Since ancient times, superstitions have been a part of religion and magic practices and beliefs. The relation of superstitions to religion has been the focal point of the conflict between faith and reason, at least in popular thought. Much confusion has arisen because the methods and principles of natural world order have not been clearly understood. Superstitions deal with immeasurable quantities and do not accepts them as reality for its starting point. With that as its foundation, it should be obvious that the conclusion of science is that only measurable quantities are real. A study that excludes certain considerations cannot be expected to shed any light on those considerations. Superstition is a system which includes only a part of human experience.
In religion, superstitions are connected with miracles and events a human mind cannot explain. This recognition has led people to confine superstition to purely religious matters (Steinman 32). Many would therefore say that what God reveals are the great eternal truths of the Christian faith, such as that God is one in three persons, or that Christ and God are of the same substance; or the truths of other religions such as the Hindu axiom that Brahma is Atman. But doctrines vary not only from one religion to another, they vary from one group to another within any one religion. The problem may focus in man's faulty apprehension, but superstition cannot be successful if it results in obscurity or contradiction. In either case, it is hard to see how superstition could really be relevant to life (Bastian 43).
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A more promising approach begins with the question as to why superstition should be accepted at all. The answer is not to expand our scientific or historical knowledge. Superstition is given primarily to answer or to help us answer the question of the meaning of life as a whole. It does not give us something that lies within our powers to supply. It gives us, rather, that which we can receive in no other way. Since life as we know it neither guarantees its fulfillment nor defines its own meaning, we can see that knowledge of the scientific or historical sort can furnish no answer to the questions for which superstition must supply the answers; hence, scientific or historical data cannot be the content of superstition at all. And while perhaps it is easier to regard doctrine as the content of superstition, even here we have a human response that in itself cannot answer the human problem (Selberg 103). What people may expect to find as the content of superstition, then, is not impersonal information but that quality of knowledge that elicits our entire personal response. But since that sort of response is generated only by trust and commitment which are personal qualities, the content of superstition must, itself, be personal. This distinction should save us from ignoring superstition in religious matters because we know its irrelevance to scientific matters and because we see it does not save us from inconsistencies in philosophical thought (Steinman 32). Researchers explain: “Superstitions can also be related to environmental cues that appear in concert with reinforcement. When a cue signals the availability of reinforcement, it is termed a discriminative stimulus” (Rudski and Lischner 29).
The real meaning of superstition can best be seen in the relationship of persons to each other. People may know about a person in the sense of knowing certain facts about his life, facts which we have learned either for ourselves or from a third party. This type of information can be obtained from an encyclopedia article or a biography and may be very general or quite detailed. To know a person one must have knowledge of a different sort altogether. It cannot be had at secondhand, but only in personal encounter. It does not add to our factual knowledge at all; for when we know a person, we find it exceedingly difficult to say what it is we know and how we have come to know it. And we cannot know a person unless he is willing that we should know him, unless he "reveals" himself to us. Our response to such self-giving is our giving ourselves in return. To know a person is, by its very nature, a mutual relationship (Steinman 32). People can know only as we are known. This self-giving is complete. A symbol of it is the sharing of secrets which has little to do with an increase of factual knowledge but has much to do in putting each person in the other's power. In the same way, it involves the response of faith in wholehearted personal involvement or commitment. It does not necessarily increase our factual knowledge, although--just as in friendship--we may make statements on the basis of this mutual relationship, but statements that at best are always incomplete because they refer to living persons rather than to things. Superstition, in short, is God's disclosing of Himself that elicits our response of faith, the whole-person response which is of the essence of religion (Selberg 103).
Not every person has identical observational or rational powers. Some may be able to reason their way to religious certainty, but not every man can follow the intricate argument, or can every man hope to verify the historical facts related to the experiences of Israel and the Church. Although those differences of ability would be relatively inconsequential on insignificant matters, they would be crucial on matters involving life's purpose and meaning as a whole. Hence, it was thought (Stark 259). God in His mercy would reveal to men whatever they were not able to discover for themselves in regard to their soul's salvation. Since this limit was not the same for all men, there naturally would be considerable overlapping of revealed knowledge with discoverable knowledge. This duplication would instill confidence in the source of superstition because if one could verify part of the content of superstition, he might well assume that the balance of it would be equally trustworthy (Rudski and Lischner 29).
Applied to politics and political life, when people think of superstitions, they think in terms of specific information given to men in a manner outside the usual ways of obtaining it. Superstition, it is thought, gives us knowledge of specific events to take place in the future. We usually think of the prophet in this role of learning the secrets of the future from God and announcing them to the people concerned. In ages past, men thought that answers to specific questions would be given them by superstition, that the gods would declare their will in such matters as launching a war or planting crops. And methods for discerning the gods' answers varied from watching for certain patterns in the flight of a released flock of birds, or looking for a particular coloration of the internal organs of an animal purposely sacrificed, to throwing dice or drawing straws (Stark 257). In more sophisticated cultures, the superstition of God was sought from seers especially gifted, and later from religious texts which were usually the writings of religious men of an earlier day. The date of the end of the world has been sought for centuries in the cryptic words found in the books of Daniel and the Superstition. Others have tried to make predictions about the future from the mysterious writings of Nostradamus. In fact, the very mention of superstition is apt to call up a host of thoughts about bizarre and unsupported ideas, esoteric teachings, and voices out of the darkness. Or superstition is thought to supply information about the past that is otherwise unobtainable. Some feel, for example, that our knowledge of man's origin would be forever closed to us because no one was witness to the event, but that God has given us this interesting information by superstition in the Bible. Others feel that historical facts such as the length and extent of the reign of King David of Israel are given by superstition. But while this information, if it were so given, might be interesting, it cannot be regarded as of scientific or historical accuracy. This does not mean that it is untrue; but if it is accepted as fact, it must be verified on grounds other than superstition (Rudski and Lischner 29).
Whatever claims to be scientific data must be scientifically verifiable, and whatever claims to be historical fact must be verifiable as history. No scientist can introduce into his line of reasoning data which he obtains not by scientific methods but rather from his dreams or from consulting prescientific books. In other words, superstition cannot guarantee the truth of what is rightfully a matter of scientific or historical investigation and confirmation (Rudski and Lischner 29).
In religion, superstitions are connected with the search for natural law which is a far different thing from the search for ultimate meaning. We often speak of natural law, not realizing that unlike human or statutory law, natural law is a description of how things actually behave under definite conditions. This can be the proper object of research and study. But obligation refers not to how things actually behave, but how they ought to behave even though they may not, in fact, do so. The attempt to learn the law governing the fall of an apple from a tree is quite a different undertaking from the attempt to learn what life is about and why we should not live aimlessly. Natural law waits to be discovered and formulated. Philosophical principles wait to be deduced. There is something optional about such studies. But God lays a claim upon us which is not optional because it involves our very being as men (Rudski and Lischner 29).
While the political approach to a problem through the concept of natural cause is a helpful one so far as human need is concerned, it is not adequate to our total experience. While we know the significance of the cause of an event in terms of antecedent events, we know, too, that events must also be understood in terms of some purpose which they fulfill. In other words, we do something today not merely because we have done certain other things yesterday and cannot help ourselves, but because it must be done if we are to have something else tomorrow on which we have set our minds. The future planned event determines our present course (Bastian 43). It is this purposive response to external conditions that is characteristic of life. The conduct of a scientific investigation cannot be understood then in purely scientific terms. Not only preceding events must be taken into consideration, but also-and primarily--the purpose of the scientist. “One Norwegian religious scholar claims that new religious ideas are symptomatic of current strains on people's identity--in effect that they constitute an attempt to mend shattered identities” (Selberg 103). One could, for example, explain a person's walking to town in a purely physical manner: the contraction of the muscles in relation to his skeletal structure that enables him to move his legs and feet. But if we ask the person why he walks to town, it is much more likely that we want to know his purpose: what he intends to buy, or whom he intends to see, or even whether he merely wants physical exercise. Purpose is as necessary to our way of thinking as scientific cause. Religion does not necessarily deal with a set of events completely different from those which are the province of science, but it approaches them from an entirely different standpoint and views (Yenor 32). Following Yenor: “Common life--and the ancient philosophy with which it is associated--is, for them, the realm of prejudice, mere prudence, superficiality, custom, and religious superstition; only an approach to knowledge that cordons itself off from common life could bring light to a world of darkness” (Yenor 32).
Superstitions can be described as the attempt to obtain a picture of life in which all aspects of human experience are fitted together in one over-all view. The analysis we have made of religion and science and their relation to each other is a phase of philosophy. Philosophy uses the data of the sciences along with aesthetic, moral, and religious experience, appraising them through reason and logic to trace their mutual relations. It seeks to answer such questions as how we know what we do, what life's true values are, and what the nature of reality is. It has been the supposed conflict of science and religion that has drawn most attention, and in America, at least, no phase of the problem has achieved more notoriety than the subject of evolution (Yenor 32). These alternatives are taken as the epitomes of the religious and scientific outlooks. Now, while it might be interesting to argue the issue on this basis, it will be more constructive to discover the basic presuppositions of both sides, as well as their approach to any specific question. This rational order is understood by science in terms of cause and effect. It is assumed that any event can be understood only in relation to the events preceding it and related to it, events that brought it about or caused it. This, in essence, is what science means by cause: those natural events preceding and related to the one in question (Yenor 270).
In sum, superstitions are a part of religious values and principles borrowed by politics and other spheres of life. Some simplify the distinction between superstition and religion by saying that superstition tries to answer the how question of life, while religion concerns itself with the why question. This is certainly a truer distinction than saying that superstition is interested only in visual signs, while religion is concerned only with values. But the point to be made here is that the answers which superstition supplies do not eliminate the need for religion, not because science leads us back to where our knowledge fades out, but because many important questions--many would say the most important questions--are not scientific questions at all. They are religious in nature, and only religion dogmas and scientific discoveries can answer them.