Saturday, May 18, 2019

Of Superstition and Religion

Adapted from the Introduction to Unmasking Biblical Faiths, pages 4-6.*

Is there a qualitative difference between superstition and religion? Perhaps, there is, but you will be the arbiter. Today superstition is defined several ways: as “a belief, conception, act, or practice resulting from ignorance; as unreasoning fear of the unknown or mysterious scrupulosity; as trust in magic or chance”; or as “a belief affording the relief of an anxiety by means of an irrational notion.”

Superstition (Greek: deisidaimonia; Latin: superstitio) in the Greco-Roman period, however, is defined somewhat differently; it is “a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants…Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.” Plutarch in contrasting the atheist and superstitious person wrote:

Superstition…is an emotional idea, and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man, for he thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the Divinity, whereas the superstitious man is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted.

Cicero contrasted religion and superstition in this way: superstition “implies a groundless fear of the gods,” and religion “consists in piously worshipping them.” In the Roman period superstition (superstitio) also came to have the idea of “bad religion,” a label by which a dominant religious group might libel a minority religious group.

The term superstition (deisidaimonia) appears only twice in the New Testament (Acts 17:22; 25:19) and to judge from Greek lexicons it is a general term for religion or excessive religious scrupulosity, which generally agrees with the judgments of Greco-Roman writers. On the other hand, religious belief by modern definition is generally seen as something quite similar to superstition, differing only in a negative evaluation given to the latter and a positive evaluation given to the former. Today faith is generally defined as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” or “a firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.” Judging from their definitions, faith and superstition actually seem to function in a similar manner. What I conclude from the shades of meaning accorded the word superstition is that superstition and faith are not two qualitatively different kinds of belief. Rather they reflect a range of similar attitudes best represented by a spectrum with superstition at one end and religious belief at the other end. They presumably meet somewhere around the middle, depending on who is describing the middle point. In short, what some define as acceptable religious belief, others will define as unacceptable superstition.

The modern definition of superstition casts doubt on much of what one finds in the Bible. For example, much of what one finds in the Bible demands a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first- century person. Educated persons will recognize that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities and hence clash with the way things usually work in the world. For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in 2 Kings (chapters 2–13) one finds among other stories of the same sort the story of an iron ax-head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1–7). Elisha, described as “the man of God,” supposedly caused the ax-head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim that the ax-head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states, an object will float if its weight is equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces. The weight of an iron ax-head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of modern physics. In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief. A true believer in biblical “miracles,” however, will claim an exception to the laws of physics by arguing that God intervenes into the way things usually work in the world to accomplish God’s desired ends, and hence this incident actually occurred. Should one describe the belief that the ax-head actually floated as superstition?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. See pages 4-6 of the introduction for the documentations to this segment.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Do Gods have Souls?

I don’t know much about God, or Gods in general; I only know what I have read and what others are happy to tell me. But I began wondering a day or so ago about the following question: do Gods have souls? The question is fraught with difficulties—defining God and defining the soul being the biggest two. Some Christian readers may even think it a silly question because the Bible describes God as spirit (John 4:24). Is it possible for spirits to have souls? In the Christian West we popularly think of ourselves as “having” souls; that is to say, an eternal immaterial aspect of a human being that leaves the material body on death. But God in the Judeo-Christian tradition does not have a material body, so how could God have a soul? Spirits (if spirits there be) have neither shape nor distinguishing form. So how can invisible spirit be indwelled by a shapeless, formless soul? The Bible says that we human beings are created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:6); so if we have a soul wouldn’t it logically follow that God, our prototype, also has a soul? Perhaps we do not have (as we think) souls (psyche) in the Greek sense:

In Homer the psyche is what leaves the body on death (i.e. life, or breath?) but also an insubstantial image of the dead person existing in Hades and emphatically not something alive. But some vague idea of psyche as the essence of the individual, capable of surviving the body (and perhaps entering another) is well established by the 5th century B.C.E.1

Like God, soul is also a slippery concept. We human beings don’t all agree that there is an eternal immaterial aspect of the human being that leaves the body on death. There most certainly is, however, an animating principle in all living beings, which the authors of Genesis recognized as appertaining to Adam (Gen 2:7): “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (which is translated in the RSV as “being”).2 Adam was created a living soul (psyche is the Greek word; nephesh is the Hebrew word). So perhaps we do not “have” soul; we are soul; that is, we are simply animated matter having no eternal aspect and when our matter loses its animation (i.e., dies) our matter returns to the dust from whence it came—at least that appears to be the Hebrew concept.

There is a third way of thinking about “soul” that I want to consider in connection with the question do Gods have souls. Soul by this third (dictionary) definition is “a strong positive feeling (as of intense sensitivity and emotional fervor) conveyed especially by black American performers,”3 particularly in “soul music,” which “is characterized by intensity of feelings and earthiness.”4 Soul by this last definition suggests, among other things, the capability of being touched to the core, among other things, by tragedies of the human condition. Does God in Western religious traditions evince such a capability? We find a few such moments in his youth during the Israelite phase of his maturation process into Christianity. Since his conversion to Christianity, however, some of his earliest votaries have been far more optimistic as to God’s ability to be deeply touched by the tragedies of the human condition; nevertheless, before his conversion, God’s behavior as depicted in the Old Testament was scarcely up to Christian standards.

If God is spirit, one can only wonder how spirits possess the capability of “feeling” deeply about anything. Feeling is one of the basic physical senses, which comes to be applied to one’s emotional demeanor. One can also wonder how it comes about that soul can be so intimately associated with spirit. At least two authors in the New Testament find spirit and soul to be two different immaterial aspects of the human constitution (1 Thess 5:23; Hebrews 4:12).

Truth be told: we humans invent our Gods;5 given that, why should we not, if we chose, conceive of a Great Eternal Invisible Spirit with soul in spite of Western religious traditions? The prospect of a soulless God is a terrifying thought.

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Christopher Rowe, Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.), 1428.
2In the Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint) psyche translates the Hebrew nephesh, which is rendered as “being” in the RSV.
3Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul.”
4Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983), s.v. “soul music.”
5Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: “God does not Exist,” May 17, 2016.