Friday the 13th of the 12th month of the 13th year of the third millennium. I ain't superstitious, leastways no more than Willie Dixon, but two twin black tuxedo cats just crossed my path. All dressed up with nowhere to go. Nine lives and dressed to the nines. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Superstition. Guitar solo starts at 3:03. And of course you've heard the story about Niels Bohr and the horseshoe over the door:
A friend was visiting in the home of Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, the famous atom scientist.
As they were talking, the friend kept glancing at a horseshoe hanging over the door. Finally, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he demanded:
“Niels, it can’t possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe that foolish horseshoe superstition! ? !”
“Of course not,” replied the scientist. “But I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”
There is more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. They, however, are informed and guided by certain constitutive beliefs. So the importance of the latter cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. It is not a mere form of life or language game. It rests, pace Wittgenstein, on claims about the nature of reality, claims which, if false, render bogus the practices resting upon them. In this post I present some characteristic beliefs/convictions that provide the scaffolding for what I take to be religion. As scaffolding they are necessarily abstract so as to cover a variety of different religions.
Anything that does not fit this schema I am not inclined to call a religion in any serious sense. I may be willing to negotiate on (4) and (6). (If Buddhism is a religion, it is a religion of self-help, at least in its purest forms.)
1. The belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53)
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the unseen order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the unseen order. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready access to the unseen order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the unseen order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the unseen order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the unseen order.
Superstition as degenerate religion will involve a perversion of these beliefs/convictions.
Ad (1). Superstition can arise when the attempt is made to populate the unseen order with anthropomorphic beings or idols from the sense world or from the world of abstract thought. Superstition also arises when one presumes to an exact knowledge of this order and its 'economy.' For example, the sale or indeed even the granbting of indulgences is superstitious since based on a presumption to know the precise mechanics and economy of salvation, the exact nature and quantities of post-mortem rewards and punishments in heaven and hell and purgatory.
Ad(2). Superstition can arise if the supreme good is misinterpreted as a material or quasi-material good, or as something ego-enhancing or ego-serving. True religion doe snot feed the ego but mortify it.
Ad (3), (4), (5). These points are ignored or downplayed by the superstitious/idolatrous.
Ad (6). Superstitious is the belief that material and ego-serving help can be had via relics, medals, etc.
Ad (7). Superstitious is the belief that the unseen order is a world behind the scenes, a hinterworld, a quasi-sensible world very much like this one but with the negative removed. The crassest such conceptuion is the Islamic one of the 72 black-eyed virgins in which one engages endlessly in the carnal delights forbidden here.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch (University of Chicago Press, 1980), P. 72:
Religious faith and superstition are quite different. One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is a trusting.
Although Winch's translation is correct, I would translate ganz verschieden as 'entirely different.' For in American English at least, 'quite' can mean either 'very' or 'entirely.' Glaube (faith) and Aberglaube (superstition) are, says Wittgenstein, entirely different. I agree. It follows that religion cannot be a species of superstition. It is not as if the genus superstition divides into religious and nonreligious species. And as Aberglaube suggests, superstition is a degenerate form of faith, which is what I have been maintaining.
But is it true that superstition arises from fear while religious faith does not arise from fear but is a kind of trust? I don't think so. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs 9:10, Psalms 111:10) A certain fear is ingredient in religious faith. So arising out of fear cannot be what distinguishes religious faith from superstition. It is worth noting that Wittgenstein himself believed and feared that he would be judged by God. He took the notion of the Last Judgment with the utmost seriousness as both Paul Engelmann and Norman Malcolm relate in their respective memoirs. In 1951, near the end of his life, Wittgenstein wrote,
God may say to me: I am judging you out of your own mouth. Your own actions have made you shudder with disgust when you have seen other people do them." (CV, p. 87)
Wittgenstein had trouble with the notion of God as cosmic cause, but had a lively sense of God as final Judge and source of an absolute moral demand.
Perhaps we could say that superstition arises from mundane fear, fear concerning the body and the things of the body, while religious faith does not arise from such fear, but from fear concerning the soul and its welfare. But this is not what Wittgenstein says. Religious faith is a trusting.
A trusting in God, but to do what? Presumably not to supply us with the material necessities of life or to save us physically from life's trials and tribulations. Perhaps one can makes sense of Wittgenstein's notion of trust in terms of his early experience of "feeling absolutely safe" recounted in a lecture on ethics from 1929. "I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say, 'I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.'" (LE 8)
The feeling of being absolutely safe is the mystical sense that deep down, and despite appearances, everything is perfect and that one is ultimately safe and secure. But surely as indigent bodies in a world of bodies we are not safe and secure. So who is the ME that nothing can injure no matter what happens? Me as individual soul? Me as eternal Atman? If I am at bottom an individual soul confronting God my Judge, then the mystical feeling of being absolutely safe is illusory, is it not? How can I be absolutely safe as individual soul if I am to be judged and perhaps found unworthy of entering the divine presence and then either annihilated or sent to hell? If I am at ontological bottom the eternal Atman, then I am absolutely safe and nothing can touch me -- but this does not comport well with the notion of God as Judge.
Wittgenstein says that superstition is a sort of false science. That is essentially what I said when I said that a necessary condition of a superstitious belief is that it be or entail erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of the natural order. But I think we are both wrong.
Suppose a soldier is pinned down behind some rocks under withering fire. There is nothing he can do. So he prays. Supposes he prays that his life be spared by divine intervention. There needn't be any "false science" involved here in the way false science is involved in the childish belief that stepping on a sidewalk crack will break your mother's back. And yet the soldier's prayer is superstitious in the way that the prayer, "Thy will be done," is not.
Belief B is superstitious =df (i) B is or entails erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of the natural world; (ii) B makes reference to one or more supernatural agents; (iii) B involves a corruption or distortion of a genuine religious belief.
The conditions are supposed to be individually necessary and jointly sufficient. Several people wrote in to question whether conditions (ii) and (iii) are necessary. What about: blowing on dice; avoiding walking under ladders; carrying a rabbit's foot, etc.
First off, these are not beliefs but practices, and I had set myself the narrow task of defining 'superstitious belief.' Second, it is not clear that the people who engage in the aforementioned practices need have any underlying beliefs about the practices or their efficacy. The gambler who blows on his dice before throwing them may simply be mimicking what he saw some other gambler do, a gambler he thought 'cool.' Same goes for a liitle leaguer who crosses himself at the plate just because he saw some big boy do it. Monkey see, money do. The kid may have no idea what the gesture signifies.
But suppose our gambler really does believe that blowing on the dice will enhance their likelihood of coming up the way he wants. Then (ii) and (iii) go unsatisfied. But is the belief in question a counterexample to my definition? Not unless it is a superstitious belief, which is what I deny!
"But doesn't the belief in question satisfy the dictionary definition?" Yes, it does, but so what? I am not trying to give a lexical definition. A lexical definition, or dictionary definition, aims to describe how a word or phrase is actually used at the present time within some linguistic community. But if you think philosophical insight can be had by consulting dictionaries, then you commit what I call the Dictionary Fallacy. People say the damndest things and use and misuse words in all sorts of ways riding roughshod over all sorts of distinctions. When a misuse becomes widely accepted then it goes into the dictionary since dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive.
But it occurred to me that there is a problem with my definition. A belief can be superstitious even if it doesn't involve any erroneous beliefs about nature and her workings. Consider again the plastic dashboard Jesus. Suppose the motorist believes, not that the hunk of plastic has causal powers relevant to the prevention of automotive mishap, but that the divine person represented by the icon will be inclined to intervene in the natural world in prevention of mishap because he is being honored by the motorist. Such a motorist could be a trained physicist who harbors no false beliefs about nature's workings. (Divine intervention needn't involve any violation of natural laws.) I want to say that that too is a case of superstition. If it is, it is not captured by my definition.
Superstition is a form of pseudo-religion, a degenerate or distorted form of religion. But what exactly is it and how does it differ from genuine religion? Let's start by asking what sorts of item are called superstitious. There are (at least) superstitious beliefs, practices, and people. Perhaps we should say that a person is superstitious if he habitually harbors superstitious beliefs and engages in superstitious practices. Since practices are underpinned by beliefs, perhaps we can make some progress by trying to define 'superstitious belief.'
Go back to my example of the plastic dashboard Jesus icon. The hunk of plastic has both physical and representational properties. But properties of neither sort induce in the hunk any causal powers of the sort that are relevant to the prevention of automotive mishaps. Now if the motorist believes to the contrary, then he is superstitious -- this seems to be an exceedingly clear paradigm case of superstition -- and part of what makes him superstitious is that he harbors erroneous beliefs about the causal workings of nature. So it seems that part of the definiens of 'superstitious belief' is
1. an erroneous belief about the casual structure of nature.
If (1) is a necessary condition of a belief's being superstitious, then the mere belief that God exists or that unembodied/disembodied souls exist is not superstitious. Obviously, the belief that there are entities transcendent of nature needn't involve any false beliefs about nature. We have to avoid the mistake of identifiying superstitious beliefs with beliefs about the supernatural. That would be on a par with the mistake of thinking that religion just is superstition.
But (1), though necessary, is not sufficient. For not every erroneous belief about nature's workings is a superstitious belief. When I was a young child I got it into my head that my left arm had to be stronger than my right arm because, being right-handed, I used my right arm more and my left arm less with the result that the power of the left arm was preserved while the power of the right arm was reduced. My childish belief was 'logical' in way, but empirically false. Flexing a muscle is not like flexing a piece of metal. The former typically strenghtens, the latter typically weakens. But there was nothing superstitious about my false belief. A second example is the gambler's fallacy which, though sometimes classified as a superstition, is not one by my lights. So it looks as if we need to add a second necessary condition along the lines of
2. That makes reference to a supernatural agent.
Thus in the case of the dashboard Jesus what makes the belief superstitious is not the attribution to a hunk of plastic as a mere hunk of plastic of causal powers it cannot possess; it is the attribution of such powers to a hunk of plastic that is also iconic or representational, the item represented being a supernatural agent. If the icon were melted down into a non-representational blob, then the superstitious motorist would presumably no longer consider it causally efficacious in warding off danger.
But now it appears that our two necessary conditions are not jointly sufficient. I am assuming that superstition is a form, but not the only form, of pseudo-religion. (Idolatry and blasphemy may be other forms.). As a form of pseudo-religion, superstition is a degenerate or corrupt or distorted form of genuine religion. Now suppose our motorist is a member of a Satanic cult and has on his dashboard an icon that represents some demon or maybe the head honcho of demons, old Mephistopheles himself. And suppose our satanist believes that the presence of that icon (made of the molded excrement of a sacrificed cat) will protect him from the dangers of the road. Then both (1) and (2) will be satisfied without the satanist's belief being superstitious. So I add a third necessary condition:
3. and involves a corruption or distortion of a genuine religious belief.
Example. A kid makes the sign of the cross as he steps up to the plate in a baseball game. If the kid believes that the gesture will increase the likelihood of his connecting with the ball, then he has an erroneous belief about natural causation. But that is not enough to make his belief superstitious. Nor is it enough if we add the reference to a supernatural agent. We need to add the third condition. The genuine religious belief being distorted here is the belief that one's spiritual salvation depends on right relation to God, a right relation that can be secured only via the mediation of Jesus Christ. This genuine religious belief may be false but it is not superstitious: it does not involve any erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of nature. The distortion consists in the invocation of Jesus and his self-sacrifice for a paltry mundane self-serving and ego-enhancing purpose having nothing to do with salvation.
This seems to do the trick. My claim is that my three conditions are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a belief's being superstitious. Counterexamples anyone?
You write that “Superstition in this first sense seems to involve a failure to understand the causal structure of the world or the laws of probability” and that it is a “necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a belief's being superstitious is that it entail one or more erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of nature.” I’m curious about what you think of the following case:
A young Christian claims to be harassed by demons. He experiences the harassment, he claims, only during the late hours of the night in his room. His pastor advises the kid to anoint with oil, in the shape of a cross, the door frame to his room (the idea being that such an anointing will “ward off” the demons).
Do you think this is superstitious? After all, oil is in the relevant sense “material stuff” just as much as a plastic Jesus is. However, the oil is not intended to have a causal effect in nature, but in “the spiritual realm.” I think examples like this are common among religious people. It may not be hard to find one that intuitively counts as superstitious (as another example, consider how Catholic priests are often asked to bless houses or rooms before a Catholic takes up residence in them). What you think of these kinds of cases?
The more examples the better. Yours is importantly different from the plastic Jesus example in which a power is imputed to a physical thing that it cannot have, the power to protect the vehicle and its occupants from a natural threat. (Contrast this with the power a properly fastened seat belt has to prevent the driver from going through the windshield in the event of a crash.) In your example there is imputed to a physical stuff, oil, the power to protect against a physical or spiritual threat emanating from a purely spiritual being. Since this is a power that oil cannot have, whether applied in the shape of a cross or not, I would say that this type of practice and the underlying belief are superstitious as well.
It is worth noting, however, that a false belief can have a real effect. Believing, albeit falsely, that he has done something efficacious to ward off demons, the kid may feel reassured and comforted. The pastor's belief that the kid's daubing the door frame with oil will have a beneficial psychological effect on him is not superstitious.
I once knew a chess player who always wore the same ridiculous little hat, filthy and tattered, at tournaments. This was his 'lucky hat.' Donning it, he geared up for chessic combat. This may or may not be a superstitious practice depending on the underlying belief. If he believes that the mere donning of the hat directly influences the outcome of games, then the belief is superstitious, or at least bears one of the marks of a superstitious belief. But there would be nothing superstitious about the belief that donning the hat puts him in a fighting frame of mind, which in turn does have a real effect on his play.
Or consider an airline pilot who suits up prior to a flight. Donning his uniform, he steps into his role. 'Looking the part' he inspires confidence in himself and in his passengers. This confidence has a slight but real effect on his performance in the cockpit. So far, nothing superstitious. Superstition would come into the picture if the pilot thought that the mere donning of the uniform enhances his skill set, that the insignia, say, have the power to confer upon him good judgment or motor control.
This is a difficult topic. Surprisingly little has been written on it by philosophers. In the JSTOR database I found only four articles, three from the 1930s. If we don't know what superstition is, then we won't know what genuine religion is either.
John Pepple has written an excellent post in which he sketches a religion free of superstitious elements, thereby showing that there is nothing in the nature of religion -- assuming that religion has a nature -- that requires that every religion be wholly or even in part superstitious. Here is his sketch:
1. God exists. 2. Upon creating, God placed all sentient beings in heaven. 3. Some of us sinned and were sent to our universe for punishment. 4. There is no intervention by God in our universe, because that would interfere with the punishment. 5. After we die, we either regain heaven or are reincarnated. 6. We regain heaven not through worship of God but by good behavior, by treating other sentient beings right. In other words, we regain heaven by merit and not by grace.
As I suggested in Religion and Superstition, the bare belief that there are supernatural beings is not superstitious. Without essaying a logically impeccable definition of 'superstitious belief' (very difficult if not impossible), I would say that a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a belief's being superstitious is that it entail one or more erroneous beliefs about the causal structure of nature. I have seen Catholic baseball players make the sign of the cross before stepping up to the plate. That bit of (disgusting) behavior is evidence of a superstitious belief: clearly the gesture in question has no tendency to raise the probability of connecting with the ball. Or consider the plastic dashboard Jesus that I mentioned before. The belief that the presence of this hunk of plastic will ward off automotive mishap is superstitious, and a person who occurrently or dispositionally has many beliefs like this is a superstitious person.
But what if the person believes, not that the piece of plastic will protect him, but that the purely spiritual person represented will protect him by intervening in nature? That too is arguably superstitious, though not as egreuiously superstitious as the first belief. One might argue like this:
a. The physical domain is causally closed. b. The belief that Jesus will intervene in the workings of nature should one, say, have a blow-out is an erroneous belief about the physical domain. Ergo c. The belief in question is superstitious.
To make things hard for the religionist suppose we just assume the causal closure of the physical domain: every event in the physical universe that has a cause has a physical cause, and every effect of a physical cause is a physical event. The idea is that no causal influence can enter or exit the physical domain. That the physical domain is causally closed is neither obvious nor a principle of physics. It is a philosophical thesis with all the rights, privileges, and debilities pertaining thereunto.
But even if causal closure is true, it doesn't rule out the existence of a wholly immaterial God who sustains the universe at every instant but never intervenes in its law-governed workings. As far as Pepple and I can see there is nothing superstitious in the belief that such a God exists. So there is nothing supersitious about Pepple's (1).
I read his (2) as the claim that God creates purely spiritual beings who exist in a purely spiritual domain. Please note that sentience does not entail having physical sense organs. For example literal visual seeing does not require the existence of physical eyes. In out-of-body experiences, subjects typically have visual experiences that are not routed through the standard-issue optical transducers in their heads. And yet they literally (and arguably veridically) see physical things, e.g., the little bald spot on the top of a surgeon's head.
Ad (3). How do we get sent into this penal colony of a world? We are born into it: the preexistent soul begins to inhabit an animal organism. Soul in this sense is of course not an Aristotleian animating principle or a Thomistic anima forma corporis, but a Platonic soul. But wouldn't the attaching of a pre-existent soul to an already living organism involve some violation of causal closure? Not obviously. But this is a deep question. (I now invoke the blogospheric privilege entailed by the 'Brevity is the soul of blog.')
Pepple's is a rather 'thin' religion but I think it illustrates nicely how religion and superstition can be decoupled. For his is a belief system that counts as a religion but is clearly not superstitious.
What we need to make this really clear are definitions of 'religion' and 'superstition' ('pseudo-religion'). But definitions in this area are very difficult to come by. And it may be that religion and superstition are both family-resemblance concepts that are insusceptible of rigorous definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions of application.
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?)