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Superstition

SUPERSTITION.

Superstition has had different meanings in different cultures and epochs. One thing binding these meanings together is that they are usually negativesuperstition is a concept defined principally by its self-declared opponents. A second is that superstition is defined as the opposite of something praiseworthyusually true religion or true science.

The ancient Greeks referred to superstition as deisidaimonia fear of the spirits or daimons. This term was originally used positively, in the sense of "God-fearing." The first known negative use occurred around the fourth century b.c.e. in Theophrastus's Characters. His character of the superstitious man shows a person so obsessed with carrying out rituals to ward off the gods' anger that he could not lead a normal life. After Theophrastus, negative uses of deisidaimonia became much more common, although positive uses never entirely ceased. Plutarch (c. 46after 119 c.e.), in his essay on superstition in the Moralia, used the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue as a means to distinguish between atheism and deisidaimonia, opposite vices in the field of religion. He argued that atheism was in every way superior to superstition, as it was a lesser insult to the gods to assert that they did not exist than to assert that they were cruel. The atheist was insensitive, but the superstitious person lived in constant terror. Plutarch included a wider range of religious behavior in the category of superstition than had Theophrastus, including human sacrifice, Jewish observance of the Sabbath, fear of punishment in the afterlife, and belief in the literal truth of Greek myth. Unlike Theophrastus and many other ancient writers, Plutarch emphasized the grim rather than the comic aspects of superstition. The consequences of superstition could be disastrous not only for the superstitious person but for everyonePlutarch's life of the Athenian general Nicias ascribes the Athenian disaster at Syracuse in large part to Nicias's timorous fear of a lunar eclipse.

The word superstition itself originates with the ancient Romans, who used the term superstitio mainly as a pejorative for those religions and religious practices they found barbarous, including Judaism and Christianity. Superstition was the opposite of religion, the decorous and pious worship of the gods. The antiquary Varro distinguished between the superstitious man, who feared the gods as his enemies, and the religious man, who was devoted to them as his parents.

Christians countered accusations of superstition by accusing their pagan opponents of both superstition and deisidaimonia. Christian polemicists particularly emphasized the superstitious nature of pagan "idolatry." Saint Augustine (354430), in a particularly influential passage of On Christian Doctrine, explicitly linked idolatry with divination as superstitious practices, essentially reducing all of pagan religion to superstition. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century and the growing Christianization of Roman institutions led by the fifth century to Roman laws referring to all non-Christian religions as "superstition." Christian authorities for a long time ascribed the superstitious practices of Christians themselves to lingering paganism.

Superstition and the Medieval and Early Modern Catholic Church

Thomas Aquinas (12251274) provided a meticulous and influential definition of superstition in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas followed Plutarch in claiming that superstition was a vice of excess of religion, as impiety was a vice of deficiency of religion. Varieties of superstition included erroneous worship of the true God (Aquinas gives the example of someone in the Christian era who worships according to the old Law, i.e., a Jew) or unsanctioned by the church. Another variety of superstition was idolatry, worship directed to inappropriate objectsthat is, anything other than God. Divination and other magical practices, which Aquinas claimed involved an implicit or explicit agreement with demons, were also superstitious in violating the religious precept that man should learn from and trust in God. Even practices outwardly pious, such as wearing the relic of a saint, were superstitious if they relied on practices having nothing to do with piety, such as the particular shape of the reliquary.

The Catholic campaign against superstition in the Middle Ages and early modern periods were not merely theoretical. Church reformers preached and campaigned against what they identified as superstitious religious practices, the wearing of charms and talismans and other non-Church sanctioned activities. Catholic authorities defined superstitious practices as those that did not rely either on nature or on divine power for their effectiveness. Superstition was not only a threat to the laity. Parish priests were often seen as tolerating superstition or even practicing it themselves, and many of the leading campaigners against it were friars operating outside the diocesan hierarchy of the church.

Early modern Spain produced a particularly rich literature on superstition from the pens of Catholic priests, ranging from the vernacular works of the sixteenth-century friars Pedro Ciruelo (14701548) and Martin de Castanega to the Scholastic Latin writings of the eminent Jesuit theology professor Francisco Suarez (15481617). Ciruelo's influential Treatise Reproving All Superstitions, aimed at ordinary Spaniards whose souls were threatened by superstition, identified it almost completely with magic. All superstition, Ciruelo claimed, was based either on the desire for illicit knowledge or material gain. Superstitions aimed at gaining knowledge were necromancy and divination; those aimed at gain were enchantment and witchcraft. Like much of the early modern Catholic literature, Ciruelo's work focused on questions of causation, claiming that events could be caused either by direct divine intervention, as in the case of miracles, the actions of good or evil angels, or natural causes. Ascribing outcomes to other causes was superstitious. The general tendency of the Spanish literature on superstition from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century was to circumscribe the area of direct divine action and ascribe more and more events to natural causes.

Superstition and Its Foes in the Islamic World

Campaigns against "superstitious" practices emerged independently in the Islamic world. Muslims who venerated shrines of deceased holy men or celebrated "mawlid"the birthday of Muhammadwere condemned for practices that were non-Koranic and directed worship to persons other than God, the crime of "shirk" or idolatry. Among the most important medieval Muslim intellectuals to campaign against superstitious practices was the brilliant and uncompromising Syrian jurist of the Hanbali school of Sunni legal interpretation, Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (12631328), and his disciple Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (12921350). Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Jawziyya saw the first three centuries of Islam as free from superstitious practices but the Muslims of their own time as corrupted by them, linking prayer at graves with the practices of pre-Islamic Arab polytheists and contemporary Christians. Despite Ibn Taymiyya's influence, however, his opposition to shrine visits and other "superstitions" did not become the mainstream position in the Sunni ulama.

The Wahhabi movement of Islamic reform, which emerged in eighteenth-century Arabia, recognized Ibn Tayymiya as a precursor and carried on a vigorous struggle against the "superstitious" veneration of tombs and shrines, destroying many of them. Similar Islamic reform movements, such as the Indian movement founded by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (17861831), would also denounce superstition. Indian Islamic reformers often linked "idolatry" to the influence of Hinduism.

Superstition in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations

The concept of superstition as a religious error was very influential during the Reformation, when Protestants defined many aspects of traditional Catholic worship, including pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, the cult of the saints, and the veneration of the consecrated host, as superstitious. Francis Bacon (15611626) in his essay on superstition quoted Plutarch and followed him in believing atheism preferable to superstition, a position he particularly emphasized by placing the essay on superstition immediately after the one on atheism. Bacon listed as superstitions "pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; [and] overgreat reverence of traditions," recapitulating common Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric. The charge of superstition was also a polemical weapon in intra-Protestant battles. Bacon also hinted that there was a "superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received" a veiled thrust at the extreme Protestants of his day (Bacon, p. 40).

Catholic accusations of superstition against Protestants were less common, as the principal charge they made was heresy. Heresy differed from superstition in that it resulted from willful error rather than ignorance. In common usage, superstition also differed from heresy in that it was focused more on practices than beliefs. The early modern period also saw more secular analyses of superstition in Sir Thomas Browne's (16051682) Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) and the works of other collectors and denouncers of "vulgar errors" who preceded and followed him. These writers included superstitions among other false beliefs. Although in many places endorsing the theory that superstitions had been handed down from ancient pagans, Browne and his successors had more interest in cataloging and analyzing individual superstitions than did the theologians and religious polemicists. Their work contributed to the later development of the anthropological study of superstition.

The Spectator on Superstition and Enthusiasm

In an issue of the Spectator dated 20 October 1711, Joseph Addison distinguished between superstition and enthusiasm, linking superstition with Catholicism, enthusiasm with Protestant Dissent, and "masculine piety" with the group he himself was a member of, the Church of England.

An Enthusiast in Religion is like an obstinate Clown, a Superstitious Man like an insipid Courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of Madness, Superstition of Folly. Most of the Sects that fall short of the Church of England have in them strong Tinctures of Enthusiasm, as the Roman Catholick Religion is one huge overgrown Body of childish and idle Superstitions.

The Roman Catholick Church seems indeed irrecoverably lost in this Particular. If an absurd Dress or Behaviour be introduced in the World, it will soon be found out and discarded: On the contrary, a Habit or Ceremony, tho' never so ridiculous, which has taken Sanctuary in the Church, sticks in it for ever. A Gothic Bishop perhaps, thought it proper to repeat such a Form in such particular Shoes or Slippers. Another fancied it would be very decent if such a Part of publick Devotions were performed with a Mitre on his Head, and a Crosier in his Hand. To this a Brother Vandal, as wise as the others, adds an antick Dress, which he conceived would allude very aptly to such and such Mysteries, till by Degrees the whole Office has Degenerated Into an empty Show.

Their Successors see the Vanity and Inconvenience of these Ceremonies; but instead of reforming, perhaps add others, which they think more significant, and which take Possession in the same manner, and are never to be driven out after they have been once admitted. I have seen the Pope officiate at St. Peter's where, for two Hours together, he was busied in putting on or off his different Accoutrements, according to the different Parts he was to act in them.

Nothing is so glorious in the Eyes of Mankind, and ornamental to Human Nature, setting aside the infinite Advantages which arise from it, as a strong, steady masculine Piety; but Enthusiasm and Superstition are the Weaknesses of human Reason, that expose us to the Scorn and Derision of Infidels, and sink us even below the Beasts that perish.

source: Donald F. Bond, ed., Spectator, 2:289290.

Superstition in the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods

Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume (17111776) and Joseph Addison (16721719) adapted the "virtue of the mean" model of superstition by defining the opposite extreme not as atheism or irreligion but as enthusiasm or fanaticism. Hume considered the different social consequences of the two extremes. Hume claimed that superstition originated in the fear of the unknown and that people undertook superstitious activities to propitiate unknown forces and thus protect themselves. Superstition sprang from excessive fear, enthusiasm from excessive confidence. However, Hume claimed that superstition was far more dangerous to society than enthusiasm. Superstitious people, afraid to approach the divine directly, handed over authority to priests, whereas enthusiasts refused to admit any intermediary between themselves and God. Superstition encouraged timorousness, and enthusiasm encouraged fearlessnesstherefore despotic government and political passivity naturally accompanied superstition. Socially, eighteenth-century thinkers identified superstition with marginalized groupspeoples outside Europe, the European masses, and women, particularly old women.

Some radical Enlightenment philosophers broadened the concept of superstition until it described all organized religions. The entry on superstition in Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary recounted how various Christian and non-Christian sects have accused each other of "superstition." By pointing out that there is no religion that has not been denounced by another as superstition, Voltaire discredited organized religion generally. Both Voltaire and Hume hinted that the inevitable superstition of the masses might not be altogether a bad thing, if it kept them quiescent.

The Romantic era saw a more positive valuation of superstition, part of the reaction against Enlightenment rationalism and the growing interest in "folk" culture. The English poet John Clare (17931864) viewed superstition in his country as a remnant of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans and spoke of it almost rhapsodically. "Superstition lives longer than books; it is engrafted on the human mind till it becomes a part of its existence; and is carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled with the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with" (Clare, p. 301). The human sciences that emerged in the nineteenth century considered superstition and particular superstitions part of their subject matter, and anthropologists and folklorists collected and analyzed them while psychologists sought the root of superstition in the human mind.

Superstition in the Modern World

Superstition in the modern era is less likely to be contrasted with true religion and more likely to be viewed as the opposite of science, reason, or modernity. Campaigns to abolish superstition have continued but have not usually been motivated by interest in purifying religion. The early twentieth-century Chinese government in its efforts to modernize Chinese culture employed a new concept, mixin, usually translated as "superstition," to denote many aspects of popular religion previously called xie, "heterodoxy." This linguistic change accompanied a shift from the Neo-Confucian strategy of incorporating popular religion as a support for the established order to one of actively suppressing many aspects of it. The Chinese nationalist government's 1928 decree "Standards for Preserving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines," attacked superstition as opposed to science and progress. The decree distinguished between cults, which remained permissible, mostly those of deified humans such as Confucius and the Buddha, and "superstitious" cults, which were outlawed, mostly those of nature deities such as the god of rain. It was followed by several other antisuperstition edicts attacking divination and other magical practices.

Even when lacking the coercive power of a state or church, rationalist and scientistic polemicists continue to describe the beliefs of their opponents as superstitious. Psychologists have investigated the human propensity for superstitious beliefs, attempting to identify those populations most and least likely to adopt superstitions. The causes for superstition they have put forth include the human propensity to ascribe meaning to coincidence or to assert control over uncontrollable events. Much of this work has been placed in a context hostile to superstition, seeing the identification of superstition's causes as essential to fighting it and defending rational thought. The idea of "superstition" has even been broadened beyond human beings; B. F. Skinner (19041990), in his 1947 paper on "Superstition in the Pigeon," gave a behavioralist interpretation of superstition. Skinner claimed to have produced in pigeons a tendency to repeat behavior associated with food getting, even when there was no real causal connection between the behavior and the appearance of food. He suggested that superstitious beliefs in humans could originate in the same way.

Anthropologists and folklorists have continued their studies of superstition, producing a myriad of studies of superstitions in particular geographical areas, among particular subcultures such as actors or baseball players, and concerning particular subjects, such as cats or fertility.

See also Demonology ; Magic ; Miracles ; Religion ; Witchcraft .

bibliography

Bacon, Francis. The Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral. Edited with an introduction and notes by Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bond, Donald F., ed. The Spectator. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Campagne, Fabian Alejandro. "Witchcraft and the Sense-of-the-Impossible in Early Modern Spain: Some Reflections Based on the Literature of Superstition (ca. 15001800)." Harvard Theological Review 96 (2003): 2562.

Ciruelo, Pedro. Pedro Ciruelo's A Treatise Reproving All Superstitions and Forms of Witchcraft, Very Necessary and Useful for all Good Christians Zealous for Their Salvation. Translated by Eugene A. Maio and D'Orsay W. Pearson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977.

Clare, John. "Popularity in Authorship." European Magazine, n.s., 1, no. 3 (November 1825): 300303.

Duara, Prasenjit. "Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Modernity: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China." Journal of Asian Studies 50 (1991): 6783.

Moellering, H. Arnim. Plutarch on Superstition: Plutarch's De Superstitione, Its Place in the Changing Meaning of Deisidaimonia and in the Context of His Theological Writings. Rev. ed. Boston: Christopher, 1963.

Parish, Helen, and William G. Naphy, eds. Religion and Superstition in Reformation Europe. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Taylor, Christopher S. In the Vicinity of the Righteous: Ziyra and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999.

Vyse, Stuart M. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

William E. Burns

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Superstition

Superstition

A belief or attitude that does not correspond to what is generally believed to be true or rational.

The study of psychology generally does not include any emphasis on these seemingly irrational beliefs that motivate behavior. Nevertheless, superstitious actions are common in our society. Avoiding walking under ladders in order to ward off disaster, crossing fingers for good luck, and knocking on wood surfaces to ensure continued prosperity or avoid tragedy are examples of commonplace superstitions that have permeated society since ancient times. Sigmund Freud called such superstitions "faulty actions." Some psychologists consider them expressions of inner tensions and anxieties. Others believe intense superstitious feelings indicate some sort of mental disorder. However, there has been no reliable clinical correlation between superstitious beliefs and mental illness .

Further Reading

Lorie, Peter. Superstitions. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Rachleff, Owen S. The Secrets of Superstitions: How They Help, How They Hurt. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

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superstition

su·per·sti·tion / ˌsoōpərˈstishən/ • n. excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings: he dismissed the ghost stories as mere superstition. ∎  a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief: she touched her locket for luck, a superstition she had had since childhood. DERIVATIVES: su·per·sti·tious / -ˈstishəs/ adj. su·per·sti·tious·ly / -ˈstishəslē/ adv. su·per·sti·tious·ness / -ˈstishəsnəs/ n.

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superstition

superstition, an irrational belief or practice resulting from ignorance or fear of the unknown. The validity of superstitions is based on belief in the power of magic and witchcraft and in such invisible forces as spirits and demons. A common superstition in the Middle Ages was that the devil could enter a person during that unguarded moment when that person was sneezing; this could be avoided if anyone present immediately appealed to the name of God. The tradition of saying "God bless you" when someone sneezes still remains today.

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superstition

superstition XV. — (O)F. superstition or L. superstitiō, -ōn-, f. superstāre stand on or over, f. SUPER- + stāre STAND; see -TION.
So superstitious XIV. — (O)F. superstitieux or L. superstitiōsus.

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