin to lose, and you can’t avoid the sneaking suspicion that it was caused by the fact that you are now watching.  Or you want to buy two Powerball tickets and find that you only have two dollar-bills.  As you leave the machine you are bothered by the thought that the second draw—the one that you might have taken (if you had had two more dollars)—will be the lucky one.  These thoughts of connectedness are related to those we have already looked at, even though we haven’t called them out and given them names such as “TV-turning-on-fear” and “not-buying-another-ticket-fear.” And this suggests that we may be dealing with something global, something that pops up in different ways depending on the circumstances, something that is present in the danger associated with a black cat’s crossing our path, the belief that a horoscope will tell us what will happen, and the feeling that our behavior has influenced a basketball game.


This leads us to the rest of the OED definition.  “Superstition” is: “an irrational religious belief or practice.”  In fact, that is definition (b).  Definition (a), which preceded it, is even more general:  “Unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary, esp. in connection with religion; religious belief or practice founded upon fear or ignorance.”  Many people want to draw a fixed line between religion and superstition, to regard them as totally different phenomena, but what they really want is to say that their religion is based on a kind of perceived “truth”.  This perceived “truth” is what they have access to, and other people’s “religions” are no more than superstition since there is no truth underlying them.  Voodoo would be a good example.  For Haitians it is a religion; for Christians it is mere superstition–but handling snakes is a sign of faith for some Christians, and the image of The Virgin burned into a tortilla is a “miracle” for others!


When you look at religions around the world, you can separate out different aspects of belief.  There may be a code of values or conduct:  this, by itself, has little to do with religion.  There may be an explanation of how the world came to be:  this may exist at the level of folk-tale and have little to do with a religion.  And there may be a set of procedures for controlling events in the world by ceremony:  this is clearly an aspect of religion.  And there may be belief in another existence after this one; this is very common and is also clearly an aspect of religions.  Moreover, this conception of how the universe works may be abstract, or it may be anthropomorphic.


Let me give a few, very brief examples (I discuss some of these in greater depth elsewhere).  Samkhya is the fundamental Indian philosophy that underlies several Eastern religions, and a form of it appears in Virgil’s Aeneid.  (As it appears there, it is sometimes said to be Epicurean, Pythagorean, etc.)   Basically, there is an active principle in the universe and a passive one.  The active one is enmeshed in the passive one and its struggles to free itself give rise to all of the other things that exist.  (We have something of this in our notion that we are no more than clay animated by a spirit.)  Given such a world-view, the “right” life is obviously one in which we ally ourselves with the active spirit by joining our own active spirit with it.  There is even a hint of this sort of thing in stoicism.


At the opposite pole we have Confucianism, which originated as a moral philosophy that asked each person to make moral choices rather than being preoccupied with self-interest.  It was also a political philosophy which held that the proper role of the king is to be like a good father to his people.  Centuries later this became grafted to the traditional ancestor worship with Confucius placed at the top of the hall and all of the sages along the sides.  Worship had intruded upon a moral philosophy.  In the same way, Taoism became tricked out with spirits and fairies that came into China with Buddhism.  Buddhism, itself, which has at its core a fine moral code, had been invaded by this same popular nonsense.  A history of religion shows that people want to believe in the supernatural—in souls, and spirits, and ghosts—and an appeal to their better natures as moral beings is not strong enough to be attractive to the masses or survive sweeping social changes.   We need the bread and circuses.


So, now that we have a belief system that explains how things came to be, the question is:  “How can we alter events, real or cosmic?”  If you are a Christian, you believe that you can do it by prayer.  If you are a Yogi, you believe that you can do it by attaining a state in which your “spirit” is separated from the inert mass of your body.  If you believe in Voodoo, you may stick pins into dolls.  If you are a Hopi, you go through rituals to re-align the relationship between yourself and the world.  There isn’t the slightest shade of evidence that these have any connection at all with events to come, although the true believers will tell you—in each case—that their particular practice really works.  And for them it is “self-evident” because it is a part of their way of thinking.  (The claim to self-evident clarity goes along with the appeal such things have for all true-believers.


Does any of this originate in something more profound than the will to believe in connections of the kind that we have been talking about—whether this will is expressed in Tarot cards or Voodoo, Fairies or Saints?  Isn’t the best definition of superstition just “belief in the supernatural”?