Is religion a superstition?

I haven’t been able to read the comments as often as I should, but I gather that Eric MacDonald and Ben Goren are at each other’s throats about whether religion has value apart from its truth claims, whether it’s a “way of knowing,” and, whether religion is a “superstition.” Eric maintained that religion wasn’t a superstition, which prompted me to look up “superstition” in the Oxford English Dictionary, largely seen as an authority on meaning. (Yes, I know, à la Pinker, that usages change.)

Now I know this is largely a semantic issue, but have a look at the following definitions—every one that pertains to this issue—and decide for yourself.  Then vote below (of course nobody’s gonna say “yes” or “no”: there will be explanations and qualifications.

I’ve cut and pasted them directly from the dictionary.

1 2 3 3b 3c 4 4c

JAC: note how, in the last definition, religion is given a pass, but the exception is telling:




  1. gbjames
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m gonna just say:


  2. chrissimonite
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    “a false, pagan, or idolatrous religion.” Since they’re all false, the answer is yes!

  3. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I think number 3 and 5 c and 6 b pretty much covers it.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 11, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I think 6a is on the money, actually.
      And how dare they call that usage “Obs.“?!

  4. Greg Esres
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “but I gather that Eric MacDonald and Ben Goren”

    I haven’t seen the conversation, but I will, as an act of faith, say that Ben is correct.

    Of course religion is a superstition. You’ll note that many of the above definitions are designed to not indict religion, because only irrational religious beliefs are superstition. (In other words, only other people’s religious beliefs are superstition.)

    • Greg Esres
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      And where is this exciting thread?

      • gbjames
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink


        • Greg Esres
          Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Thank you.

        • Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

          Are they getting paid by the word? 🙂

          Now that is some SIWOTI.

          I felt my own flare up, but it died down again before I could comment, when I thought about how many times we’ve already had that argument with Eric.

          • Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

            (The argument about other ways of knowing, that is.)

          • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

            Hey! I resemble that remark.

            I’m spending the time to argue with Eric because I think he’s worth it. I think he’s trying to convince himself to retreat to the comforting certainty of his pastoral days, but I don’t think he’s actually finished convincing himself yet.

            I have hopes that he’ll realize the folly of unwarranted certainty, and see that it’s not only not necessary but counterproductive in the intellectual pursuits he’s following. I’m also hoping to convince him that he needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater — that it’s perfectly fine to think the Christmas Oratorio is an amazingly powerful work while, at the same time, think that you’ve got to be insane to think it has anything to do with reality. After all, the same can be said of Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

            Come back to the dark side, Eric! We have kittehs and musiks and fudz and boots (well, Jerry has boots; closest I’ve got is a pair of work shoes) — and we also have some exciting leads on cognition and abiogenesis and we’re probably only a few years away from a GUT and cosmogenesis!



            • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

              Hey, no complaints here!

              “b&” is pretty much always the sign of a comment that’s worth reading.

  5. strongforce
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink


  6. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Apart from truth-claims, religion could have value as a social institution. Of course it is a superstition, but maybe all rituals are. So: yes, it’s a superstition. Does it have any social value? I don’t know.

    • Posted April 11, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes. But at the cost of that superstition and the social *harm* it does.

      Round Tables, Ladies Circles, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, … manage without it.


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 11, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Almost all of those things involve circles in their titles. Humans seem to like describing their social groups this way. Seems bigoted toward other geometry.

        • Posted April 11, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          Let’s form the Equilateral Curve Heptagon Table!


          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 12, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

            I think the dodecahedron table would be cool.

            • Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              And what is this presumptive prejudice y’all have for tables as the furniture of choice? And why only two dimensions?

              Why not the hyperspherical spherical bookshelf?



        • Posted April 11, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps the enthusiasm for circles stems from running around in…

          • Martyn
            Posted April 12, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            I like to think it has something to do with being a part of a spiraling universe 🙂

  7. Sastra
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    The problem with the term “religion” is that it’s very broad. Without an underlying belief in the supernatural then it’s not a religion — but that still means you can separate aspects of a religion and talk about its morals and its art and its community and so forth.

    “Superstition” is usually more focused than just indicating a supernatural belief: it usually denotes a specific magical connection between the performing of a ritual or the handling of an object … and a real-world result.

    If you make the term “religion” narrow enough and make the term “superstition” broad enough then sure, religion is a superstition. But that’s a huge concession and I’d never use it in regular conversation. So I’m probably more on Eric’s side here than Ben’s.

    But I think that when it comes to the sine qua non significance of the ‘supernatural’ and it’s necessary connection to religion, then I’m with Ben. Iirc.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this is where I stand as well!

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      Religion is a nutshell holding nutty (superstitious) beliefs. So, I would side with Eric as well, although the definitions above give me pause.

      Screw it, I’m going to say that I don’t know what I think about this.

    • Robert Seidel
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I always took “superstition” as meaning something along the lines of 5.c. I also like the definition in Wiktionary:

      1. A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behaviour in some magical or mystical way.

      So by that prayer is a superstition, but belief in god isn’t. And using it in a broader sense deprives you of a good technical term for this narrower sort of false belief.

      I would refer to religion as “wishful thinking” or “delusion”, instead.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        “So by that prayer is a superstition, but belief in god isn’t.”

        Sure, if you only believe in a “ground of being” god. But the vast majority of believers absolutely think that they can somehow supplicate their god by words or deeds in order to receive a more beneficial outcome.

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

      Of course I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it looks to me like you’re not actually more on Eric’s side.

      I think you’re approaching the two terms from a descriptive linguistic point of view: these two words simply have slightly different connotations.

      Eric seems to be arguing that some theology is not empty superstition because there is real content there that deserves to be taken seriously.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        I haven’t been following this particular debate so you could be right. But if any theology has “real content that deserves to be taken seriously” then this content wouldn’t be related to the existence of God or the truth of the supernatural and that would turn it into philosophy. Eric is apparently talking about an overlap between categories and giving the credit to theology because it’s being said by theologians. Philosophy, however, takes precedence in any overlap. If God and the supernatural are out of the picture, then we’re not really talking about ‘religion.’

        It’s like arguing that alternative medicine “deserves to be taken seriously” because naturopaths incorporate science-based medicine and modalities into their woo. Someone who looks at it this way is missing the point. A view of homeopathy which acknowledges that homeopathy doesn’t work but points out that there’s value to taking time with patients isn’t establishing that homeopathy isn’t pure pseudoscience. It is. A critic who keeps trying to bring homeopathy’s defining claims into the main focus isn’t being foolishly dismissive.

        • Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:18 am | Permalink

          Yes, I made exactly the same point over in the original thread. I used the example of a Bigfoot hunter discovering (and properly documenting) a new species of beetle in the midst of a cryptozoological expedition.



  8. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Religion is just superstition that has been institutionalized, usually by men in funny hats whose idea of “work” is asserting authority over everyone else.

    A superstitious person might claim that a particular type of yarn has magical powers. A religious person would use the yarn to make a sock puppet and call it God.

    • Scott Woody
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      Brilliant analysis and distinction vis superstition and religion, except you forgot to add the ultimate requirement of religions: You gotta raise the do-re-me. Merely superstitious folks rarely proselytize for $’s, it takes religion to go that extra mile.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        I dunno…astrologers seem to be able to make a pretty good living.

        And fortune tellers.

        And folks like the Long Island Medium, who “speak with the dead”.

  9. Dan McPeek
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    YES! No explanations or qualifications.

    Or as Elmer Fudd might say: Unakwivakwee!

  10. The Militant One
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Religion is absolutely an irrational and delusional superstition and serves no useful function that is not outweighed by its negatives.

  11. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Creator gods? Maybe not.

    Miracles, angels, demons, satan, heaven, hell, souls, praying, on and on?

    Meets my definition of superstitious.

  12. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Superstition: late 14c., “involving faith in supernatural powers or magic; characteristic of pagan religion or false religion,” from Anglo-French supersticius, Old French supersticios, or directly from Latin superstitiosus “prophetic; full of dread of the supernatural,” from superstitio “prophecy, soothsaying, excessive fear of the gods”

    Sounds like religion to me, unless, of course, your religion is the true religion.

  13. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it is

  14. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Superstition, stupid tradition. Whatever…

  15. tombesson
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    In my casual search of the dictionary, I came across the following: “The Latin word that superstitious comes from is superstitionem, excessive fear of the gods.”

    It’s those damn pesky gods doing their worst again. I’ll just go put on my lucky red socks and avoid anything untoward.

  16. George
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Off topic – Your Inner Fish debuts on PBS tonight.

    You can listen to a conversation with Jerry’s colleague, Neil Shubin, here:

  17. lamacher
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink


  18. Posted April 9, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Tacitus says of Christianity: “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular”.

    So what is now seen as “real” religion was seen by Tacitus as superstition (and mischievous, to boot). Naturally, the Roman religion which Tacitus viewed as proper and true was in turn seen as superstition when the Christians took over.

    This suggests that any religion is mere superstition until it has attained enough political or popular clout. They do not seem to differ in any qualitative value.

    • Marella
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      It’s simple, MY religion is religion, YOUR religion is superstition.

      • Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        True; luckily, if any of us wants to send people to the moon, your science must be my science and vice-versa.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Basically, in practice the distinction between religion and superstition is made on sociological grounds.

      Beliefs that are being used to hold a community together and motivate people to act according to a set of morals are called religion- if it doesn’t act this way it is superstition.

      Even that arch-skeptic and demolisher of apologetics !*David Hume*! wrote in his treatise “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm”

      “That the corruption of the best things produces the worst, is grown into a maxim, and is commonly proved, among other instances, by the pernicious effects of superstition and enthusiasm, the corruptions of true religion.”

      However, Hume tended to be ambiguous of his religious views in spite of demolishing most of the classical arguments for God in his “Dialogues on Natural Religion”.

  19. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    A religion is a superstition with an army and a navy.

    • madscientist
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      And these days an air force too.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        and drones.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted April 10, 2014 at 2:05 am | Permalink

          Yes, the minister at the church my parents took me to was certainly a drone.

    • eric
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I’d agree with that sentiment. It seems to me the difference is largely cultural acceptance or power, not rationality of content. The word is probably more of a cultural marker, distinguishing beliefs in the supernatural that are generally acceptable “in polite society” from those that are not. As culture changes, specific beliefs may go from superstition (generally not accepted) to religion and back again.

  20. madscientist
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    As far as the dictionary goes, it’s “everyone’s religion but my own is superstition”. For me, religions are only a subset of superstition. There are many folk beliefs (beliefs in the supernatural) which are not necessarily related to worship, for example fairies and most of Chinese ‘traditional medicine’, which I regard as superstition.

    As for the value of religion, there are the good social aspects but that’s about it and I don’t see why people can’t create inclusive social groups which have the same benefits (unless there is an unknown need for the threat of damnation for people to attend meetings).

  21. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Because I tend to watch a lot of TV, I can’t help but think of Rustin Cohle’s take on religion:

    Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain. Dulls critical thinking.

    I wonder if “certain linguistic anthropologists” really think that. Probably not, but it sounded cool hearing it from Rustin.

  22. William Stewart
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    All religions are superstitions.

  23. Grania Spingies
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Short answer: yes.

    Longer answer: even the most sophisticated and liberal versions of religion – and I used to be one of those myself – eventually boil down to some sort of hope that there is something “extra” to the universe and that this something makes our life more than what it really is. It may be a belief that tries very sincerely to be reasonable and humane; but ultimately it is founded in cultural traditions and emotions and cannot even when it tries, show that anything about it is real beyond shared human reaction to experiences.

    Even at its best and most benign, it is just a smarter version of Skinner’s hopeful pigeons.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I think Stevie Wonder agrees with you:

      When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
      Then you suffer,
      Superstition ain’t the way

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 9, 2014 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        But then there’s this:

        But if you open your heart you can feel it yeah yeah
        Feel His spirit, yeah
        Feel it, feel His spirit, wow oh wow…
        Feel it, you can feel His spirit

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

        Ah, here he is on Sesame Street!

  24. Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    If you established a church of not walking under ladders, avoiding black cats or not looking in broken mirrors, then you’d have a religion, at least if you got enough worshippers, otherwise it would be a cult and you wouldn’t get the same tax breaks or be able to start any faith schools.

    • Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Religion is a cult with real estate – zappa

  25. Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m not superstitious – it brings bad luck! :p


    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Apparently it works even if you don’t believe in it.
      Niels Bohr

  26. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    In my view it matters little what precise puff of sound is employed to describe the world’s biggest waste of time.

    Folly seems fitting enough.

  27. Posted April 9, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    All religions are superstitions (without negative connotations) but not all superstitions are religions.

    Religions are mainly social contracts, of sorts, for gaining favor with superempirical agents.

    One superstition I had growing up was that breaking a mirror would bring you seven years of bad luck. It could be that a superempirical agent declares that breaking a mirror will give you bad luck for seven years because the agent doesn’t like broken mirrors and curses you with his supernatural powers for seven years. That would be a religious belief about broken mirrors.

    Or, I could remove the superempirical agent’s will from the equation and still believe that breaking a mirror would bring seven years of bad luck, just because that was the nature of the universe; much like how F = MA is just a law of the universe. That would be a superstition, or magical thinking.

    So as I’ve formulated it, a superempirical agent + superstition = religion. I’m having a hard time thinking off the top of my head of a religion, or belief in superempirical agents, that doesn’t also have some aspect of superstitious or magical thinking.

  28. Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    How is that even under dispute? I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that superstition is anything but a word used to describe a religion by those who don’t like it – either by atheists to describe all religion or by believers to describe all religions but their own. What else would the word mean?

  29. smallthingconsidered
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    A cogent answer to the question requires a definition of the word ‘religion’. From my perspective, ‘religion’ can be less a ‘way of knowing’ than a way of thinking, and needn’t at all depend on superstition as defined here. On the other hand, the vast majority of religions are certainly superstition based. so, yeah…it’s a semantic issue.

  30. stuartcoyle
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Religion = Superstition.

    Both rely on truth claims that are at best untested and at worst untestable.

  31. Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    at least according to all of those definitions. They key word in all of them is “considered” ..”widely considered” would have been better.
    All religions start out as cults. Once they gain wide acceptance they’re no longer considered superstitions, by definition.

  32. Heath
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    “Religion” is to “superstition” as “enhanced interrogation techniques” is to “torture”.

    Related: cult + time = religion

  33. Steve
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Clearly, religion IS a superstition.

    This report of a couple WEIT regulars having a heated debate over this question is discombobulating.

    I’ll toss another definition into the mix…

    excessively credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings

  34. Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Number Seven!

    what a doozy, I love it!

    “Irrational, unfounded erroneous belief other than…”


    • Marlon
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      I read #7 as meaning “…other than (and in addition to) above definitions”, so I didn’t have a problem with it.

  35. Mark
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    All religions are superstitions, but not all superstitions are religions.

    • dbgb1986
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      How is Buddhism superstitious? Maybe it is, but I don’t know enough about it to know that it has superstitions.

      • Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        Not an expert either, but it is clear there are many different types of Buddhism. Some are more like philosophies of life, others include the worship of deities and the belief that poor and disabled people deserve their suffering because they are obviously being punished for what they did in the previous life.

        • dbgb1986
          Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

          You’re right; I forgot about the forms that contain beliefs about previous lives, etc. So yes, Buddhism is also superstitious, at least in some of its forms. Good point.

        • Posted April 11, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          I think you are confusing Buddhism with Hinduism.

          • Posted April 11, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

            But isn’t that exactly what some branches of Buddhism have done: Adopted some of the supernatural elements from (some branches of) Hinduism?


            • Posted April 13, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              As I have understood it from much reading on the subject of both Hinduism and Buddhism, the notion of Karma as punishment for bad deeds committed in past lives is a Hindu one, whereas Buddhism see it as a learning opportunity and process – until lessons are learnt, one does not progress, and lessons unlearnt bring difficulties and sufferings related to that which one has not learned in a previous incarnation.

          • Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

            The roots of the two are deeply intertwined. Even today, there’s a great deal of overlap; you can find polytheistic Buddhists, and Zen-ish Hindus.

            Best to think of it as more like the relationship of Jesus to Judaism than as a perfectly clean division.



      • gbjames
        Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:19 am | Permalink

        I understand that reincarnation has some place in some forms of Buddhism. I’d call that superstitious.

        • dbgb1986
          Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

          Exactly, you’re right about that. As mentioned earlier, I had forgotten about that aspect.

  36. dbgb1986
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes! Religion (unless it’s atheistic, e.g., Buddhism) is superstitious. A religious belief in God is in itself a superstition, according to most of the definitions of superstition — and according to ALL of the definitions that you have posted!


    P.S. I went to Brandeis University, and let me state this clearly: I am ashamed of this so-called learning institution. It’s one thing to not give an award. But it’s another to offer one and then back out. It’s pathetic that politics and fear always, always, ALWAYS seem to interfere with principle and courage. Whatever happened to spine? Whatever happened to Brandeis University’s motto: “Truth, even unto its innermost parts”?

    • dbgb1986
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Update: As Alex SL has brought to my attention, even Buddhism can, at least in some of its variations, be superstitious.

  37. Posted April 9, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Religion is superstition. Also, reading ex-uncle Eric’s comments lately is torture. Here’s a guy who should get it, could get it, in the past wrote as though he did get it, but now acts like someone drew a curtain down over his brain and blocked out all the light. It’s excruciating to watch. And please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not trying to imply that there’s anything wrong with ex-uncle Eric. It’s just fucking weird.

  38. Posted April 9, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Yes, for the various reasons others have mentioned here. And then there’s the fact that virtually all religions consider all of the other ones to be superstions. That’s probably the main religious opinion I agree with!

  39. Posted April 9, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Without any doubt or question whatsoever.

    • Steve
      Posted April 9, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Cheers to your concise, decisive response!

  40. Grant Horsnell
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I’d say yes. No question.

  41. onceupona
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Many Protestants say Hindus, Muslims and even Catholics are superstitious and indulge in pagan worship. Muslims definitely say the same about all other faiths. Hindus are inclusive of other gods but don’t think it’s okay to be a Christian or Muslim if you’re a Hindu family (in other words they will kick you out of the family). The only people who try to spread the umbrella and make all the faiths valid are liberal theologians or liberals in general. The only thing that makes any of them more acceptable is how long they have been around. They are mainstream religions and they feel normal but they are superstitions nonetheless.

    • Posted April 11, 2014 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      In essence, Hinduism does not reject any religion as it states that all religions lead to the one God and are therefore part of Hinduism. Now, many Hindus may reject Christians and Muslims, but that is not what Hinduism teaches.

      • Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        There are Hindus who will take such a stance, and others who would reject it. Similarly, there are ecumenical Christians (most famously C.S. Lewis) who would argue that all who live a righteous life are worshipping the same god as the Christians regardless of the name they speak in their prayers.

        It’s a noble sentiment, but it breaks down virtually instantly, as one discovers that only the actual beliefs or practices of the ecumenicalist’s own religion are the ones that matters. Take abortion for the most obvious example; there’s no way to reconcile the different religious positions on that subject, and most of them make it something that’s Very Important. Some Jesuses will roast you forever if you participate in one; other Jesuses would rather you didn’t but will offer a shoulder to cry on if you really need it; many Jewish Adonais will be furious with you if you stand in the way of a medically-necessary abortion; and so on.

        If the ecumenicalism is, in practice, a “live and let live” attitude, I can let slide the arrogance of presuming that everybody’s unknowingly worshipping your own gods. In practice, it’s too often more about the arrogance and less about keeping your nose out of other people’s fucking* business.



  42. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    “Superstition” has the connotation of triviality — like walking under ladders, a black cat crossing your path, breaking mirrors, wearing the same socks though an entire World Series, step on a crack, break your mothers back. They are self-evidently ridiculous. So is religion.

  43. Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Oy! You had to post this in the middle of an hectic workday….

    First, my discussion with Eric has been more about what science is, what theology is, the confidence that’s justified in the conclusions of the two, and the value and utility of the two.

    “Religion” and “superstition” both have many different meanings. It’s not hard to pair incompatible definitions from either.

    But we would generally view the practices of unfamiliar religions as superstition. Haruspex, animal sacrifice, rain dances, casting lots, voodoo in general — all are seen as primitive superstitions.

    I would argue that even the most sophisticated of Christian religious ideas and practices are no different. Prayer, the Eucharist, baptism — all are clearly no different from their pagan counterparts of spellcasting, theophagy, and ritual cleansing. And, frankly, William Lane Craig’s Huffalumpagus Argument “explaining” cosmic origins is no less superstitious than the turtles-and-elephants one from whichever native culture that comes from.

    So, yeah. If you’re gonna say that saying, “Bless you!” after somebody sneezes or knocking on wood or tossing salt over your shoulder is superstitious, then you’ve got to include all the rest of religious practices in that same definition as well.



    • John K.
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      I have resolved not to argue with Eric anymore, it seems like a lost cause. He has a tremendous grasp of the English language, and he has great insights on the inner workings of many theological concepts. I can see the appeal of attempting to getting him back.

      He is at odds with the basic epistemology of skeptical inquiry, though he frequently denies attempting to deride scientific investigation. He is so invested in his belief that his lifetime of philosophising has yielded results every bit as worthy of the title of knowledge as any scientific discovery that his recent sporadic blogging has been mostly about deriding new atheists for scientism, at least as often as addressing his original purpose of discussing the right to die. I don’t think anything is going to convince him to lessen his own perceived value of his lifelong investment, and the call for evidence in order to make truth claims is at the heart of “new” atheism.

      I hope I am wrong. I hope you can be successful. I have more than a few times wanted to link to some of his amazing discussions about the role of suffering in Catholicism, the Principle of Double Effect, and how the old proclamations of the RCC on homosexuality are in no way at odds with the PR pronouncements of the latest pope. They are just amazing pieces, and it is a real shame they are no longer widely available. Still, his basic structure of finding truth is at odds with new atheism, which is what I think was the biggest reason he felt compelled to leave it.

  44. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted April 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    In common usage, I would say superstition is most always used when referring to *someone else’s* religion. By transitivity, therefor, yes, religion is superstition.

    Religions which masquerade underneath a ruse of sciencey claims, merit an even stronger term, so for Scientology I would use “super-duper-stition”.

  45. Jim Sweeney
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    First of all, it’s offensive to believers to describe religion as superstition. Doing so is an Enlightenment tradition, but it’s always an invitation to a fight.

    Most of the content and practice of religious belief (prayer, the afterlife) is clearly superstitious. Many if not most Americans believe in angels and demons and the devil, and that’s pretty childish.

    Belief in some sort of god isn’t necessarily superstition. Some of the philosophical conceptions, like God as the ultimate cause or the ground of being, or Spinoza’s identification of God with the universe, probably don’t qualify. Nor does the apophatic notion (although I have to wonder why people who think that God can’t be described keep telling us about Him, since their premise is that they have nothing to say).

    Creationism and human exceptionalism, racism and sexism, are no more superstitious than geocentrism or the belief that the earth is flat, that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, or that climate change is a hoax. They belong to a different class of phenomena.

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      Homeopathy and most alternative medicine should be classified as superstition, of course. Anything described as energy which can’t be measured has to be sorted into that category.

    • Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      First of all, it’s offensive to believers to describe religion as superstition.

      So? In general, failing to fall to one’s knees and say the Sinner’s Prayer is considered by believers to be offensive.

      Some of the philosophical conceptions, like God as the ultimate cause or the ground of being, or Spinoza’s identification of God with the universe, probably don’t qualify.

      Spinoza was the ultimate idolater; his totem was merely guaranteed to be bigger than anybody else’s. Alternatively, he rather confusingly slapped the “God” label on what Sagan would call the Cosmos.

      The First Cause / Ground Round of Being gods are, with absolutely no exaggeration whatsoever, perfect examples of that “Intelligent Falling” parody from The Onion that’s gone around. They’re nothing more nor less than exercises in Aristotelian Metaphysics, in which nothing can move without being moved upon, thus requiring a Prime Mover, aka Jesus (for the Christians). As soon as you accept that it is inertia that keeps the planets in their orbits, and that they are in continuous free-fall, any claim that inertia itself needs a Mover, or anything that reduces to such a claim (“Ultimate Cause”), quite literally is a claim of Intelligent Falling.



    • Posted April 10, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Spinoza isn’t implying that God is the universe, that would be trite. If you take his advice in definition 6 of Ethics: “By God, I mean an entity absolutely infinite, that is a substance…” and substitute the term “substance”, whenever you see the word God, then I think you can get closer to Spinoza’s real intention:

      Spinoza’s reasoning (in part 1 of Ethics) is that since something exists now, there must either always have been something, out of which what exists now arose, or stuff would have arisen from nothing (which would be at least odd). So, assuming that something has always existed, he calls that precursor a “substance” and it has two parts: a process (natura naturans) and the stuff on which the process works (natura naturata). Looked at this way the first part of the Ethics is actually a discussion on what is *logically* necessary for a deterministic universe to exist at all and has very little to do with religious concepts of a deity.

      It’s a little unfortunate that Spinoza used the term “God” at all, since that has caused endless confusion. But in Spinoza’s time, earlier philosophers (Aquinas, Maimonides…) had conflated ideas about necessary substance/s with the Gods of their religions: “God is a necessary ground of being and he wears a red hat, has a son called Jesus and doesn’t like you eating fish on Friday”. So what Spinoza was doing was detaching the parts of God that he thought were logically required from those other unnecessary attributes.

      • Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        Spinoza’s reasoning (in part 1 of Ethics) is that since something exists now, there must either always have been something, out of which what exists now arose, or stuff would have arisen from nothing (which would be at least odd). So, assuming that something has always existed, he calls that precursor a “substance” and it has two parts: a process (natura naturans) and the stuff on which the process works (natura naturata). Looked at this way the first part of the Ethics is actually a discussion on what is *logically* necessary for a deterministic universe to exist at all and has very little to do with religious concepts of a deity.

        Reality, for better or worse, couldn’t give a flying fuck what humans have decided is logically necessary. It simply is what it is.

        And the logical necessity that Spinoza was using to command the tides of existence is the same that Aristotle used to conjure the Prime Mover who shepherded the planets in their wandering paths across the dome of the heavens.

        The fact of the matter is that we know that “shit happens” is the rule of the day at quantum scales, and “shappen its” at relativistic scales. That is, causation is entirely a phenomenon of the macro world most conveniently described by Newtonian Mechanics. Cosmogenesis is so far removed from that scale that wondering about causality at that scale really is akin to pondering the weather north of the North Pole.

        We seem to be rapidly approaching a sound theory of cosmogenesis; all the last major missing empirical observations have been probably found, and it’s now up to the theorists to put all the pieces together. However, even if and when we have such a theory, even if it gets as conclusively demonstrated as Newtonian Mechanics has been for centuries, it will do as much to answer the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question as “inertia” is the answer to “Where is the Mover who moves the planets?”

        And inserting gods into this discussion, no matter how metaphorical or insubstantial, at best confuses the shit out of the conversation. In practice, it’s a surefire guarantee that the person in question is either waxing lyrically poetical (as Einstein was) or is at least somewhat superstitiously confused. Where Spinoza falls on that spectrum really doesn’t seem like that important a question to me — but, of course, if you find it interesting, by all means, have at it….



        • Posted April 12, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          No we are not “rapidly approaching” a sound theory of the origin of the universe and all the pieces are certainly not in place. Fine, you don’t like religion, I don’t either, but don’t then try to turn science into some kind of religious surrogate: There is a lot that still isn’t known and its best to just accept that. As to Spinoza and Einstein, why bother to reply to a post about ideas that don’t interest you and that you know nothing about; if I said that trumpet playing sounds just like farting, but I’d never heard a trumpet, you’d think I was an ignorant moron, wouldn’t you? (actually Miles Davis wasn’t too shabby). Ditto.

          • Posted April 12, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

            No we are not “rapidly approaching” a sound theory of the origin of the universe and all the pieces are certainly not in place.

            If you sincerely think that, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news of late.

            First, the team at CERN discovered the Higgs Boson with a mass of ~125 GeV, thereby completing the Standard Model.

            Not long ago, the BICEP2 team very likely (it hasn’t yet gone through peer review, but they’ve got a good reputation and nobody’s expressing serious doubts and others are hinting that they’ve found the same thing) discovered evidence of polarization patterns in the Cosmic Microwave Background consistent with (and only with) quantized gravity a fraction of a bananosecond into Inflation; that one observation (if it holds) would both confirm Inflation and the reality of quantum gravity, and they’ve got empirical measurements (r=0.2) to plug into other equations.

            And even more recently, Fermi Labs has made gamma ray observations strongly hinting that dark matter is made of Weakly-Interactive Massive Particles (WIMPs) with a mass of ~35 GeV — a range accessible to the LHC when they start it up again.

            That means that we now know (with the caveat that these are still new findings subject to verification) that the Standard Model is complete; that Inflation really is real; that gravity really is quantized; and that dark matter really is particulate. Those were all open questions just a few years (and, indeed, a few months) ago, and knowing the answers (including the specific values) has been one of the big problems keeping the theorists from coming up with solid theories. Now that they’ve got those answers, they’ve got everything they should need both for a theory of cosmogenesis as well as a Grand Unified Theory that reconciles Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics — with the two likely being the same theory. And the teams that came up with these discoveries are still hard at work, gathering even more information. The smart bet is for the BICEP2 team to figure out other ways to use the CMB as the ultimate particle collider….

            As to Spinoza and Einstein, why bother to reply to a post about ideas that don’t interest you and that you know nothing about

            The question at hand is whether or not religion is a superstition. You argued that Spinoza’s eponymously-confusing god named, “God,” isn’t an example of a superstition. I’ve argued that either it is or, at best, it’s an example of poor communication.

            if I said that trumpet playing sounds just like farting, but I’d never heard a trumpet, you’d think I was an ignorant moron, wouldn’t you?

            That wouldn’t be the proper parallel. If you were arguing that the trumpet isn’t actually a brass instrument since some of the earliest instruments were made from animal horns, that might be a closer parallel. (Similarly, half the modern “wood”winds are typically made of metal — many, even, of brass — but they’re still correctly classified as woodwinds.)



          • Posted April 13, 2014 at 3:02 am | Permalink

            Your faith is touching, but verifying some twentieth century theory in no way implies that science is suddenly closing in on a “final theory”. Who knows what is next, we don’t even know if the idea of a final theory makes any sense or if we are close to peeling off all the layers of the onion: Science is science when you accept that you don’t know what you don’t know, it isn’t some kind of replacement for religion. People have being predicting that physics is almost complete for centuries and as usual, that will likely turn out to be nonsense. Your position is the kind of caricature that critics accuse “new” atheism of, and that would indeed be a telling criticism, if it were true.

            All philosophy is going to be confusing if you take no interest in it and dogmatically assert your own wacky ideas about “empiricism” (that many people on this site have already demolished on other threads, but presumably that was “confusing” too). Sure religion is a superstition, in common definitions of the two terms, but Spinoza (and Einstein), of course, weren’t religious in those senses, they just thought that the universe has some basic underlying structure and processes. That may confuse you, but it is a perfectly reasonable position to take. The error that religious people make is not in proposing that the universe may have structure, but equating that structure to the man made deities of religion and that is what Spinoza argued against in Ethics… and reality doesn’t give a “flying fuck” whether you understand that or not.

            • Posted April 13, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              Your faith is touching, but verifying some twentieth century theory in no way implies that science is suddenly closing in on a “final theory”.

              Did I write anything about a final theory? No, I’m sure I wouldn’t have — and if I did or gave that impression, please accept my apologies.

              I have written about a Grand Unified Theory and a theory of cosmogenesis, with my strong hunch that they’ll be one and the same. Such a theory would reconcile Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics and explain current observations and, presumably, predict more evidence we should expect CERN and NASA to find. It would be a close parallel to the way that Einstein’s Relativity finally explained Mercury’s precession and Quantum Mechanics all those wacky micro-scale observations.

              Would that be a “final theory”? Perhaps, but not only do I not think very many people would bet on it being so, I’m pretty sure there’d be no way of being confident that it is until after experiment has pushed the boundaries of observation past the reasonable limits of the new theory. Maybe that would require energies even bigger than those of the Big Bang, in which case we could consider it a “final theory” of our Hubble Volume, but I don’t think anything anybody is ever going to come up with could ever be considered “final” in any other sense.”

              All philosophy is going to be confusing if you take no interest in it and dogmatically assert your own wacky ideas about “empiricism” (that many people on this site have already demolished on other threads, but presumably that was “confusing” too).

              That claims should be taken seriously without solid evidence to support them is a most extraordinary claim. Got any evidence to support it, or should we just cut to the chase and dismiss it?


              Then perhaps I can interest you in some prime oceanfront real estate here in Arizona?


          • Posted April 13, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

            Your strong hunch based on what? That you are leading cosmologist or that you’ve read a few popular science books and know how google works? It sounds like your position is about as well informed as your cognitive science claims that mirror neurons somehow explain the conscious mind!? And that’s just the problem with that kind of religious thinking, you have hunches, or as Carl Sagan puts it: “I don’t think with my gut”.

            As to your obsession with “evidence” (when you haven’t got a “hunch” that is), what evidence do you imagine that scientists (such as Sean Carroll) have for their cosmological models that include the idea that time and space did not necessarily start with big bang? As Carroll explains, we can’t obtain evidence about what happened “before” big bang, at least until science can unify relativity with quantum mechanics (by something more than a hunch), and who knows, maybe not even then. Such models are in fact based on assumptions (such as those made by Einstein) grounded in logic and on mathematical consistency rooted in those assumptions. Sure we don’t know yet if models such as Carroll’s are necessarily the right approach, but that is how science works at the cutting edge – it’s a vibrant, creative activity that you can’t reduce to stamp collecting. And no scientist is going to argue that going out and looking isn’t important for narrowing down the viable theories – that’s the real significance of BISON etc. – not that we’re suddenly going to solve physics in one shot.

            If you are going to jump into threads and aggressively criticize posts in a patronising manner, using phrases such as “flying fuck”, then you need to be pretty sure of your ground. As it turns out you appear to know zilch about philosophy and probably not much more about most aspects of science, so a little humility would be in order.

            • Posted April 14, 2014 at 7:11 am | Permalink

              I’ve been quite clear in indicating the evidence I’m basing my predictions on, as well as the reasoning behind them and confidence in them.

              And my respect for philosophy is directly proportional to the respect it has for the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of empirical evidence. Since philosophy generally doesn’t give a flying fuck about evidence, I generally don’t give a flying fuck about philosophy.

              Sorry if it upsets you that I don’t humble myself properly in front of your philosophical altars…but what do you expect from atheists?


            • Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

              You’ve tried the moral superiority gambit already when you claimed to represent the “scientific community” (!?). Now it seems you’re the spokesman for atheism as well :). If you are going to address delusional belief systems, perhaps you need to take a look at your own:

              Quite why you imagine that you are remotely qualified to evaluate the evidence in extremely complex and technical fields, such as cosmology, in which you appear to have no expertise, escapes me. Do you imagine that being rude and arrogant is some kind of substitute for actually knowing what you are talking about?

              It’s been nice chatting and although I’m touched by your concern, you shouldn’t worry about upsetting me; one gets pretty hard headed with all the nut jobs on the internet these days.

              • Posted April 14, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

                Alright, this is getting nasty,and becoming one of those one-on-one dialogues I dislike here. Knock it off, both of you. NOW.

  46. TJR
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    As implied by many people above, “superstition” is one of those irregular nouns:

    I follow a religion

    You are a member of a cult

    He is superstitious

  47. Steven in Tokyo
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    Religion = institutionalized superstition.

  48. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    I think Ben would say that abrahamism originated with greek paganism anyway. And so would I, though I think it was a fusion and adoption of the winning hellenism practices.

    More generally, unfounded belief in invisible, non-physical := magic, agency is superstition. What else could it be? It is indeed an “irrational, unfounded, erroneous, unreasonable, groundless and mistaken” notion, now known to be more insanely erroneous and mistaken than homeopathy.

    Of course the religious themselves use their religious special pleading to protect their belief. But we neither have to nor should cater to such tomfoolery.

    And then there is their superstitious practices, e.g. ceremonies, prayer and the now abandoned sacrifices of goats…

    • Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I sacrificed an indeterminate number of chickens yesterday. Does that count?

      Well, okay — somebody else killed them and cut them up; I merely added the mirepoix and herbs and water and sherry and heat to several legs, turning them into soup. But can’t that qualify as sacrifice?


      • Kevin
        Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        I have you beat, Ben. I sacrificed BABY chickens just this morning. Two of them, in fact.

        • Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink


          I’ll be sacrificing one of those late this morning, too, in the name of the Great God Mayonnaise. I even know the bird who labored so hard to enable the sacrifice — one from Mom’s flock.


  49. religionenslaves
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Discussion on religion vs superstition misses the fundamental point that whereas superstition is a *false* belief, religion is a *fraudulent* belief, not just false, not just deceptive, but fraudulent, i.e., aimed at the acquisition of power/control/economic gain at the expense of other people.

  50. Randy S
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I didn’t realize this was debated. It seems pretty cut and dry to me that religion is definitely superstition.

  51. Friendlypig
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Surely, all religions that you do not adhere to are simply superstitions.

  52. Kevin
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Well, I think religion is based on superstition. All that chanting and stuff has to be for a purpose that is outside empirical knowledge and investigation.

    But there are aspects of religions that are not superstitious. The desire for community and to be helpful is channeled by religious institutions, but is not based on any superstitious claim. It’s based on the ethical mandates of the religion that are apart from the superstitious aspects.

    So, my mother volunteers at the food bank run by her church, not because if she does she’ll be rewarded in heaven, but because the ethical mandates of her religion tell her it’s good to help those in need.

    I see no problem in praising the ethical mandates while decrying the superstition that underpins the community of the “faithful”.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Kevin, I think those “aspects of religions” you refer to are like the mortar between the bricks in the church building and the electricity running to light the evening prayer sessions. Those things exist whether or not religion is exploiting them at any particular time. In other words, I think your mom’s humanity is providing her ethical motivation.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

        Yes, I suspected someone would try to untie that Gordian knot.

        I don’t think you can. It’s part-and-parcel of the religion. It’s like trying to take only the sodium out of salt. Possible to do, but with explosive consequences.

        Like it or not, some religions do promote ethical mandates that are beneficial. You can’t declare those things to be “non-religious” any more than you can declare suicide bombings to be non-religious.

        • gbjames
          Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          Actually, it is very easy to declare these things to be non-religious. If they exist in the absence of religion then they are quite clearly non-religious. The fact that people consume oxygen while performing religious rituals does not make breath a property of religion.

          • Posted April 11, 2014 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Agree. And it’s part of the religious propaganda (against atheism) that you can’t take those things out of religion, that you can’t be good without God, that if you leave the church you *cannot* be the same person of goodwill that you are.

            This is akin to the point Sastra made earlier about things being philosophy rather than theology.

            What gnu (and other) atheists object to about religions is that which is uniquely religious, the superstitious god-belief and dogma which actually works against your innate empathy and goodwill towards others by casting them as Others (the parable of the Good Samaritan notwithstanding).

            Any life-stance that is rational and non-sectarian is fine by me. If its adherents want to call it a religion, go ahead (I think that’s confusing, but if they’re more comfortable with that term, fine). But they and others (such as Eric) should understand that we’re targeting something more narrowly defined. (And also that when we’re championing science over other “ways of knowing” [the best explanations of phenomena], it’s always “broadly construed” – typically broader than what “anti-scientismists” are thinking of.)


  53. Posted April 10, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    religion is superstition. definitions of words grow and become more broad. For instance, I have had a TrueChristian insist that atheism was a religion. It could be considered so only by a recent definition that grew from the original definition, comparing religion to other intense interests. I find this equivocation about superstition and religion to be the same.

    It’s also very reminiscent of how theists want to call any religion but themselves a “cult” to avoid the comparison between their nonsense and others.

  54. Massimo
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    There are pieces of religion that are superstitious and pieces that are not. A lot of the theological beliefs are superstition. A lot of the practical functions of religion are not superstitious: morality, community, social hierarchy, altruism, etc.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 11, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      “A lot of the practical functions of religion are not superstitious: morality, community, social hierarchy, altruism, etc.”

      But those would be functions of individuals or groups, not of religion. No supernatural belief required = not superstition.

  55. JimV
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Words in human languages were invented by humans, and I don’t think the humans who invented “superstition” meant it to apply to religion per se, but rather to specific acts (many of which occur in various religions, such as eating magic wafers).

    I haven’t seen the comments referred to in this post between BG and EM, but I know whom I would rather sit next to on a long plane ride (EM). I disagree with EM but I think I would enjoying discussing our areas of disagreement; I doubt if I would enjoy even discussing things with BG that we agreed on. (I’m pretty sure he would find a way to disagree with me even on those.) But of course those are snap judgments based on a little internet data, and either or both might be dogs for all I know (as might I).

    • gbjames
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Etymology would suggest that your analysis of the word “superstition” is substantially wrong.

      early 13c., “false religious belief; irrational faith in supernatural powers,” from Latin superstitionem (nominative superstitio) “prophecy, soothsaying; dread of the supernatural, excessive fear of the gods, religious belief based on fear or ignorance and considered incompatible with truth or reason,” literally “a standing over,” noun of action from past participle stem of superstare “stand on or over; survive,” from super “above” (see super-) + stare “to stand,” from PIE root *sta- “to stand” (see stet). There are many theories to explain the Latin sense developmen, but none has yet been generally accepted. (see superstitious). Originally especially of religion; sense of “unreasonable notion” is from 1794.

      I’d welcome a plane ride with either of my friends. I assume they would both buy a round of something liquid to enhance the conversation.

      • Posted April 11, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        I’ve strongly disagreed with both from time to time. I’d happily buy either of them (or most any regular here) a drink.


        • Posted April 12, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink


          Eric, Ant, and the rest: should you find yourself in the Valley of the Sun, do please look me up and we’ll argue in person over who should be which round of what where.



  56. krzysztof1
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Most of those definitions seem to be implying that there are religions, religious beliefs, and religious observances that do NOT fall under the heading of “irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance.” Of course my argument would be that ALL religions are at least unfounded, based on ignorance; and most of them are also irrational with a component of fear.

    It’s too easy for a believer in one religion to say “My beliefs are rational, but yours aren’t!”

  57. krzysztof1
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    It is true that religion is not ALL superstition. Someone above spoke of the community aspects of religion. But that and similar aspects (social work, music, pastoral counseling, etc.) are part of a complex set of behaviors centered around an “official” set of beliefs (e.g., the Nicene Creed) that are reaffirmed at least once a week, like the Pledge of Allegiance. If they aren’t meant to be taken seriously, why do them?

    • krzysztof1
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      My point being that the definitions given refer to the core beliefs, not the ancillary activities.

  58. Posted April 10, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Religion seems to be what you call a superstition when some critical mass of people come to believe it.

    So yes.

    I would add that any religious person that seeks to distance themselves from a superstition by labeling it as “false” or “untrue” is welcome to explain the factual basis of their religion. If their religion is not based on facts or “not a scientific question”, or if we are supposed to grant certain truth claims to the religion, then why can’t the believers in superstition make use of the same dodges, er, arguments?

  59. Stephen Barnard
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    “Religion” and “superstition” are different words with distinct meanings. I think we can all agree that aspects of religion are superstitious — saints, demonic possession,faith healing, afterlife, prayer, witchcraft, etc.

  60. dbgb1986
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s not an invitation to a fight. It’ a question about how to frame religions and their beliefs and claims. // And so what if it offends people? That’s irrelevant. The Bible is one of the most offensive texts ever composed, but I NEVER use that fact as an argument against religion. MLK was offensive. Lincoln was offensive. But so what? They had to offend people to make the world a better place.

  61. Launcher
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    “Yes” is being my answer. (Two points for getting the reference.)

    But it seems the most trusted English dictionary is in need of a tune up. Religion – no matter how widely accepted – should no longer get an easy pass on the superstition front.

  62. Tony
    Posted April 12, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    I suggest that it is time to redefine superstition and religion in a useful way. e.g.
    Superstition is an unsubstantiated belief held by individuals who are not connected to each other in sharing that particular belief.
    Religion is an unsubstantiated belief held by individuals who are connected in a social grouping based on that unsubstantiated belief.

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