Julian Baggini asks: Can a religion survive being stripped of its superstitions?
Baggini does not tell us explicitly what he understands by 'superstition,' but the context suggests that he takes the term to apply to any and all supernatural elements in a religion, whether these be beliefs, practices, or posits such as God and the soul. The supernatural, in turn, is anything beyond or 'outside of' the system of space-time-matter, or anything that makes reference to such things. God conceived of as a bodiless person, as in mainstream Western monotheism, would then count as a supernatural being. Accordingly, belief that such a person exists would count as a superstitious belief, and prayer in all its forms (petitionary, intercessory, contemplative, etc.) would count as a superstitious practice.
Supposing (counterfactually) that this is true, one might be tempted to make the journey to the East in quest of a religion free of superstition. One of Baggini's points is that Buddhism as actually practiced by millions is rife with it, as witness motorized prayer wheels, etc. Baggini's main thesis is that a religion stripped of supernatural elements ceases to be a religion. A Buddhism naturalized, a Buddhism disembarrassed of all such elements, is no longer a religion but something acceptable to secularists and atheists, "a set of beliefs and practices to cultivate detachment from the impermanent material world and teach virtues such as compassion and mindfulness."
Baggini's claim is that what is specifically religious about a religion are its superstitious beliefs, practices, and posits. To put it another way, every religion is essentially superstitious. But of course 'superstitious' is an adjective of disapprobation: a superstitious belief is a false or groundless belief; a supersitious practice is one that is ineffectual; a superstitious posit is one that does not exist. So in claiming that religion is essential superstitious, Baggini is claiming that it is essentially false, ineffectual, and devoid of reference to reality.
Of course, I disagree. For one thing, I reject what Baggini assumes: naturalism. But I also disagree because he rides roughshod over a fairly elementary distinction.
There is religion and there is pseudo-religion. Superstition is pseudo-religion. That adherents of religions are often superstitious in their beliefs and practices is undeniable. But to the extent that they are superstitious they are pseudo-religious.
Let's consider an example. A believer places a plastic Jesus icon on the dashboard of her car. It seems clear than anyone who believes that a piece of plastic has the power to ward off automotive danger is superstitious. A hunk of mere matter cannot have such magical properties. Superstition in this first sense seems to involve a failure to understand the causal structure of the world or the laws of probability. A flight attendant who attributes her years of flying without mishap to her wearing of a rabbit's foot or St. Christopher's medal is clearly superstitious in this first sense. Such objects have no causal bearing on an airplane's safety. It is magical thinking to attribute to bits of plastic and metal the powers the superstitious attribute to them.
But no sophisticated believer attributes powers to the icon itself, or to a relic, or to any material thing qua material thing. The sophisticated believer distinguishes between the icon and the spiritual reality or person it represents.
Well, what about the belief that the person represented will ward off danger and protect the believer from physical mishap? That belief too is arguably, though not obviously, superstitious in a second and less crass sense. Why should the Second Person of the Trinity care about one's automotive adventures? Does one really expect, let alone deserve, divine intervention for the sake of one's petty concerns? How can religion, which is about metanoia -- change of mind/heart -- be justifiably hitched to the cart of the mundane ego?
I don't think it can be denied that much petitionary and intercessory prayer is superstitious. Someone who prays to win the lottery is superstitious as is a person who, upon winning, exclaims, 'There is a God after all.' The nauseating egotism of such a remark is antithetical to genuine religion. But suppose I pray for a friend who has contracted a deadly disease. I pray, not for some divine intervention into the course of nature, but that he be granted the courage to endure his treatments, and should they fail, the courage to accept his death with hope and trust and without rancour or bitterness. It is not obvious that such an intercessory prayer (or a similar petitionary prayer should I be the sick man) is superstitious despite its invocation of a transcendent power to grant courage and equanimity. 'May the Lord grant you peace' is a prayer for a spiritual benefit. Unless one assumes naturalism -- which would be question-begging-- there is nothing obviously superstitious or pseudo-religious about that. An even better example would be, 'Let me see my faults as clearly as I see the faults of others.' Such a prayer is a prayer for the weakening of the ego and to that extent not motivated by any crude materialism.
The sophisticated non-superstitious believer is not trying to achieve by magical means what can only be achieved by material means; he is aiming to achieve by spiritual means what cannot be achieved by material means but only by spiritual means. Perhaps we can characterize superstition as pseudo-spiritual materialism.
Getting back to the icon on the dashboard: what if the icon serves to remind the believer of her faith commitment rather than to propitiate or influence a godlike person for egoistic ends? Here we approach a form of religious belief that is not superstitious. The believer is not attributing magical powers to a hunk of plastic or a piece of metal. Nor is she invoking a spiritual reality in an attempt to satisfy petty material needs. Her belief transcends the sphere of egoic concerns.
To sum up. Assuming that religion necessarily involves supernatural elements, religion and naturalism are incompatible. So if naturalism is true, then religion is buncombe, a tissue of superstitions. But there are powerful reasons for rejecting naturalism. In any case, that all of religion is bunk is rather hard to swallow given its prevalence and usefulness. (Here one can mount a pragmatic argument premised on the consensus gentium.) It is a good bet that there is something true and right about a cultural and a symbolic form that has won the adherence of so many distinguished people over all the earth in all the ages. But if we are to make sense of religion as a cultural form that has a core of rightness to it, then we need the distinction between religion and pseudo-religion (superstition) -- the very distinction that Bagini clumisly rides roughshod over. (Can one ride in a clumsy fashion?)
Companion post: Grades of Prayer