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.

18 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    In my view any claimed truth which cannot be externally verified through the senses or experimentation is emotional truth. The following hymn which I sang many times as a kid in Sunday evening youth fellowship meetings is an example of emotional truth. This truth is not as generalizable as Archimedes' ax-head, but there is some indication that positive changes have occurred in the heart for some.

    I serve a risen savior, he's in the world today.
    I know that he is living whatever men may say.
    I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
    And every time I need him, I know he's near.
    He live, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.
    He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way.
    He lives, He lives salvation to impart.
    You ask me how I know he lives, He lives within my heart.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      I think of your "emotional truth" as being more of an opinion, belief, or conviction. Hence it is "truth" with a little t. The Archimedes principle I think of more as a capital T Truth that falls into the category of non-negotiable data. The reason I think of it as opinion is because others affirm other "emotional truths" just as firmly as you do yours.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      I'm thinking that "emotional truth" must compete in the realm of public opinion for acceptance of what lifts-up humanity, and that Archimedes' ax-head, as non-negotiable data, has more or less automatically determined the direction of humanity, in this case fueling economies by filling the seas with all manner of transporting objects. The unspoken assumption is that non-negotiable data is the way for humanity to proceed. But once one starts in that direction, the use of transportation to trade with or enslave another country is an emotional decision. It doesn't seem to me that a decision to transport goods, or not, is any more important than a decision to enslave, or not. I'm not comfortable with the big T, little t distinction, if it's meant as a value judgment.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Hi Gene,
      Archimedes' principle is like gravity--ignore it at your peril; in other words observing it is non-negotiable. The little t ideas that we all have by definition are negotiable, since many have other ideas and get along just fine: for example Catholics become Baptists and vice versa quite frequently. There is great danger in ignoring the BIG Ts--not so much in ignoring the little t ideas, which would seem to make the little t ideas value judgments. Of course if we live by certain little t ideas they become--to us, BIG T ideas that we regard as non-negotiable.
      Cordially
      Charlie

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    4. Hi Charlie

      Thanks for introducing me to the term "non-negotiable principle". I've tried to give the competition of "emotional truths" an equally serious look in our striving together to uplift humanity.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  2. Re: Truth and truth

    Gene and Charlie,

    Your comments above are again inspiring to me. Both reflect thoughtful consideration for what you heard growing up and how your thoughts and experiences evolved your beliefs.

    Of late I have been challenged to consider the effects of religious training received by Americans that continue to influence their thinking to the detriment of humankind. The continued conflict over abortion, LGBT rights, civil rights, immigrants, and even women equality have recently risen in conflict and enjoined by the so called Christian Right. God, various clergy, and political leaders have called on them to demand all Americans adhere to their religious beliefs. It strikes me as being both adverse to Christianity and American.

    Charlie, if you feel the subject of this comment is in conflict with your blog intent, feel free to not publish it.

    Jim

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    1. Good morning Jim,
      I think of this blog as a democratic space; any view may be expressed as long as it is done with civility, and people who post do not have to agree with me.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  3. Charlie,
    Today’s definition of “superstition” casts such a wide net that, if I accepted it as, for instance “Credulity regarding the supernatural,” (one definition) one could consider the Bible, on the whole, a book of superstitions. I understand that many take the biblical stories at face value and suspend their knowledge with a belief in supernatural or superstitious tales and reduce the Bible to a rulebook. I just finished a lengthy essay about how evangelicals, in doing this, do irreparable harm to USA society.

    Is it accurate to say that the authors were guilty of “ignorance” when we overlay our worldview upon theirs, assuming they should have our knowledge base? In this situation, it didn’t take Archimedes to tell anyone who has been around water, including I’m sure the author, that axe-heads don’t float (though Tacitus made a curious comment about the Dead Sea in “Histories”). I find it just as implausible that the author would think that one beam per disciple was sufficient to build living quarters for them. First, the story assumes that Elisha had a band of followers, not very bright – one almost poisoned all the acolytes in chapter 5,- and in the case of the “axe-loser,” not attentive. This story was another “sign” of the inheritance of a “double portion” of the spirit, as were the other “signs” in the chain leading to this. It also was a gesture that could be interpreted as keeping the peace between the acolyte and the one from whom he’d borrowed the axe, which presages the third “act.” The axe-head was not the main idea. It was the author’s prop.

    In the very next “act” one finds Elisha the mind reader reading the king of Aram’s mind and warning the king of Israel not to go where he has found they are camped. The king of Aram is so irritated he sends a heavy force surrounding the town Elisha is. In the third “act,” Elisha petitioned God to blind those Arameans, he does, and Elisha told them, “This is not the *way.*” He led them to Samaria. When they got there, Elisha petitioned and God opened their eyes, as they found themselves in the middle of the enemy. The king of Israel asked if he could kill them. Elisha told not to kill, but to feed them and send them on their way. In this, Elisha, “Baldy,” becomes one bringing people together, as with the symbolism of the acolytes and the “beams” for the dwelling.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Greetings Dennis,
      This comment is aimed at the beginning of your second paragraph. I agree that texts written before the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the advance of modern scientific thought are by definition limited in knowledge and hence critical judgment. These deficiencies render them only marginally relevant as a reliable guide for the ideas they espouse. But I would hesitate to call their authors "ignorant."
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Howdy,
      I was disagreeing with part of the definition in your first paragraph (“a belief, conception, act, or practice resulting from ignorance...). The author or compiler of 2 Kings seemed to have something more in mind than poor physics. Chapter seven, however, doesn't seem well-connected, because it contradicts the outcome of chapter six, with the famine in Samaria abutted against the Samaritan feast given the Arameans in six, so I'll have to mutter over that! Cannibalism, with donkey heads to eat for 80 pieces of silver and pigeon droppings for five, yuck! One can't accuse the author of shying away from hyperbole!
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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    3. Correction: I meant not chapter seven but the obvious break between chapter 6.23 & 6.24. Both translations of Tanakh I use (Robert Alter's and JPS) have a break at that point and I was getting ahead of myself (wondering if the "skin blanch" or "leprosy" of Naaman in ch.5 related to that of the four men at the gate in ch.7). Sometimes, when I peel the layers of "onion" I find in biblical stories, my "knife" isn't too sharp!
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  4. Good evening Charlie,

    Right now I am sitting in our office in a chair... and I know that it is a chair and I know it is supporting me as I sit here and type. I have no need to "believe" this chair will hold me up because my experience of sitting here shows me that I can trust it to support my weight. Therefore, I don't need to believe in this chair. It has been made real in my experience.

    I view superstition as something akin to "old wives tales," passed down from older generations... Walking underneath a ladder, crossing the path of a snake, breaking a mirror, etc. Just silly notions dreamed up by someone who had an experience that they associated with something negative. And as a kid- you were free to believe or disbelieve those stories, it was very lighthearted and unserious. I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that religion has to do with worshipping a deity... which is a more serious business.

    But in order to worship the divine- one must first believe the divine being exists. However- I've never heard a bible teacher or preacher admit that they don't know if said being exists.... They are unwilling to admit they don't know for certain, so they believe. And some preachers even go so far as to equate believing with knowing.

    1) Do your bible teachers claim that they "know" God exists? Or do they simply admit that they believe in his existence?
    2) Is there anything you believe in for which you don't have any proof of its existence?
    3) Does your new book address the human need to worship a divine being- where does that need come from?
    4) How do you define worship?
    5) I think you stated it very well- the difference between religion and superstition is indeed worship- but I think both practices are fear-based. Do you agree?

    Happy Memorial Day to you and everyone here at your blog, Elizabeth

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    1. Good Morning Elizabeth'
      1. I don't have any "Bible teachers" in the sense of "spiritual advisors." If by that term you mean the two leaders of my Sunday School class at First Baptist, they would likely say They know God and not just that they believe in his existence.
      2. No.
      3. No the book does not address the need to worship a Divine being. Religion is generally endemic to humankind. Where does it come from? I have always thought that God, or the Gods, served to answer the unanswerable questions.
      4. One teacher in seminary defined it as recognizing God's Worth-ship (Gaines Dobbins). Paul defines it in the following way: Your spiritual worship is to present your bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). The dictionary defines it as "worthiness, repute, respect, reverence paid to a divine being."
      5. I think of superstition and religion as generally growing out of the same human attitude. Fear is probably the correct attitude out of which it comes--to judge by the general OT maxim "fear the Lord" (for example, Ps 2:11, 111:10). The NT does try to expand that attitude to love but even in the NT fear of God is at the basis of one's relationship to the creator (e.g., 1 Peter 2:17).
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. "Atheists and theists are the same kind of people, pretending to be different. Both of the believe something they do not know."

      Charlie, do you agree with that assessment? (I think I know what you might say, but I'll wait and see if I'm correct.)

      It's hard for me to comprehend why I am supposed to fear a divine being when I don't even know if he/she exists... I don't prefer fear being the motivating factor in that scenario. However, it is impossible to have a discussion with Christians about the existence of such a being- when they claim to "know" he exists. You cannot convince them otherwise.

      Many thanks, Elizabeth

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    3. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      I do agree with your statement. Atheists and Deists are both people of faith; they just hold different beliefs about God. To talk about God as an existent is misleading. God does not exist in the usual way that we think of things existing. God, if God there be, does not occupy time and space--what we usually mean by things existing. If God did occupy time and space that would make God out to be an object. See Wry thoughts about Religion May 17, 2016: "God does not Exist."
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. Charlie,

    Did you receive a comment from me on this subject yesterday?

    Jim

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  6. Hi Jim,
    I am told that we did not receive a comment from you on this subject yesterday. Please repost.
    harlieC

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  7. Charlie, Elizabeth, & Dennis

    Re: "...the human need to worship a divine being; where does it come from?"

    In considering this question, the definition of "need" arises. There has been much scientific research on human needs, and one of the more respected researchers/authors on the subject was the renowned Abraham Maslow. A web browser on the subject or on Maslow can bring anyone a wealth of information about what has been discovered about human needs.

    There appears to be no scientific evidence for believing worshiping a divine being is a human need. Rather it appears to be one of multiple means humans have discovered/invented/leaned for enhancing non-biological needs, e.g. security, community, self worth, etc. Evidences for this among others are: it has not yet been scientifically proven, millions of humans do not believe in a divine being and survive seemingly as well as those that do believe, non human animals also survive well, etc.

    In answering the question where does this suppose need come from, the answer is clearly from human culture including parents, teachers, clergy, friends, community, etc. These are also the sources of the likes of patriotism, Capitalism, Communism, politics, religion, clubs, etc. Though all of these individual sources of human culture are merely means humans utilize to satisfy their real needs, all may also be mistakenly assumed by many to be human needs.

    Do humans need Capitalism, patriotism, clubs, churches, religion....?

    Jim

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