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03 June 2009

Religion is Superstition

To anyone outside of religion, it's blatantly obvious that religion is just a gussied up superstition. Even Einstein said so in the now famous letter ("For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."). It's just one of those things that convinces me that to be both intelligent and religious involves such a mental dissonance that your head must be just about to explode!

I was stuck by this in particular when I was watching the news one time and saw some religious ritual going on. It even looks so hokey that I can't imagine that some alien anthropologist would think it's a joke the human subjects were playing on it...

Anyway, here is an article from Austin Cline on that as well (probably more respectful than my tone):

Is there a real connection between religion and superstition? Some, particular adherents of various religious faiths, will often argue that the two are fundamentally different types of beliefs. Those who stand outside of religion, however, will notice some very important and fundamental similarities which bear closer consideration.

Obviously, not everyone who is religious is also superstitious and not everyone who is superstitious is also religious. A person can faithfully attend church services all their life without giving a second thought to a black cat walking in front of them. On the other hand, a person who completely rejects any religion whatsoever may consciously or unconsciously avoid walking under a ladder — even if there is no one on the ladder who might drop something.

If neither necessarily leads to the other, it might be easy to conclude that they are different types of beliefs. Moreover, because the very label “superstition” seems to include a negative judgment of irrationality, childishness, or primitiveness, it is understandable of religious believers wouldn’t want their own faiths to be categorized with superstitions.

We must, nevertheless, acknowledge that the similarities are not superficial. For one thing, both superstition and traditional religions are non-materialistic in nature. They do not conceive of the world as a place controlled by sequences of cause and effect between matter and energy. Instead, they presume the added presence of immaterial forces which influence or control the course of our lives.

Furthermore, there is also the appearance of a desire to provide meaning and coherence to otherwise random and chaotic events. If we get hurt in an accident, it is might be attributed to a black cat, to spilling salt, to failing to pay sufficient honor to our ancestors, to performing the appropriate sacrifices to the sprits, etc. There seems to be a genuine continuum between what we tend to call “superstition” and the ideas in animistic religions.

In both cases, people are expected to avoid certain actions and perform other actions in order to ensure that they do not fall victim to the unseen forces at work in our world. In both cases, the very idea that such unseen forces are at work seems to stem (at least in part) both from a desire to explain otherwise random events and from a desire to have some means of affecting those events.

These are all important psychological benefits often used to explain the reason why religion exists and why religion persists. They are also reasons for the existence and persistence of superstition. It seems reasonable to argue, then, that while superstition may not be a form of religion, it does spring from some of the same basic human needs and desires as religion does. Thus, a greater understanding of how and why superstition develops can be useful in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of religion.

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