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Saturday, April 11, 2009


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I would agree with your claim in general, but am not sure that temporal affairs cannot be the object of pious prayer. The Divine Liturgy and the Western Mass both agree in including long prayers for civil leaders, good harvests and weather, etc. A person wearing a St. Christopher medal can hold that St. Christopher is praying for their safe travel, I think, without being superstitious. In fact, these are merely "symbolic" prayers for temporal goods. Of course, these goods are considered subordinate to eternal ones (salvation is always better than safe travel), but that doesn't mean we cannot pray for temporal goods insofar as God's will allows.

Great post, although I'm afraid I remain unconvinced.

To take issue with #1, if it is in fact the case that, say, Carl Sagan actually worships science (rather than "appearing" to - and I think this is a rather big "if"), then you may be right that he is engaging in idolatry. That does not therefore justify the idolatry of religionists, nor make either any more true. I think it is perfectly possible to be a reasonable, amiable skeptic, in the mode of Hume for instance, without engaging in idolatry or superstition oneself. If one takes as the basis for one's understanding the empirical findings (insofar as one is capable of understanding them) of science along with the application of one's own reason developed as highly as one is capable, then I think one can justly view religious people as superstitious, without being superstitious oneself. Which is not the same as being infallible, needless to say.

As for the RCC's banning of idolatry, I suppose this is in the eye of the beholder. If all the statues, Rosaries, crucifixes, etc., are not instances of idolatry, then they are at least instances of fetishization, and this hardly seems an improvement to me.

#3 seems the crux of the matter to me. I admit my own thinking quickly grows confused on this point, which is to say, I find it hard to find the line where superstition ends and religion begins. I don't suppose them to be logically identifiable, but they do seem to so similar that ferreting out the contrasts does seem to me to be something of an exercise in trivia. Perhaps a post on this, to straighten me out?

Intentions might be helpful in another way towards solving the problem: if the woman looks that the statue on the dashboard and says a prayer to it, it's pretty clear her intention does not terminate in the image, but in the one whom the image represents. If her intention terminated in the statue, this would be a clear case of superstition.

More generally, I suppose the boring answer is that religion, by everyone's agreement, is due reverence to God, and so if you think God is due no reverence (for whatever reason) you think acts of religion ought not be done. Under such a supposition, religion becomes immoral act, although it would take another premise to say that it was the particular kind of immoral act called "superstition". It seems impossible to me that one would call it that, since "superstition" can only be the name for an immoral act if religion is the name for a moral one. It would be better for those who think God is due no reverence to just say "religion is a vice" not the cheeky (but too vague) "religion is superstition".

And when I said "everyone agrees" about religion as due reverence to God, I meant it collectively, not distributively of each and every thinker. It's a definition that can be common to theists and atheists; Christians and pagans; Jews and Gentiles; etc. The word "religion", however, tends to a sort of floppiness and formlessness, and can frequently become so vague as to be of no real value in discourse.

Hi Bill,

Atheists can be superstitious, but religious believers are necessarily superstitious. It does not follow that all superstition is religion, however, nor would I make the claim. Religion is a particular broad and well-structured species of superstition. (If you want to throw the example of Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism at me, I might be inclined to say that some versions of those 'religions' are not religions at all, but secular philosophies.)

Note that as soon as we have very good philosophical or scientific reasons to believe something it is no longer considered a religious belief. To call something a religious belief is to say that it is unjustifiable by anything other than a belief in magic. Beliefs in the virgin birth or the trinity are religious beliefs precisely because they cannot be justified. My belief that the earth is round, however, can be rooted in reason, so it's not a religious truth, even if it happens that certain religious texts affirm this.

"Blessed are those who have not seen but yet have believed."

Translation: blessed are those who hold unjustifiable beliefs.

This seems to be a tendentious definition of "religion." Many, if not most, major religions and, as Dr. Vallicella calls them, "sophisticated believers" hold at least two related positions: first, that there are many things connected and ancillary to faith which are probably able to be proven by reason without revelation (such as the existence of God), and, second, that none of their religious beliefs are rationally unjustified. You shift from "religions lack philosophical or scientific reasons to believe" to "unjustified belief." In order to make my point, you'd need to draw at least one other distinction between qualitative levels of "reasons." The sophisticated believer would likely claim that they possess justified belief while not having "demonstratively certain" scientific or philosophical reasons. So, clearly, an argument from miracles is a variety of empirical and even arguably "scientific" reason to believe in some religious doctrine. But this is very different from a deductive proof - it is a variety of "strong induction," if we want to use that terminology.
Lastly, your interpretation of the Gospel seems to similarly self-serving. One need only look to the Greek Christians who call St. Thomas "Doubting Thomas" by way of compliment to refute this theory. Then, this passage takes on a very different meaning - one, I need not relate in detail, that most of the Church Fathers held.

Spencer writes, "religious believers are necessarily superstitious." But that is precisely the question. You are not entitled to start with that assertion, though you are entitled to argue for it.

StMichael speaks of what Thomists call the "preambles of faith" such as the existence of God. You will have a hard time showing that the the claim that God exists is a superstitious claim. You could say it is not a specifically religious claim, but then we would need to know how you use 'religion.'

Note that as soon as we have very good philosophical or scientific reasons to believe something it is no longer considered a religious belief.

Why not?

Scientific reasons can only provide knowledge of a limited class of objects, most of which are irrelevant to religious beliefs. (For example, that the world is round.)

Perhaps you are unwittingly using a definition of "religious" that amounts to assuming your conclusion? If we accept your assertion, then if the beliefs of a particular religion are all eventually demonstrated [somehow] as philosophically or scientifically "true" then the religion will cease to be a religion at all. It is ultimately discredited in the course of being completely vindicated. That sounds a bit like 'heads-I-win, tails-you-lose.'

I still do not think an adequate definition of superstition has been given. Obviously, the Roman Catholic Church cannot both condemn superstition and hold that superstition means the belief in claims that cannot be scientifically validated. How, then, did they and do they properly define it?

So far, it looks like superstition has been defined in these comments as the belief that physical and inanimate objects can display providence over the course of the world. So superstition, maybe, can be defined as some sort of inordinate faith in the power of the material world. Perhaps, then, Dawkins is the most superstitious man alive.

Superstition is often understood as improper worship or veneration of divinity. Its etymology is from Latin, super-stitio, meaning essentially "standing over" as in "gazing in awe" at something. Superstition is "excessive" worship of God/gods, understood as improper or deviating worship. If we take this definition, then I think it is quite true that atheists cannot be "superstitious" if they truly don't acknowledge any divinities or supernatural powers. However, they could fall under the definition by at least two other means: "lucky charms" and improper veneration of nature, science, or some other object as a "god." Both of these latter behaviors both usually fall under superstition and I think could apply, practically speaking, to those who claim to be atheists. It would be inordinate faith in the material world, but it would be a subset of proper devotion to God/gods (as in that case you are essentially ascribing divinity to nature).

Spencer says:

"Blessed are those who have not seen but yet have believed."

Translation: blessed are those who hold unjustifiable beliefs.

So the testimony of others reckoned able to know can't justify a belief? Are you saying this to get out of jury duty?

It seems like I've got a lot of critical responses and accusitions of making premises into conclusions. Perhaps I should clarify.

My belief that religious beliefs are necessarily superstitious is not a bald assumption, but a conclusion I have come to based on my Mormon upbringing and my interactions with religious people since that time.

Suppose I am presented with a series of arguments that lead me to the conclusion that every item of Mormon doctrine is true--or the doctine of any religion you prefer. I conclude that it is rational to practice that religion and do so. Am I at this point a religious believer? Every believer I have yet talked to has answered in the negative. Ideas arrived at rationally are not religious beliefs, regardless of how important they may be to religious belief. Otherwise my belief that the Romans occupied Judea at the time of Jesus would be a religious belief. It isn't. It's a historical one. Religion becomes religion at the point where it departs from reason.

Now, I understand that non-rationality isn't necessarily irrationality, but when non-rational claims conflict with rational claims, the burden of proof lies on the person making the non-rational claim to show that it is not an irrational claim. Were it otherwise I could make any number of absurd claims and justify myself by an appeal to some non-rational process.

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