Is religion a superstition?

May 6, 2015 • 10:11 am

Believers often get angry when one describes religion as a “superstition,” for they don’t want their beloved faith analogized in any way with rabbits’ feet, four-leaf clovers, or ghosts. A superstition I had as a child, and one I still rarely entertain though I don’t believe it for a second, is not stepping on sidewalk cracks lest bad fortune ensue. Is that really any different from saying you’ll go to hell if you don’t confess that you masturbated?

To resolve the issue, I looked up “superstition” in that paragon of rectitude, the Oxford English Dictionary, and found these definitions, which I give from the screenshots:

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 12.36.36 PM

and this:

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and this:

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They’re all pretty similar. (Note in #4 that it refers to a “false” religion. What’s a “true” religion?) But for the life of me I can’t see why religion isn’t a “superstition” according to these definitions. For all religions, or at least those that are theistic and posit unevidenced realities, are irrational and unfounded.

However, there’s one curious definition that, for reasons I don’t understand, removes religion from the other supernatural stuff:

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 12.37.25 PM

That is unwarranted privileging of religion! Based on these definitions, I do see religion as a form of superstition. Or do readers disagree?

217 thoughts on “Is religion a superstition?

        1. What is worse is that often times other people suffer because of “your” belief in things “you” don’t understand, or that are not real.

              1. I would settle for mine getting a reboot. It’s like Microsoft engineered the operating system…

              2. SW always makes me think of the lad in our year who sold several classmates copies of _Songs in the Key of Life_ — I can’t think of /any/ other albums that people bought — which he’d bought using his staff discount at a music shop where he worked at week-ends. Turned out, his “staff discount” was helping himself out of the stock room!


            1. One of my favorite songs of all time. Many thanks Stevie for showing others the light if they just took the time to listen.

        2. And yet a year or two later he’s writing stuff like this:

          Believers keep on believin’…
          God is gonna show you higher ground
          He’s the only friend you have around
          (“Higher Ground”)

          Let God’s love shine within to save our evil souls
          For those who don’t believe will never see the light
          (“Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away”)

          1. And reincarnation: I’m so darn glad he let me try it again / ’cause the last time on Earth I lived a whole world of sin.

            When a man generates the funk like Stevie Wonder has, I take the crunchy with the smooth. Whaddyagonnado? Believers keep on believin’ … !

  1. Yes. I routinely refer to it as either a superstition or a phobia (or both). It bears a striking resemblance to a morbidly paranoid superstitious phobia.

    The medical term for this acute anxiety disorder should be theophobia.

    1. Like many acute anxiety disorders it too has it’s origins in childhood psychological abuse, in this case, tales of an invisible magic sky boogeyman who will hurt you really badly if you even think the wrong thoughts.

      1. How the hell did you manage to get a randomly assigned gravatar that resembles a rose? Do I finally detect proof of a god? 🙂

              1. I’m afraid you’re off to a rocky start with that one. Might need to have somebody inspect the gravel in this location….


              2. I bet he’d have no shortage of down-to-earth folk hiding in some nearby cave ready to pound sand, if it comes down to that.


      1. Brilliant! Wanted to know if someone had come up with it and found this online:

        I haven’t seen referenced any specific name for “fear/phobia of reality”. However, the good news is no one stops you from “inventing” it, the way the other phobias’ names (and many, many other words) were invented.

        The most common way of naming a phobia is to use the Greek word naming the object of that phobia and the -phobia suffix.
        Greek for reality being πραγματικότητα (transliterated pragmatikoteta), and for real, πραγματική (transliterated pragmatike), you can safely use pragmatophobia to name the “fear of reality”.

        Pragmatophobia it is.

    2. This suggests to me a study to determine the correlation between anxiety disorder and religiosity. My brother-in-law often exhibits general anxiety and admits to being somewhat “OCD”. He is also a rather avid Catholic. He once said he couldn’t understand how anyone could live without religion. I told him I look at things scientifically.
      I would expect a strong correlation.

      1. However…the study would need to account for the apparent soothing (soporific?) effect that religious belief seems to have on some people. Just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that read something like “no worries — god has it covered”

      2. I recall reading in David McCullough’s wonderful “Mornings on Horseback” references he made to studies indicating asthma attacks in children often correlate with anxiety and dread, and that little Teddy Roosevelt’s attacks predominantly occurred on Sunday’s when the entire family ‘took the Sabbath’. I don’t have references to the studies, but according to Mr. McCullough there are at least a few. That point made an impression on me and, as I think back, likely was the spark that ultimately led me to read “The God Delusion” in an effort to learn how others approached the suspicions I had long had about the truth of religion.

  2. I have looked for mutually exclusive definitions of the two terms several times and have never come up with any way to separate them. Without the “special pleading” result- number 7 above which is really just a cop out.

    The interesting test is to read selected definitions of religion and superstition and have people guess which you are talking about.

    1. #7 is the dictionary equivalent of “I’m spiritual, you’re religious, he’s superstitious.”

      1. As the Oxford is based on historical principles, one really needs to read the quotations to get the full meaning of the definition, as it has been used in actual texts.

        In this case it is clearly referring to the use of “superstition” in a manifestly non-religious context, eg Politics, Law or Science.

  3. I agree that religion is a superstition. Definition number seven where the supernatural is defined as not being superstitious is inane.

  4. I would just like to add that, as a long term OCD sufferer who has been treated over many years, there are massive similarities between superstition and OCD ‘thinking’. I don’t believe that these two categories of thought can be seen as distinctly different from ‘religious’ thinking. Religion makes having these thoughts ok i.e. not supernatural because religion is organised and there are many people who share these thoughts whereas supernatural and OCD thinking is deemed to be self generated in the case of the latter and handed down outside the auspices of an organisation in the case of the former.

    In short superstition is religion without pews and OCD is the annoying little cousin who mocks both.

    1. My thoughts exactly, though I have only been an observer of OCD myself. Seems to me the common thread among all three is the drive for control over one’s environment and circumstances by application of essentially magical rituals and spells.

      1. I am OCD about germs. Must constantly disinfect surfaces etc.

        However, I can’t keep my paws off of my kitty, and I am always giving her kisses on the cheek. I have rationalized it – cutie pie ness kills germs!!!!

        1. Interestingly I was not raised a germophobe – I just always trusted that hot water and dish soap and other cleaning products were good enough; if things look clean and shiny, don’t have an odor, etc., I’m good. However a certain instinct kicked in when I started raising kids of my own and I have gotten a bit more of a serial disinfector since. I’m a bleach and alcohol man, though, and I hate scented products like Lysol: I get warm fuzzies when a bathroom smells like chlorine!

          1. The sad thing is that excessive hygiene for kids is probably detrimental. Kids raised in a bleach bubble are more likely to have life threatening allergies and such.

            Whenever it is possible, the best approach to having healthy infants is to breast feed for at least a year.

            In the age of refrigeration and easy immunizations, the main health concerns for children are not germs.

            1. Very good points all. I left the breastfeeding to my wife and ex-wife though. All five of my daughters are robust and have far fewer colds than I had as a child, and I can’t remember more than one case of flu and one serious ear infection among them. One odd thing though is the two which have serious allergies (one with each wife) are the ones who breastfed the longest. This is likely coincidental or maybe connected to mom’s diet – allergists are now also concerned that kids are getting allergies from not having early exposure to peanuts, dairy and seafood.

              Moderation in everything, including moderation, I expect we agree.

    2. Just to note, some 15 years ago my then-brother-in-law fell in with an ultra-orthodox Jewish cult in upstate New York. When he came to visit I would note that he prayed almost constantly: there was a blessing before and after everything he did, including using the toilet. I commented to my now-ex-wife that if he was affecting OCD, how would we know? It’s a very fine and blurry line.

      1. I have the hypothesis (as yet untested – another project for a psychologist!) that certain religions or religious practices attract those with OCD or similar concerns.

        This is sort of a version of the self-medication hypothesis in drug (ab)use.

        1. I see that phenomenon in so many things – political affiliations is a big one, and there is some science apparently about “conservative brains” vs “liberal brains” but I don’t know where the consensus is on that – it’s very chicken-and-egg, it seems to me – that there must certainly be a name for it. At the very least, people definitely gravitate to world views consistent with how they would like to be, and/or be seen as.

          Before finding religion, my ex-brother-in-law was obsessed with firearms and law enforcement which is very much not-stereotypical for young American Jewish males in upper-class West Los Angeles. So my takeaway was that he likes (black) uniforms, likes (black and white) rules and likes being an agent/enforcer of said rules. I also thought he would like to be able to kill someone and there is a chance his attraction to religion also stemmed from a desire to cleanse himself of ugly inclinations. He never has to ask to change seats on planes, though, because if he flies he always has his wife and several children to act as cootie barriers.

          For all of the aforementioned weirdness, he is generally a warm and kind person, and he makes his living defending, reducing fines and helping drivers regain their licenses in the face of New York’s draconian and attorney-enriching traffic laws. That’s a significant 180° flip from his days as a reserve police officer.

            1. I’ll tell you his humble and sheepish explanation to female family and friends, as to why he can no longer hug or kiss them, leads me to think he believes it is a gesture of respect and honor, not the misogynistic sleight it really is. It still makes me sad that he went that way, even though he could not have chosen otherwise.

              When his sons reach manhood he’ll need a new strategy; if and when his name pops up in a post here I’ll flag it.

  5. Based on those definitions it seems that superstition is in the eye of the beholder. The first three definitions all include the idea of a “practice considered to be irrational”. What one person considers irrational may not be considered to be so by someone else.

    So I think you’re justified in calling religion superstition, just don’t expect everyone to agree with you.

    1. Yeah, definitions 3-5 all had a certain “other ways of knowing” subtext to them.

      “Belief X may seem irrational to you but I have other ways of knowing that it is rational. Evidence for my belief? Yes, lots, just none that you would regard as evidence.”

      I’ll bet the authors of those definitions included some goddy-coddlers.

  6. I think that superstition and religion overlap.One could try to distinguish them sociologically and psychologically in a way that makes no appeal to the truth-value (if any) of either.

    Superstition generally involves fear of a kind that paralyzes the believer. Many forms of religion do this as well, and as such much religion includes superstition. Salem Puritans, etc.

    Religion involves community-building, moral codes, and sacred rituals, in a way superstition does not necessarily do. So there is !*more*! to religion than superstition, but any religion involving a lot of fear of hell-fire in a way that retards free inquiry or production of good art certainly includes superstition. (And I am not limiting the list to those religions.)

  7. In that religion is more complex and involves rituals and rites of passage in addition to communal activities and specialized practitioner, I don’t mind distinguishing it from superstition. But both are irrational beliefs.

    1. I’d certainly grant that there is a difference of scale. But, there are plenty of ritual behaviors associated with superstitions other than religions. And communal activities too.

      1. True, but religion fulfills a social role (regardless of the belief) that superstition lacks.

        1. You could say superstitions provide a positive social function too sometimes. Very few people actually believe in leprechauns any more, but it’s a way of identifying with being Irish, for example.

          There are also many cultural references associated with superstitions that no longer mean anything. The Christmas tree is an obvious one. Its origins had nothing to do with Christianity, of course, and many people celebrate Christmas for neither pagan nor Christian reasons.

          1. In time we’ll give no more thought to the “Christ” in “Christmas” than we do to the “Þórr” in “Thursday”.

            But it’d be nice to have a strong secular name for the common hibernal festival (or, for antipodeans, aestival festival) …


            1. Thanks you Ant for remembering there is a southern hemisphere, and people, not unlike you, live there! 🙂

              1. It’s hard to forget with my sister, nephew & nieces, and their offspring in South Australia!

                And then there’s beautiful Middle Earth…


              2. Plus, how could you pass up an opportunity to use “aestival festival?”

  8. Superstitious behavior is often shaped and maintained through dubious associations between events such that one event is presumed to cause another without any natural process linking the two events. So, if a baseball player performs a religious ritual before coming to bat, such as the sign of the cross, and then he hits a home run, he will tend to repeat the ritual even though there is no causal connection linking the two events.

    1. The addition of the explanation is what seems to separate “superstition” from “religion.”

      If the intention is to supplicate supernatural beings and/or forces, then it’s religion. If the intention is to to manipulate supernatural beings and/or forces, then it’s superstition.

      That’s a very fine line indeed.

      1. I think there can be a very wide gulf between some forms of superstition, and religion. People have ‘lucky’ numbers, or colors, or little rituals (I’m excluding prayer from that!), all of which have no discernible connection with religion.

        Obviously some superstitions (sign of the cross, or St Christopher medals for example) do have religious connections, but others don’t.

        1. True, but one of the interesting things about the good luck/bad luck rituals is to watch what happens when (and if) superstitious people try to explain WHY there are things like lucky numbers or rituals which ward off bad luck. Explain how that works. What’s involved? How is reality set up? What are the underlying mechanisms?

          When (and if) this starts to be elaborated it becomes clearer and clearer that we’re dealing with a world view, one with distinct metaphysics, properties, regularities, and rules. The distinction then between “religion” and “spiritual world view” can be made, but from a broader perspective it seems like splitting hairs to me.

          1. One of my family members is a rather compulsive gambler. He was raised Catholic including a proper schooling at Catholic parochial schools but hasn’t attended Church in probably going on five decades. He doesn’t believe what the Church says but hasn’t ever taken that all the way to apply to God (why so many people seem to stop there is another story altogether).

            Anyhow, I qualify his thinking as more magical when it comes to things like lucky numbers. It’s as if luck is an irreducible, undetectable thing that permeates human experience. This combined with a basic lack of understanding about how odds work results in a lot of money lost. He seems to understand that the casinos “rig the system” so that they win, but like with God, doesn’t extend the thought process to figuring out how they “rig” it. As is typical, he’s prone to notions such as lottery numbers being due, hot streaks (there’s demonstrably no such thing), and then he finally crosses over into a more spiritual view when he says, “someone up there’s looking after me” when he occasionally wins.

            I think the best anecdote of his complete inability to grasp probability is when I joked one day that he should always buy 2 lottery tickets, because the second purchase is the only time you can double your odds for a dollar. He claimed this was untrue, and didn’t bother to explain what exactly he thinks the odds are in this case. Enough said…

            1. Well, in some gambling contexts, certain numbers (or cards, or choices) may be more probable. And this is sometimes counter-intuitive, like the Monty Hall problem.
              So I can see how certain numbers would get to be seen as ‘lucky’, and of course once this arises, selective recollection tends to reinforce this.

              I don’t think most believers in ‘lucky’ (or unlucky) numbers try to contemplate any mechanism for it though, they ‘just are’.

              1. Yes, and there are professional gamblers who figure out when the odds are in their favor and manage to make money. This entails precisely the opposite of “The Lucky Number” mentality; i.e, understanding some math and how the games actually work.

                I think it’s safe to say there are no such people who can game lotteries in this way, except for maybe these guys. Safe to say, they’re well beyond the level of needing to have the fact explained to them that 1:20,000,000 odds are only half as good as 2:20,000,000 odds.

              2. I don’t think most believers in ‘lucky’ (or unlucky) numbers try to contemplate any mechanism for it though, they ‘just are’.

                I forgot to address this in my last response. You’re absolutely right that they don’t contemplate it, especially viewed in the light of “your” lucky numbers or “my” lucky numbers. How precisely can these numbers both be lucky when only one set of them can win in a given game? I’d venture to say that the set that hits the jackpot is lucky (but not in a magical predetermined sort of way) regardless of who holds the ticket.

      2. I honestly have a really difficult time telling the difference between Christian prayers and Pagan spells, save for the names of the deities. Cast out demons in the name of Jesus, ask some goddess to help heal some sick person if she so wills it…it’s all the same thing.


        1. The usual distinction which the believers make themselves is that the Christian tends to ask like a subordinate child whereas the mystical pagan is ’empowered’ with the knowledge that an understanding of spirituality brings. In more traditional religions God is an Authority; the Goddess/Unity of Consciousness/Vitalistic Energy Fields (or what have you) is supposed to more or less be equal or equivalent to our own True Nature.

          To us, that’s minor quibbling. To them, the differing moral status of these views are such a big fat hairy deal that they just can’t possibly be grouped together, the one is just nothing like the other.

          1. For the life of me, it feels like two neighboring London suburbs arguing how their…locust…?…grasshopper…?…ah…yes…cricket teams are nothing at all like each other.


  9. I read definition #7 as damning with faint praise. I.e., although religion is likewise “irrational” and “unfounded” and “erroneous,” it doesn’t count (for reasons unspecified) as a superstition. 😉

  10. The OED offers usage definitions above, such that selected item 7 is accurate and might best be summarized thus: “superstition is that other guy’s religion.”

    1. Depends on context though. When it suits them, for example when a more Sophisticated apologist is attempting to defend religious belief against nonbelievers in a public venue, they will toss some conciliatory word salad towards the other guy’s religion. I liken it to the image of a politician kissing babies when it suits and stealing their candy when no one is looking.

      1. Yeah. Just this morning I saw a clip of Bill O’Reilly defending Islam against all those “offensive” cartoons.

        Billo would normally be screaming about the Mooslem Menace™, but in this instance he decided supporting religion’s ability to censor took precedent.

  11. It is probably an interesting story as to how, and when, definition #7 came to be added to the list in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  12. Religion is defintely a category of superstition by any reasonable assessment free of a prior committment to religion. The reason for cagey definitions that reference “false religion” or specifically exclude religion is because our societies have been dominantly Christian for many centuries and respect for the specific category of superstition that is religion is, as we all know, firmly entrenched.

    1. Our parliament still starts with a prayer each sitting day. It includes the words, “… the maintenance of true religion …”.

      1. “True religion”

        A delightfully ambiguous phrase, capable of many interpretations, some of them oxymoronic.

  13. I take #7 as superstitions don’t have to be based on religion. But since it’s #7, this kind of superstition is more the exception. Not to worry.

    1. I too took definition 7 to cover all those superstitions not previously covered by earlier definitions (i.e., those connected to religion or the supernatural). I do not believe it is intended to undo the preceding definitions.

      In this way multiple definitions are additive. Example: inflammable can mean a) a thing that is capable of burning, and b) a thing that can not be burned.

      1. I saw it like that too. To me, there’s no doubt it’s a superstition, and it will remain one unless and until it can be proved otherwise. It seems to me believing a superstition should be considered a mental illness, but it’s not a subject I know much about.

        1. According to psychologist John Schumaker, the dividing line between superstition and mental illness cannot be drawn without knowing cultural context. If everybody else is doing it, then it takes no special problems in thought processing to buy into it — regardless of how ‘crazy’ it seems.

          He tells of a time when people in an African village brought a woman in for psychological treatment because she was hearing voices.

          “But you ALL hear voices,” he objected.

          “Yes, but she hears them at the wrong times,” they explained.

          1. It’s similar, I suppose, to everyone wondering how others can believe the supernatural stuff in their religion, but but see anything wrong with believing the supernatural stuff in their own. They think winged horses are crazy, but not talking donkeys.

              1. Listen closely, I’m not lion. You can verbally abuse me all you want, but Dawn Treader on me.

  14. Of *course* religion – *all* religions, I should say – are nothing but superstition. When asked if I’m religious, I always answer, “No, I’m not superstitious.” That causes the questioner to walk away thinking. Or at least to leave me alone on the subject, which is all I really want.

  15. I think it is helpful to maintain the difference between religion and superstition. Superstitions are the interpretations of events or manipulation of actions in order to predict the future, explain the present or bring about an outcome. Religions certainly contain superstitions, and yes they’re both based in fiction. I think it’s a mistake to consider a creation story, which has symbolic and mythological value, on the same level as confession. (Three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers, Professor Ceiling Cat. Go and sin no more.)

    1. Yet when a story is believed to be truth rather than fiction; and when aspects of that story become the basis for a system of superstitious beliefs and actions (such as the Catholic sacraments), where then is your value distinction? Indeed, for devout Catholics, belief in the ‘real presence’ at the Mass is, I suspect, of far greater importance than the ‘symbolic and mythological value’ of the story of the Last Supper from which it is theologically derived.

      1. I am trying to look at religion as a phenomenon and not from the point of view of any particular believer. To add to your examples, I think there are legitimate distinctions among the story of the Last Supper, a belief in the real presence and the belief that you can’t eat blackberries after St. Michael’s Day because the devil spits on them.

      2. According to the Catholic Church:

        Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition.

        As I noted above, the religious seem to think the distinction has to do with whether you are supplicating or manipulating. Plus special pleading on top of that.

  16. I think David Hume and Bertrand Russell would regard religion as superstition, in that they could find no rational basis for believing any of the doctrines of religion. We owe a great debt to the English philosophers from Bacon to Mill for bringing enlightenment values to our modern world. Separating religion from morality is important and for this we need to thank Socrates and his dialogue entitled Euthyphro. Humans have been struggling against religious dogma for close to 2500 years. Perhaps longer.

  17. My college girlfriend had a number of superstitions and it was surprising to me how infectious they are. She believed putting shoes or hats on the bed were bad luck, and 30-odd years later I find myself hesitating when I am about to do that, say, when I am packing a suitcase. Yet none of her “good luck” superstitions stuck with me at all.

    I suppose humans are biased, more and less, toward avoiding negatives than pursuing positives and I fall into the “more” camp – integrating the practices of a loved one despite my lifelong intellectual understanding that superstitions are complete BS. How much more powerful this kind of thinking must be for the credulous!

    1. Well, depending where on the bed you put the shoes, that might not be superstitious. If the sheets are down and the shoes are dirty, that’s a pretty well-founded reason not to do it.

  18. Superstition is religion in a clown suit.

    Religion is superstition in a storm trooper uniform.

  19. I think it’s pretty obvious what a true religion is. Mine is a true religion. All the others are false.

  20. As far as beliefs go, those definitions are tautologies to me. I struggle to think of a religious belief that isn’t irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance. There’s also no such thing as a true religion, any more than there’s such a thing as an alternative biology or alternative medicine. Merely to believe in the supernatural at all strikes me as excessively credulous.

    I might have some leeway for practices or ceremonies, depending on what people actually do them for. If someone goes to church for personal fulfilment or to feel uplifted, inspired, comforted, or just plain entertained, I don’t see how one could dispute that. It’s not superstition to seek those personal experiences.

    If they do it because they think it gets them closer to God, see my first paragraph.

  21. Superstitio was early on defined as an ill-belief similar to heresy, but more widespread among the common folk, and often the same as what is scholary called “folk belief”. When Christianity became the dominant religion, it was also the public religion and as such official and visible. In contrast stood the more private, pre-Christisn influenced beliefs — the superstitions. Something “untheological”, without Sophisitcated Theology etc. yet not downright occult or heretic (because superstitions don’t have any coherent system behind them, they are “misc woo”).

    Since the term has a history that is Christian and has a specific meaning that assumes one Christian theology (Catholocism, and perhaps Lutheranism) as the “correct”, “official” beliefs, it cannot be used — in my book to describe common Christian beliefs, similar as Heresy.

    Technically though there are no such things as correct religious belief systems anyway, as none are testable and each is as worthless as the next. But it would still be weird to call all religion “heretical” because each version is heresy to next. We have to “joost” the whole thing and can’t use terms from within its system and apply it to itself.

    1. TL;DR: superstition is the opposite to a “proper religious belief system” and since we reject this premise, there can’t be an opposite.

      1. “Superstition” though has also taken on what I’d consider a secular meaning, one which divorces the term from its heretical connotations and contrasts it not with ‘true religion,’ but with practical reality. As cultures become more and more focused on human concerns as opposed to divine ones, the complaint “But doing that doesn’t work” becomes a valid objection.

        1. Fair point. Related to that, they could also be described polemically or rhetorically as superstitions, which is entirely valid as well, since there are more ways to persuade than just syllogisms or by-the-Oxford-tome definitions.

  22. One commenter on this site yesterday referenced this wikipedia article:

    Quoting here from it:
    “Kierkegaard … thought that the act of faith requires a leap into the void, which amounts to a sacrifice of the intellect and reason.[2] This was quintessentially expressed in the traditional dictum, credo quia absurdum, ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ This view of faith is rejected by the Catholic church, which regards reason as a path towards direct knowledge of God.[3]”

    You see Catholic faith is based on reason! It’s not superstition. I suppose this must be true because the bible says so!

    This all reminds of the Eastern German state calling itself the “German Democratic Republic” – never mind that there was nothing democratic about it. (Because liberal democracy is not real democracy.)

    This also reminds me of something the theologian John Haught said in a Q&A session after a debate with PCC:

    I disagree with almost everything Jerry [Coyne] said. He has a different definition for almost everything we talked about tonight – truth, science, and so forth …” (
    at 2:20 minutes of the video)

    Wanna win an argument? Well, one way to do so is to supply your own private definitions of key terms. And you shall find that religion is based on evidence and reason … But not that other religion (that is superstition!). No, just my own religion.

    1. You see Catholic faith is based on reason! It’s not superstition. I suppose this must be true because the bible says so!

      The trouble with that rather juvenile claim is that Roman Catholic theology is heavily philosophical, and does not take the Bible as determinative for philosophical theology. The Bible may play this role in evangelical fundamentalism, but few of the churches, from Anglicans to Roman Catholics, give this determining role to the Bible. Indeed, on of the objections made to providing the Bible in the vernacular, is that people would come to think that all Christian doctrine must be supported by a literal reading of scripture, and yet Christianity has a long and distinguished history of theological and philosophical creativity in their effort to say what it makes sense to say, given the scriptural record, as well as what we know (ndependently) about the world. It simply does not follow that a doctrine must be true because the Bible says so. There is no doctrine of the incarnation in the Bible, or of the Trinity. Purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible. And even the doctrine of the atonement (what Jesus does for humankind) has never received a definitive expression. The old slogan was: “The Bible to teach, the church to prove.” And no single endeavour to systematise Christian belief has never achieved universal approval.

      As to your last paragraph, there is much more recognition in what might be called “ecumenical theology” that other religions may have discerned ways to the truth, and that Christianity was wrong to make hegemonic claims. Of course, you won’t find such recognition amongst fundamentalists, but then you shouldn’t expect to find it there. The trouble is that you seem to know so little about philosophy of religion, let alone theology, so you seem reduced to parroting tired old clichés which are, at most, only true of fundamentalists, who do in fact treat the Bible superstitiously as a source of all truth.

      1. Are there Catholics who don’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus? I’m not aware of many, certainly the Pope wouldn’t go along with that notion. And if the believers-in-resurrection don’t take the Bible as the determining authority for the ressurection, on what do they base their belief?

        1. I’ve long said that I believe that there are fewer professional clergy (including RC priests of course) who believe in the literal resurrection than there are scientists who don’t believe in evolution. No way to prove this. If you ask them, then of course they will say they believe in the resurrection.

      2. “a long and distinguished history of theological and philosophical creativity in their effort to say what it makes sense to say”

        creativity |ˌkrieɪˈtɪvədi|
        the use of the imagination or original ideas

        Well… no argument there. They’re just making shit up.

        “no single endeavour to systematise Christian belief has never achieved universal approval.”

        Well, I wonder why that is? Different people making up different kinds of shit?

        “there is much more recognition in what might be called ‘ecumenical theology’ that other religions may have discerned ways to the truth”

        Realising that other people’s shit is no more or less shitty than ours.

        Oh. Are we talking about scatology or eschatology?


        1. You jumped on the word creativity the same way I jumped on Goldberg’s use of “imagine a God” in the piece about Charlie Hebdo. It really does stand out and the Church does base its teaching on philosophy (much of it bad in light of what we actually know about the world now). Maybe Aquinas had something reasonable 800 years ago before we even had a clue about the the scope of our own solar system, never mind the Universe or the origin of life.

          I do think Eric has a valid point, trotting out, “It’s not in the book!” is not the way to make an impression on someone who follows Catholic doctrine. It’s brushed away in the same way we brush away silly claims that we should be dolorous because Nietzsche says so. As always, address the claims being proposed (and there really is no wiggle room in Catholic doctrine for denying Jesus rose from the dead), because every theist seems to have some unique definition of God and somewhere along the line, there’s some imagined/created attributes for this God. Part of Catholic philosophy for the incoherent parts of these attributes is replacing nonsensical with “mystery.” I’m sorry, there is no mystery about how one God can also be three people nor is there a mystery about ex nihilo creation; a mystery involves having something that we actually know about that needs investigation to be explained. We don’t know there’s a trinity and we don’t know anything was created ex nihilo (other than a great deal of the steaming mounds of shit that the Church spews). Here’s a similar mystery for you: How in the world did I type this post from Europa with no space suit on yet all humans require oxygen to breath?

  23. Superstition is actually a nice word for it. I sometimes think of it as magic bigotry: the magic of others is false and inferior, but my magic is the true and real magic.

  24. When I was teaching, especially in class discussions of novels, sooner or later a character or plot-turn would come into view that involved superstitions and acts based on them. ‘Huck Finn,’ for instance, is full of these. Students would often pooh-pooh the character’s naive belief in such things. So I would ask: what is a superstition? Does superstition entail the supernatural? (yes) Do most of us in this class believe in the supernatural? (yes) Then we are superstitious! (no) For superstition is simply a particular manifestation of a supernatural metaphysic (oh, no!).

    There I left it, unless a (rare) curious student offered to follow the logical trail to its conclusion: that any religion, from Vodou to Universalism, must be superstitious, since all religions posit the supernatural as a if not the ground of reality.

    ‘Ain’t superstitious, but a black cat crossed my path.’

    1. When dealing with the young, I can see an important educational mode is to pose such questions as you suggest here, and let it hang in the air. It is, in fact, a sort of Socratic approach as you are inviting the student to take away something to digest, which is definitely superior to an attempt to instill an answer.

  25. I see religion as a framework supporting a series of myths that are codified forms of various superstitions.

    So, I think that’s a yes, or mostly a yes, to PCC. Religion is an abstracted form of superstition.

  26. I’m guessing the OED meant to exempt the CoE.

    Say what you will about rabbits’ feet and four-leaf clovers; they at least verifiably exist in the material world.

      1. Same could be said, I suppose, for the poor 4-leafer pressed between the pages of a book. But both the rabbit’s foot and the clover are “lucky” to have us preserve them, in the same sense that the slaves who sailed away from Africa to America were lucky they no longer had to run through the jungle and scuff up their feet.

  27. Religion fundamentally embraces superstition. It embodies habit and tradition and daily structure with the motivation of everlasting salvation.

    Robert Saplosky has convincing arguments for this within: “Evolution, religion, schizophrenia and the schizotypal personality”

    Sapolsky on Religion

  28. It may be from AA Milne, this having to avoid the lines in the sidewalk, or the bears will come out at the corner. No, I don’t believe it either, but still, in old age, when walking on city sidewalks, it comes to mind. That’s immortality, Mr Milne!!

  29. Since so many religious doctrines are based on rational considerations about the universe (whether you agree or not) it is simply wrong-headed to categorise all religion as superstition, as the dictionary quite rightly points out. You may certainly cavil at the justifications that people provide for religious beliefs, but you cannot simply dismiss their metaphysical arguments as superstitious without any justification for doing so. Scientists too sometimes have erroneous beliefs which perdure for many generations, and are based on supposed models and their confirmation. It would be inappropriate to speak of superstition in such cases. They are simply in error. In the same way, philosophers and theologians who base their defence of religious beliefs on rational argument, can scarcely be accused of superstition, though it is certain justified to show that their arguments are no successful and that they are therefor in error. This is especially true of those who argue against established positions in science. In such cases, religion does become superstitious, which is basically a claim that events in the world are caused by no known or discernible cause. But religious beliefs do not need to include positions which contradict science, and many philosophers of religion and theologians attempt to produce such arguments. Simply dismissing their efforts as superstition might be satisfying to those who disbelieve, but, just as in science, if you are not prepared to meet such people on their own ground, and show that their arguments are unsuccessful, it is only reasonable to accept that some religion is not superstitious within the meaning of that word. This is precisely my opposition to Richard Dawkins T-Shirt, with the slogan, “Religion – there is a cure,” because neither Dawkins, nor anyone else to my knowledge, has been prepared to meet theologians on their home ground, and scientists insist that others must do with respect to science. The suggestion, therefore, that religion is a mental dysfunction, while it may be true of some, is not obviously true of all. Show that it is, without question, by demolishing the arguments of those who defend religion on rational grounds, and the word ‘superstition’ might be applicable to all relgions, and certainly not with all expressions of religious beliefs and their defence. To my knowledge, none of the new atheists has ever attempted to do this. They are quick with the slick put down, but are not familiar enough with philosophy of religion to justify their animus.

      1. I believe Jerry himself tried to meet theologians etc on their own turf by reading extensively from books by “sophisticated theologians”. It didn’t help at all. And he did report and provide arguments against their arguments.

        It is just not true that the new atheists and others such as those commenting here have not dealt with the “real” views of sophisticated theologians. They are not straw-manning at all. It’s just that there are only so many times one should have to argue against poor arguments when the other side is not responding in a like fair-minded way. Eventually one has to call crazy “crazy”.

    1. I think this confuses two different things. It’s true that many religions are borne from attempts to grapple with keen philosophical issues, such as ethics, cosmology, epistemology, human nature, and aesthetics and the nature of beauty, and it’s true there’s no complete account of these issues from scientific fields, even if one could try and argue that such an account is forthcoming.

      But that doesn’t make the metaphysics borne of such consideration rational, and it certainly doesn’t make the religions themselves rational. It’s not that they are “merely in error”. Their beliefs really are irrational, unfounded, and excessively credulous, to an unusual extent, and have been shown as such repeatedly. On the credibility of their beliefs, nearly all of the “sophisticated” theologians are no better than the creationists and IDers. Jerry’s picked apart plenty on this site to make that clear.

      Moreover, the arguments of those who defend and apologize for religion on rational grounds have been demolished, over and over, thoroughly, and by multiple new atheist authors such as Dennett and Harris. You might not find the arguments convincing, but it’s incorrect to act like they were never made.

      1. By demolish I am going to assume that you mean comphrensivoely refute and reply that you are wrong.

        Dennett and Harris make great cases for why their properly basic assumptions are correct.

        They make great arguments about why they think religion is false, but neither has demonstrated a thorough grasp of the properly basic assumptions held by those they seek to ‘demolish.’

        1. I disagree. To pick Jerry himself, we’ve seen the “properly basic assumptions” of a full range of believers, from bible-thumping creationists to the relatively subtler theologians and religious apologists like David Bentley Hart, Alvin Plantinga, John Haught, Karen Armstrong, and Terry Eagleton.

          The kindest things one could say about the latter – who I presume are the ones considered to hold the strongest arguments – are that their “assumptions” can best be defended with arguments from ignorance (which invites the Celestial Teapot analogy), that their vague redefinitions of terms like “god” are suspicious, and that many of their appealed arguments assume or arbitrarily include a deity or equivalent in what may sometimes start out as a promising argument (for instance, Plantinga’s evolutionary argument for a divine sense). Where the arguments are too vague to be grasped, it’s usually no better than an obvious ploy of confusion. Where they are grasped, they’re either invalidly reasoned or based on questionable premises.

          Thus, as far as any kind of robust defence of religion goes, I think “demolished” is the accurate way to describe how it’s fared. It’s not merely that particular arguments in the field are unsound or weak; it’s that the arguments for the field existing in the first place are unsound or weak. Theology cannot justify itself the same way philosophy, for instance, can. To paraphrase an apocryphal quotation from Laplace, “Sir, we have no need of that subject.”

        2. “properly basic” – aha! I detect a whiff of some plantings (see the Philosopher’s Lexicon – which seems offline at the moment), dare I say?

          IOW, “belief in god is just as rational as believing in the psychological faculties of other humans.”

          You can see where this is going …

    2. Since so many religious doctrines are based on rational considerations about the universe (whether you agree or not) it is simply wrong-headed to categorise all religion as superstition, as the dictionary quite rightly points out.

      But that’s true of out-and-out superstitions, too. It is, indeed, bad luck to walk under a ladder!

      But religious beliefs do not need to include positions which contradict science, and many philosophers of religion and theologians attempt to produce such arguments.

      Actually…by definition, they do. They must.

      There are certainly a number of rational positions held to within various religions…but those stand entirely on their own, religion or no.

      The purely religious beliefs? They contradict science, blatantly and with malice aforethought.

      And we know this because one is commanded to hold to those beliefs through faith, not reason.

      Pick pretty much any story you might like from the Bible — Adam and Eve, the Flood, the Jesus incident…we can be as certain that none of them happened as we are that Zeus does not take the form of a bull in order to have conjugal relations with human women.

      They are, pure and simple, primitive superstitions.

      And, once you’ve stripped out all such superstitions and the beliefs (such as the anti-ghey rhetoric in Leviticus) drawn from them…what, exactly, of religion is left?



    3. Since so many religious doctrines are based on rational considerations about the universe

      Without getting into specifics, I would say that generally, their rational considerations came to irrational conclusions – that’s where the problem is.

      you cannot simply dismiss their metaphysical arguments as superstitious without any justification for doing so

      Is that what’s happening? Are people dismissing the arguments? I don’t think so, they’re dismissing the conclusions, which are (again, without getting into specific examples) generally evidence-free.

      neither Dawkins, nor anyone else to my knowledge, has been prepared to meet theologians on their home ground

      What would this look like? Can you be specific? Where would you start? By home ground would it mean assuming gods and magic are real? How do we know this?

      To my knowledge, none of the new atheists has ever attempted to do this.

      Aren’t there already entire books on this?

      1. “I don’t think so, they’re dismissing the conclusions”

        Yes! What’s the point in engaging with a rational argument, however elegant, that comes to an irrational conclusion!

        (Back to the Courtier’s Reply!)


        1. Hence the mildly mocking phrase of many of the gnu’s making fun of the (il)logic of the sophisticated theologians – in which I include ID’ers, and the Catholic catechism writers “yada yada yada – i.e. some true statements about as yet unsolved scientific problems ERGO JESUS.”

          The first parts are true. The conclusion is an assumption not supported by the first part. That is the definition of faith really.

          And this has been pointed out by Dawkins and etc numerous, numerous times. Do the work and find it.

          1. Here’s an example of The Catechism fitting in perfectly well with imagined gods, creativity, and unsound (superstitious) thinking:

            Paragraph 2, verse 235 says: “This paragraph expounds briefly (I) how the mystery of the Blessed Trinity was revealed…”

            Does it say? Really? Because I read the damn thing three times and it’s pretty short. I don’t see any explanation for how anything was done, only word salad dressing up a circular argument that we know God because of his actions and we know they’re his actions because we know God.

            1. Just to clarify…I’m pretty sure the “this paragraph” it’s referring to isn’t itself recursively, but, rather, “In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti.”

              And it only does what the catechism says it does if you’re sufficiently drunk or otherwise cognitively impaired….


              1. Sufficiently intoxicated, I believe that phrase doesn’t differ much from expecto patronum. Come to think of it, I’m currently sober as a judge and they still carry an equal amount of meaning.

              2. Well, the Latin means, “In the name of the Father,” and the fake Latin means, “You think your dad is coming.” They might as well be the same, especially considering Christian eschatology and the “…but it was you, not your father” twist.


    4. Eric, given enough time and enough adherents working together, “rational considerations” and “metaphysical arguments” would be forthcoming for any superstitious bit of woo you can name.

      (I have to share: autocorrect wanted to changed “superstitious” to “super stupid”. 😀 )

    5. Since so many religious doctrines are based on rational considerations about the universe (whether you agree or not) it is simply wrong-headed to categorise all religion as superstition …

      Instead of Jerry not giving enough credit to ‘religion,’ maybe you’re not giving enough credit to ‘superstition.’ As with the term “magic,” an in-depth analysis can reveal a very rich and nuanced series of explanations clustered around some basic assumptions. The veil of scorn assumed in popular discourse is not necessarily the ‘right’ way of looking at it. Enough scholarship on any phenomenon can make dismissing it look hasty and shallow.

      This is precisely my opposition to Richard Dawkins T-Shirt, with the slogan, “Religion – there is a cure,” because neither Dawkins, nor anyone else to my knowledge, has been prepared to meet theologians on their home ground, and scientists insist that others must do with respect to science. The suggestion, therefore, that religion is a mental dysfunction, while it may be true of some, is not obviously true of all.

      We don’t just look for cures for mental illness. We look for ‘cures’ for violence, illiteracy, incivility, and traffic accidents — anything considered a “problem.” I think you’re reading more into the slogan than warranted.

      As for “meeting theologians on their home ground” I’m also curious — who are these theologians, and what is their “home ground?” If it’s theology then I think that’s problematic.

    6. So you think Dan Dennet, one of the preeminent philosophers of our time hasn’t familiarized himself with some philosophy of religion?
      Or, Sam Harris, who is in fact a philosopher?

    7. I’m willing to concede that some religious beliefs that are not mainstream successfully avoid superstition; take something like pantheism. “God is everything.” Ok, I can accept that everything exists, but I’ll argue that we should call it God. Either way, this isn’t superstition.

      For crying out loud though, no one can honestly say that any widely adhered to flavor of Christianity doesn’t have superstition coursing through its veins. Let’s move past the rational arguments of Aquinas based on philosophy and origins of the Universe. A subset of the religion not being superstitious does not entail that the religion isn’t superstitious.

      We all seem to be in agreement that denominations adhering to the Sola scriptura philosophy introduced during the Protestant Reformation is indeed superstitious. So let’s push it back to Catholicism since it is the largest Christian denomination in the world and they are also the oldest. Now, let’s take a simple and straightforward example: They still employ a cadre of exorcists. Now, where is the rational argument for what exorcists do? Demonic possession seems to precisely fit the bill for definition #3 of superstition.

      1. Isn’t the day-to-day act of xing oneself when one feels blessed/lucky in the moment or wants to avoid harm an act of superstition?

        1. I would say yes. So is saying a prayer expecting intercessory action from a supernatural being. The Church has also officially sanctioned thousands of miracles from the sun dancing to statues weeping to unleavened bread turning into human flesh (pay no attention to the fact that this utterly contradicts the claims about essence and accidents of a thing). Again, there’s nary a philosophical argument grounded in rationality and what we know about the world that makes it reasonable to believe that a cracker transmogrified into a piece of human flesh (a piece of human flesh from a guy who supposedly resurrected and left the earthly realm a couple thousand years ago)!

  30. “They are quick with the slick put down, but are not familiar enough with philosophy of religion to justify their animus.” –Eric MacDonald, earlier today.
    As much as commenters here like to excoriate PZ Myers, I thought his ‘courtier’s reply’ was a good answer to this objection. And on topic: I always liked the story of the famous physicist who had a horseshoe over his office door. When he was asked if he really believed in that stuff, he said: “I understood that it works whether you believe in it or not.”

  31. My religion is the true religion.
    Tolerable religion is the guy next door.
    Silly superstition is religion less than 200 years old and/or believed in Utah.
    Wild-eyed lunacy is whatever’s believed 12 time zones away.

    Ergo, beliefs become nonsense in proportion to the square of the distance from me.

    1. To my mind, this is the single most powerful argument against religion.

      The simple fact that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of religions practiced in different countries and in different times.

      A persons religious beliefs is almost entirely dependent upon the sheer coincidence of the time and place in which they were born.

      1. I don’t think that’s a very good argument against religion. Maybe one of them really is true, or maybe a set of them have struck gold? Although the correlation of variety and high confidence certainly makes you wonder.

        I think if there is a single most powerful argument, it’s that the substance of religious claims, frameworks, cosmologies, etc. are astonishing weak compared with the potential and the actual to be found in various sciences and philosophies. There’s enough mind-bending material to grasp in Big Bang physics, studies of human consciousness, evolutionary biology, and human literature, art, and history… that there’s scarcely anything worth learning from religious doctrines or theologies. Even the best bits of particular religions or theologies are usually there either by accident or because of more interesting non-religious things going on besides.

        It’s like studying homeopathy in order to become a good doctor. Even if it works for the mildest of ailments, it’s weaksauce compared with the real stuff.

        1. What you say is true – the power of science to explain and understand the world simply blows religion away.

          But, I think the reason I find the “your religion is just one of many” argument so rhetorically powerful is that it forces the believer to realise that their belief is not much more than an accident.

          Many believers have internally rationalised their faith, so that appeals to a scientific explanation of the world simply don’t have any impact on them.

          They simply ignore the science, saying that it can’t truly explain the world, or they will accept the science but still maintain that their god is the driving force behind it.

          But, make them realise that their god is just one of thousands, and that they too are an atheist in every other religion but their own, and that other people find their faith as unconvincing as they themselves find scientology or Zoroastrianism – then you’ve powerfully exposed how flimsy the basis of their faith is.

          It doesn’t always work, of course. But, in my experience, it’s a very effective argument.

      2. I don’t consider the Many Religions argument the “single most powerful argument against religion” because there are too many deeply religious people who take the view that the “core” is true and the variations are the trivial (and sometimes dangerous) interpretations human beings are likely to make.

        And if we try to argue that pshaw, there is no “core” to religion — then what criteria are we using to distinguish it from philosophy or other world views?

    1. I think that’s the right choice, pragmatically. Treatment for a delusion that’s been culturally indoctrinated since birth and that has widespread social support is likely to be entirely different than treatment for a delusion that you came up with yourself and that does not have social support. (Setting aside the question of whether it would be appropriate for a psychiatrist to treat a religious delusion at all.)

    2. Actually, a clinical psychologist can say more, but from what I understand *any* false belief that doesn’t impede (in a specific way) “functioning” is not a delusion. This is interpreted in such a way that “functioning” is a relational property with a given social environment as one of the other aspects.

  32. Yes, I’ve considered religion a superstition ever since my own dictionary trek on the same question – my reaction was that Oxford’s first definition seemed to be describing religion specifically.

    (The existence of that seventh definition doesn’t surprise me – it seems plausible that enough people don’t consider religion a superstition that the usage has appeared catalogued.)

  33. I was a devout Independent Baptist fundamentalist for 32 years before I joined another cult for 10 more years. I prayed constantly and never realized it was an obsession until I became an atheist and tried to quit praying. Surprise! 33 years later, at the age of 75 I still do it. Silently, so nobody else knows. And I know there’s no god listening, but I just can’t help thinking the words. I gave up trying a long time ago.

    Now I definitely consider any religion like I espoused–any religion that believes in a supernatural power–to be as superstitious as the idea of a black cat bringing bad luck.

    Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and most other religions fall into that category. Christianity doesn’t look for objective truth anywhere but in an old book that anybody ought to be able to debunk in five minutes. It’s pure superstition, with a little OCD thrown in for good measure

  34. From def. 7.: ” . . . belief other than that based on religion or the supernatural . . . .”

    This definitely implies certain religiosos are (presume to be) qualified to make that determination, but not others.

  35. I have always thought of it, and referred to it, as a superstition.

    It’s the same as “don’t step on a crack, you’ll break your mothers’ back”, “don’t do X or you won’t (or will) go to X (or Y).

  36. Superstition – noun
    1. a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.
    2. a system or collection of such beliefs.
    3. a custom or act based on such a belief.
    4. irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.
    5. any blindly accepted belief or notion.

    Based on the foregoing definitions, I would say theistic religions qualify as superstition.

  37. Yes it is a superstition. Now look up delusion… 🙂

    Nevermind I did, “psychiatry a belief held in the face of evidence to the contrary, that is resistant to all reason.”

  38. I generally don’t equate “religion” with “superstition” in discussions because I prefer to reserve the latter term for manipulations involving “luck.” But that’s just my personal preference for convenience. Relating to the supernatural and expecting a result defines religion as well as superstition, when you get right down to it.

    Years ago I ran across an argument by Sokol in a book Archaelogical Fantasies in which he argues in the appendix that ‘religion’ is a pseudoscience:

    Look back at my definition of pseudoscience and ask honestly whether the traditional religions fit:

    (a) It makes assertions about real or alleged phenomenon or real or alleged causal relationships that mainstream science justifiably considers to be utterly implausible.

    (b) It attempts to support these assertions through types of argumentation or evidence which fall far short of the logical or evidentiary standards of mainstream science.

    (c) Most often (though not always) pseudoscience claims to be scientific and even

    (c’)claims to relate its assertions to genuine science, particularly cutting-edge scientific discoveries.

    (d) It involves not a single isolated belief, but rather a comple3x and logically coherent system that “explains” a wide variety of phenomena (or alleged phenomena.)

    (e) Practitioners undergo an extensive process of training and credentialing.

    Items (a),(b),(d), and (e) describe the traditional religions so perfectly that it hardly needs further explanation. Items (c) and (c’) are less common in the traditional religions, but are becoming increasingly frequent in recent years among the more
    sophisticated advocates of religious ideas.

    So there’s another idea. If calling religion a superstition doesn’t call down enough brickbats from the Outraged Defenders of Faith, we can always try calling it a ‘pseudoscience’ and watch them start chucking small pieces of furniture at us.

    1. Superstition, magical thinking, pseudoscience, myth, and of course by way of theology a form of philosophy.

      Quite an ignominious list already, and I don’t think it stops there.

      Is there such a thing as “pseudohistory” [aka myth taken as history], or is history a science?

      1. Yes, there’s pseudohistory, as well as pseudoarchaeology. Skeptical sources usually examine things like holocaust denial or claims about Atlantis (which may fit your definition.) History is a scholarly discipline with standards, evidence, peer review, and reasoned arguments. Is that a ‘science?’ Depends on the definition.

      2. “Quite an ignominious list already, and I don’t think it stops there.”

        Indeed–as someone’s noted above, “delusion” is also a perfect fit.

  39. I have come to understand religion as superstition. (The taught default in comparative religion was that it was not, it was somehow ‘evolved’, but eventually I didn’t think these claims stood up under stress.)

    It also appears to me to be practiced by most as a form of repackaged magical thinking. If you behave “just right” you are supposed to “live on”, and if you pray “just right” you are supposed to get your wishes granted. Wikipedia starts to agree, some how as now DSM-5 basically agrees on that religious behavior is irrational (and only sane because it is socially accepted):

    “Magical thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation. In religion, folk religion, and superstitious beliefs, the correlation posited is often between religious ritual, prayer, sacrifice, or the observance of a taboo, and an expected benefit or recompense.”

    It is as if when children leave the period of 2-7 years, where magical thinking can be seen, think up a trick to extend the custom outside of criticism…

    Isn’t this neat? It looks like a trend of withdrawing unfounded religious special pleading!

  40. As a native spanish speaker, I looked for the reference we (spanishpikers) use to quote to solve differences regarding the meaning of a word:

    RAE stands for REAL ACADEMIA ESPAÑOLA (Spanish Royal Academy), that is an organization that states the rules and semantics for the spanish lenguaje.

    The dictionary also indicates that SUPERSTICIÓN (spanish for superstition) means:


    (Del lat. superstitĭo, -ōnis).

    1. f. Creencia extraña a la fe religiosa y contraria a la razón.

    2. f. Fe desmedida o valoración excesiva respecto de algo. Superstición de la ciencia.”

    1.- Belief different to the religious faith and contrary to reason.

    2.- Excessive faith or overvaluation about something. (For example: Superstition of science.)

    Just curious.

  41. Actually, religion is more of a ultrastition or a hyperstition – superstition taken to its ultimate irrational consequences.

    1. Which made me think that science would be hypostition or substition … only to find that the late Mr Pratchett had beaten me to it, and more elegantly:


      n. Denoting the opposite of superstition. [The term substition appeared in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Thief of Time: “‘No, they’re a substition,’ said Susan. ‘I mean they’re real, but hardly anyone really believes in them. Mostly everyone believes in things that aren’t real.'”] /@

  42. Enormous numbers of English words have multiple meanings (see Ludwig Wittgenstein). Dictionaries use numbers and letters to differentiate one meaning from another. Meaning #7, to which you took umbrage, is simply ONE meaning, one which many people do use, but only one of many.

    Of course religion is a form of superstition. Many people will agree with you on that. But many will not. So, using “many people” as your sample, it both is and is not a superstition. Just quantify it.

  43. When no one is at home you can knock all you like, the end result is always the same regardless how you approach the door.
    Superstition usually though has an element of luck attached, a good/bad result, someone/thing could be home.
    Their relevancy to life in the 21st century are both about zero. So at this level, both have parity.

  44. I often use the word “superstition” as a substitute for the word “faith” in making religious arguments sound silly–He is a man of great superstition–My superstition guided me through my life–My superstition tells me god has a plan for my life….

  45. I don’t think it is necessary for religion to be a superstition – I think it is a common co-incidence.
    A very common co-incidence.

    I really appreciate you had the wisdom to say:
    “For all religions, or at least those that are theistic and posit un-evidenced realities, are irrational and unfounded.”

    I can (and have!) imagined forming/joining a non theistic religion that did not contradict any knowledge about the world – that was not irrational and rejected superstition.

    I think a non superstitious religion is a possibility and I would support the development of such a faith.
    I would say that Buddhism is one of humanities only attempts (not fully successful) at achieving such a faith.
    My imagined True religion would not tell people what beings to believe in – it would encourage compassion, honesty, courage and the other virtues. It would say how the world *should* be – not insist that it knew how the world is made and why it was made.
    “It doesn’t matter how the world or we came to be – we should be nice to one another.” Would be one of its tenants.
    I just can’t come up with a catchy name for this religion – but it would be the religion of compassion and wisdom.
    In contrast to science which is rational and all the false religions, which are irrational – the true religion would be non-rational.

    1. Well, for certain kinds of Buddhism. Reincarnation and karma are right out.

      As Alan Watts, Anthony Grayling and others note, those kinds of Buddhism are more philosophies that religions.

      There are life stances that don’t contradict our knowledge of the world (cosmos). Humanism (secular humanism) is; according to the BHA:

      Roughly speaking, the word humanist has come to mean someone who:

      trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same. But it ain’t “a religion”!

      /@ / Humanist, naturalist & atheist

  46. I grew up in a secular (Jewish) family and definition 7 was pretty much a given. Other faiths were OBVIOUSLY superstitious, but Judaism, while containing many false truth claims, was a different category.
    I don’t think that religions are ONLY superstition, but all religions I know contain a significant superstitious element.

  47. Since religion by definition includes a supernatural component (I think), then equally by definition it must be a superstition.

    OTOH not every superstition is a religion.

  48. I always find that hilarious – many religious sects (and most of the christian and muslim ones) claim that all other religions are nothing but superstition and that they have the One True Religion / god and yet they get upset when someone from another religious sect (or cult since it’s not their One True Religion) tells them that their religion is nothing but superstition.

  49. I think of religion as a superstition. I have known very devout people who won’t entertain any notions that they might be wrong about their faith, and refuse to watch any programs or read any books that might cast aspersions on their beliefs. To me, that says they fear that they will be proven wrong and that they are being tempted by the devil to disbelieve. I seriously doubt the sanity of people who are fearful of a “devil” leading them astray.

  50. Regarding religious privilege, the OED is descriptivist, not prescriptivist. It catalogues the variety of usage and provides the earliest examples in print of each sense of a word. It does not endorse or dictate definitions.

  51. Superstition, as I understand it, is simply an erroneous causality belief, created by our tendency to see patterns that aren’t there (better to think a shadow is a tiger than a tiger is a shadow).

    Religion contains a lot of superstitions, and in some sense may be derived from superstitions (the crops must have failed because I made the sun unhappy), but modern religion, though just as false as superstition, is much more complex than mere causality mistakes. Religions contain theories of morality, of cosmology, of biology, of metaphysics, and so on, and it’s hard to equate that complicated mess with something as simple as thinking “the Packers lost because I didn’t wear my lucky foam finger to the game last week.”

    1. God created….is this not a causality mistake of the highest order and magnitude?

      If I masturbate I’ll go to hell…though doing it with a foam finger helps the Packers win.

      Now that’s a dilemma about which cause you prefer.

      1. Obviously that is the work of Satan. For if God were a Packers fan then you wouldn’t need the mastubatory magic. Logic! You atheists are so irrational, sheesh!

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