Observations on How Religion Rolls Back Superstition

Many watching Mayoiga have no doubt discerned that the characters are stupid.  Not that this sort of thing is rare in the horror genre, but here it should be pointed out that much of their stupidity derives from their superstitious ideas, which plainly comes forth in that most believe Masaki to be a ghost.  What is a ghost?  The soul or spirit of a deceased person.  It is in the nature of ghosts to be immaterial, and so they can’t be touched and don’t need food, which explains why Our Lord had St. Thomas the Apostle touch His wounds and why He ate fish before the apostles after His Resurrection.  I might add that one cannot tie up or wound ghosts either, as the protagonists of Mayoiga were able to do to Masaki.  The point of the above is that no Christian would take seriously the contention that Masaki was a ghost, but particular nonbelievers, lacking the education provided by the Faith, are more susceptible to superstition in this matter.

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The concept of religion guarding against superstition sounds odd to us: we’re trained to think of religion as promoting superstition.  Even in the days of Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 120 AD), the Romans were held to be superstitious by the Greeks because of their fervor for religion.  There are even some Catholic superstitions, which often base themselves on certain acts or rituals guaranteed to gain the object of our prayers.  In reality, there are several elements which much be present for a prayer to be effective, such as humility, devotion, confidence, necessity for salvation, and the will of God.  Believing a pious practice will obtain one’s prayers may increase one’s confidence and devotion, but without the other three conditions, one’s prayer will not be answered.  Sometimes a prayer to a lesser saint is more effective because one’s devotion to that saint is greater; but, as George MacDonald wrote, God would “instead of being a merciful Savior, be the ministering Genius of our destruction” if He answered every prayer exactly as we wished it.  Not everything we want advances our salvation or is in accord with God’s will.

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But, even in the case of Catholic superstitions, the remedy is found in Catholic education.  All would agree that education rolls back superstition, but few realize the extent to which Christians of all stripes have advanced education.  Ever since St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD) established a school of philosophy, the West has seen religious orders copy and preserve important documents of Western civilization, the rise of universities, and the birth of science.  A great many scientists, including Roger Bacon, the inventor of the scientific method, have been clerics.  Fast forward to colonial and early America, and one can see that even here most colleges had a religious affiliation.

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In modern times, we see that the Church has lost much influence on the culture.  As a result, many superstitions flourished and are now flourishing.  We saw the great harm theories of eugenics caused in the rise of Nazi Germany, and even in America with the establishment of Planned Parenthood and laws mandating sterilization.  The superstition of obtaining superior quality human beings through purifying the human gene pool of undesirables also plays into the superstition that the world is becoming overpopulated.  In truth, overpopulation is a myth: there is plenty of more land available and we even pay farmers not to grow all the food they can.  Another one is climate change, whether it be the global cooling theories of the 1970’s or modern global warming ones.  (The planet’s not nearly as warm as during the Middle Ages.) Then, there are smaller superstitions, like circumcision causing trauma.

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Basically, the superstitions above derive from man believing that he has complete control over his environment, can shape his fellow human beings as he will, and need not rely upon the wisdom of others.  Contrast this to the more Christian notions of God having overall control, individual responsibility for one’s actions, and the importance of humility and obedience.  In effect, today’s secular education starts from the basis of religion being wrong and then attempts to decide its own morality–in much the same way as the protagonists of Mayoiga create their own definition of what a ghost is.  Conversely, the medieval philosopher Bernard of Chartres famously compared himself to a man standing on the shoulders of giants.  People of past ages were happy not to rely on their own wisdom and experience but to base themselves on the erudition of others.  That is the proper way to advance in knowledge; otherwise, one will start as a dwarf and see little above themselves.

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5 comments on “Observations on How Religion Rolls Back Superstition

  1. Luminas says:

    I haven’t been back on your site in too long, it seems. Work-related matters have caught my interest instead. Thank you for a thoroughly intriguing article on which to comment!

    “As a result, many superstitions flourished and are now flourishing. We saw the great harm theories of eugenics caused in the rise of Nazi Germany, and even in America with the establishment of Planned Parenthood and laws mandating sterilization.”

    It’s against modern political gospel, but I would say that eugenics was more of a misinterpretation based on the then-current scientific doctrine, rather than a superstition. Humans have been ranking groups of humans according to spectacularly arbitrary categories as long as there have been humans around (See the Romans, the Greeks, and the entire subject of “barbarians”) and at a certain point…We conflated several of our ranking systems with the nature of actual heredity (Parents pass their characteristics to their children). It was an honest mistake, but also a biased and deadly one.

    Most superstitions— With the exception of a few, like that 10% of your brain use malarkey– Are based not on actual science so much as coincidences passed along from one person to another. Like the two second rule, or the mirror-shattering superstition, or to a certain extent most conspiracy theories. Always baffled by how many people think a cabal of sociopaths exists (The Big Pharma conspiracies, the Jewish conspiracies, 9/11 cover-ups, etc.). They’ve clearly never met a real one.

    “People of past ages were happy not to rely on their own wisdom and experience but to base themselves on the erudition of others. That is the proper way to advance in knowledge; otherwise, one will start as a dwarf and see little above themselves.”

    As to the more specific contention here…I agree with the general principle. We should learn from the wisdom of others before drawing conclusions ourselves, and the church has always been a facilitator of knowledge. Where it gets screwball tends to be when humans create superstitions because they’re over-valuing the opinions of others, and then take those superstitions as gospel. Examples: (1). The Sun revolves around the Earth. (2). Humours are things that exist. (3). Reproduction works by inserting tiny homunculi into people’s bodies. (4). Dissection of corpses is evil and won’t produce greater knowledge.

    • You’re welcome, and I’m glad to have you back! You’re right that people do have the tendency to rank themselves against other groups using arbitrary data. White supremacists see European success on the world stage as proof of the superiority of the white race. But, if we look at how Europeans emphasized education and the rule of law, how the stress of economic competition and war inspired technological innovation, and how the overarching common culture led to an easier exchange of ideas, we see that it was not race which led to the quick advancement of European civilization. Similar factors existed in China, and they also enjoyed a brilliant civilization.

      With science, it can lead people astray if scientists are not guided by good philosophy. In the case of eugenics, H. G. Wells pointed out that health, for example, is a balance. There is no guarantee that two healthy individuals will produce healthy offspring. Much of eugenics had its basis in prejudice against the poor, who always produce more offspring than the rich. So, science supported this prejudice and the fervor for a Utopia which existed at the time, which gives it the quality of a superstition for me.

      The idea of the sun revolving around the earth is actually rather scientific. Without space travel, all the observable evidence points to the earth being fixed and the stars and the plants moving around it. Retrograde motion seems to solve the problem of planets going backwards in their orbit. Ptolemy’s model of the solar system explained all observable phenomena, and was trusted for a good thirteen centuries. Then, scientists during the Renaissance realized that placing the sun at the center creates a far simpler model of the solar system and explains the appearance of retrograde motion. Science works on inference to the best explanation from current facts. I’m sure that people 1,300 years in the future will be laughing at what we think is true about the universe. 🙂

      Humors and the idea of homunculi as the start of reproduction do strike me as something that involved more guesswork and imagination. The history of the prohibitions on dissection is very interesting: some places held the human body as too sacrosanct to examine it in that way, others were okay with it. In medieval Europe, the corpses of the saints were routinely dismembered so that churches could be consecrated with their bones. So, I’d say most Europeans felt little compunction about dissection; though, I did read that England did not permit it until the 16th century.

  2. That mention of Roger Bacon and the scientific method got me thinking about my current knowledge about who pioneered the promotion of the scientific method. I forgot who’s in my knowledge, but I’m certain that it’s a different person. So yeah, seems like we’ve been struck by misinformation from many years ago, no?

    • That’s definitely true. Propagandists from the Enlightenment to today have put down the Middle Ages and the Church’s influence on the development of science and other fields of knowledge. Whenever one runs across a negative opinion on the Church it needs to be critically examined to see what kind of truth is in it. Much of the disdain for the medieval period lies in them lacking technology, but they had more technology than other epochs of history and essentially set the stage for the advances seen in the early modern period.

      • Hmm…looks like I should spend time on some research sometime, then! There’s good opportunities for that too, considering a how a dear godfather of mine, who’s also a Salesian priest, is a teacher at a certain Don Bosco Center of Studies in my country.

        And of course, better not forget critical thinking! It’s gonna be tough, yeah, but it’ll be worth it, especially with God’s help. 🙂

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