Monday, April 16, 2012

Should we chase superstition and fear from our hearts?

"We should chase superstition and fear from our hearts, if we're going to survive and take levels of sanity higher."  This won't win any prizes for beautiful poetry, though it does scan perfectly well when sung by Andy Partridge.  At any rate, as I was listening to "Merely a Man" the other day (it appears on XTC's 1989 double-LP Orange and Lemons), I started to think less about the music (not their best, not their worst) and more about the sentiment expressed.

These questions took hold of me and refused to let go: Why does this sentiment seem particularly associated with self-proclaimed atheists and "free-thinkers"?  Why do we so rarely hear it expressed by the self-identified religious?
One possible answer: Religious folks share the sentiment, but simply don't think it gets at a serious problem.  While superstition and fear are not good things, godlessness and atheism are much worse.  We don't need to worry too much about the superstitious and fearful.  We can assume they're OK, as long as they're saying their prayers, receiving the sacraments, or whatever.  Even those who have a bad diet overall simply can't help but provide themselves with the nutrition they need for the general well-being of their organism. Superstition and fear, while not exactly praiseworthy things, pose no real threat to spiritual well-being.  The intellectual conscience is fine for those who want it.  But ultimately, it's optional.  It's not integral to piety.

This answer strikes me as hard to defend.  Consider the analogy to bodily health just invoked.  To slowly poison yourself through bad food and drink means that you will not feel as good as you should feel.  It entails that you will probably die an earlier death than you would like.  In matters of the spirit, things are much worse.  Any approach to God infected by superstition is likely to be a form of idolatry.  It will cause one to miss the mark altogether.

Some penetrating religious observers see the point. Pascal, for one, insists that genuine piety is different from superstition.  He notices that there are many who claim to believe, but do so out of superstition.  Indeed, he does not merely notice this, but uses it to support his claim that "there are few true Christians."  Or, as Nietzsche says in one place, in every religion the religious person is an exception.

So Pascal and Partridge agree (if only on this): we should chase superstition from our hearts.  But my original questions seem to re-emerge: why do religious folk seem generally not to be inspired by the sentiment?  Why do we so rarely hear it coming from them?  Why might an impartial observer conclude that those who concern themselves with superstition and fear as problems are more likely to be anti-religious than religious?

A second, darker answer suggests itself.  Many religious folk have a bad conscience about the whole matter.  In their quiet moments, they suspect that their own faith adds up to little more than fear and superstition.  The cry to "chase superstition and fear from our hearts" does not resonate, because it would mean to empty their own hearts.  Easier to go after other people, rather than worry about one's own darkness.

Is this answer correct?  I don't know.  Perhaps it applies to all of us some of the time, and some of us all of the time.

Here's a third possible answer (really a variant of the first): smart religious folk don't think too much these days about superstition, because they see that the alleged imperative to rid ourselves of superstition and fear is a bit old-fashioned.  However worked up those quaint Enlightenment folks might have been, we occupy a different historical moment.  For the most part, we've managed to let go of the worst superstitions, including the superstition that reasoned opposition to superstition will produce a more humane society.  As for the superstitions that remain, what harm do they do?  It's nice to have a bit of enchantment in our lives.  The real threat to our humanity, in any case, does not come not from the superstitious.  It arises from those who would mercilessly debunk anything and everything.

The last strand of this answer derives from a certain reading of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.  Lewis is right, I think, to take aim at a certain kind of "debunker" who, whatever his intention, does not exactly succeed in producing better thinkers or better human beings.  Moreover, when Lewis calls for the "irrigation of deserts" against the tendency of the debunkers, he does not mean to suggest that deserts should be watered by superstition.  I can follow Lewis a good way down this path.  Nonetheless, the sense that in our present times, credulity and superstition are not much of a problem strikes me as mostly an error.  We have little interest in chasing superstition and fear from our hearts.  But is it really because there is nothing to chase away?

I don't pretend to have exhausted the possibilities.  I'm still wondering.  Feel free to wonder with me in the comments...


  1. No comments! I am wondering -- is the question not clearly formulated enough? Is the answer to it simply obvious? Inquiring minds want to know...

  2. Your comment strikes at the heart of today's politics.

    What essentially is the difference between a fundamentalist Christian who sees the path to heaven behind an Uzi and an extremist Muslim envisioning a heaven full of young women after exploding the bomb strapped to his chest?