Rational Religion

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Superstition vs. Belief


If it is important to you to make a distinction between a legitimate belief and a mere superstition, let us begin by examining a dictionary definition of superstition (emphases mine).


1. An irrational belief that an object, an action, or a circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.

2.a. A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance. b. A fearful or abject state of mind resulting from such ignorance or irrationality. c. Idolatry


Well, right away we can see we are in trouble!


One person's irrationality may be another's sweetest reason; and logic follows from first premises, which are often as wacky as the rules of professional wrestling.


Ignorance comes in two flavors, depending upon your syllabic emphasis.  IGnorance arises from lack of information or access to the facts;  igNORance implies that the information is available, but discounted. (Note that ignorance is a legitimate dictionary word, but ignorance ought to be; see etymological discussion elsewhere).  If a person is inclined to be sufficiently irrational in the first place, what are the odds of her or him paying any more attention to the laws of nature than to the validity of First Premises? 


Magic, as we have been informed by no less an authority than Arthur C. Clark, can be interpreted as simply technology which we do not yet understand. (I believe the actual quote approaches the concept from the other end; i.e. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.,"  which is a slightly different idea.)


Sensible evaluation of Chance involves the objective application of the science of statistics; a dreary discipline at best and antithetical to the core of the human spirit, which is predisposed to live on hope and the conviction that each of us has that he or she is a Special Case.


Idolatry?  Your idol may be my keepsake may be her good luck charm.  It's pretty much a matter of degree.  If you're obsessive about some physical object, it's an idol.  If you invest it with supernatural powers or metaphysical significance, that's superstition.


If you believe that treating it in a certain manner or using it in a given ritual will give you control over some aspect of your life -- and that gives you peace of mind or helps to get you through the day -- I guess that might be a legitimate belief. 


So where's the distinction?


The glib answer is that there really isn't any.  Metaphysics is metaphysics, and the farther it is from classical physics the deeper it is mired in superstition; but there isn't any clear boundary, on one side of which lies respectable belief, with rank nonsense on the other. 


Each of us, individually, makes such distinctions; but they are not incumbent upon anyone else.


Attempting a less facile answer, we have to go into history, provenance and an evaluation of continuity.


Superstitions, at least the codified ones that a lot of people are familiar with, tend to have a long history.    That is, they are very old - which is to say early and necessarily primitive - attempts to explain the inexplicable.


A lot of our human interface with the Universe at large, and even with other human beings, defies explanation in human terms.   That is because the Universe has no mechanism, nor reason, to pay the slightest bit of attention to us; and because other people are other people, with different agendas (if they happen to be our neighbors) and sometimes vastly different cultures (if they are not.)


But we have to have explanations, because not knowing is extremely disorienting to the individual human consciousness.  It keeps us from paying necessary attention to the everyday business of living, which threatens our survival.


So it seems like a good idea - in the face of the inexplicable - to make up a serviceable explanation which will do for the time being and give us some peace of mind.


The trouble arises from the confusion between antiquity, continuity and provenance


Superstition is very big on antiquity and continuity.     If a lot of people have believed it for a long time, it is regarded as likely to be true.    Provenance, on the other hand, is documented proof that an object; or an idea; is what it purports to be.


There is very little provenance anywhere in the entire tissue of most people's beliefs.  E.g. the Shroud of Turin.  Even devout Catholics cannot agree - after exhaustive state-of-the-art scientific tests - whether it is even old enough to be the actual death-cloth of the actual Jesus Christ. 


For non-Catholics the question is simpler.   So What?  Either way. 


For non-Christians, the question of whether there ever was an actual Jesus Christ in the first place comes into play: if the matter concerns them at all.


You can see where we are headed, here. 


Belief is superordinateEverything else is dependent upon it, for each and every one of us.  What we believe determines what evidence we are likely to credit and our whole take on "reality."


The important question, then, does not involve a distinction between belief and superstition, which are only degrees of the same mental activity.  It has to do with the way we hold our beliefs.


Or, conversely, it has to do with their hold upon us.


If we hold them lightly, judiciously, as reference points in a continuing examination and re-evaluation of our individual definition of reality, then we have some measure of control over them.  We can modify them as necessary; as conditions change; as new information comes to light.  We can, without angst, adapt to an ever-changing Universe.


If we are possessed by our beliefs, our lives are never quite our own, but the legacy of other creatures, most of them long dead and way less-informed.


We live in a dim and murky past, with no clear vision toward the future.  And in a Universe as impersonal and dynamic as this one, that is a dangerous life, indeed.


Since it is agreed that we all must be believers, and history and experience teach us that many very different beliefs seem to serve their believers about as well as other believers' beliefs, what's all the fuss about?


I mean people kill each other over minor differences in what they believe!  Where's the sense in that?


The answer is that "sense" and "belief" do not ordinarily belong in the same paragraph.


If your beliefs are important to you, you will force them to make sense...to you.


You are a great deal more likely to force them to make sense than you are to change them; however compelling the objective evidence (manifest to someone else) that they are objectively nonsense.


This is because you have a great deal invested in what you believe.  You probably base most of who you think you are in it.  It is the theme and structure of your own personal narrative, which is the way you orient yourself within the universe.


You may be objectively, resoundingly, emphatically wrong about 95 percent of it and still have a normal, happy, successful life.....as long as nothing comes along to interfere with your skewed interpretation of reality.


If you don't believe this, just look around you at all the other people in the world who seem to believe whole encyclopediae full of the most dreadful error and still manage to muddle through quite nicely. 


(You may believe that they'll get their just comeuppance in the Next Life, but they don't [or they do, but they have a more positive expectation  of it] so your opinion doesn't much affect their sojourn in this one.)