Define Superstition
#1
A few weeks ago, I was reading through the book "Brahmanism and Hinduism" by Sir Monier Monier-Williams. Monier-Williams was an early Indologist who worked for the British Raj, and he was active at around the same time as Max Muller.

The following quote comes from page 93 of his book, when he describes the practices of various Shaiva sects:

Quote:Though greatly interested in all I was allowed to witness, I came away sick at heart. No one could be present at such a scene without feeling depressed by the thought that, notwithstanding all our efforts for the extension of education and the diffusion of knowledge, we have as yet done little to loosen the iron grip of idolatry and superstition on the masses of the people. Indeed it would be easy to show that other forms of Siva-worship are characterized by superstitious observances of a still lower type. Turn we, for example, to the ceremonies performed at the great Saiva temple of Bhuvanesvara in Orissa...

In other words, he considered certain forms of Shaivism to be "idolatry and superstition." This led me to wonder, what exactly constitutes a superstition? Where do we draw the line between superstition and genuine religious belief?
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#2
(06-Sep-2010, 12:23 AM)TTCUSM Wrote: A few weeks ago, I was reading through the book "Brahmanism and Hinduism" by Sir Monier Monier-Williams. Monier-Williams was an early Indologist who worked for the British Raj, and he was active at around the same time as Max Muller.

The following quote comes from page 93 of his book, when he describes the practices of various Shaiva sects:

Quote:Though greatly interested in all I was allowed to witness, I came away sick at heart. No one could be present at such a scene without feeling depressed by the thought that, notwithstanding all our efforts for the extension of education and the diffusion of knowledge, we have as yet done little to loosen the iron grip of idolatry and superstition on the masses of the people. Indeed it would be easy to show that other forms of Siva-worship are characterized by superstitious observances of a still lower type. Turn we, for example, to the ceremonies performed at the great Saiva temple of Bhuvanesvara in Orissa...

In other words, he considered certain forms of Shaivism to be "idolatry and superstition." This led me to wonder, what exactly constitutes a superstition? Where do we draw the line between superstition and genuine religious belief?

You draw the line when there is a lack of evidence for the supernatural. All religions are based on superstitions and not reason.

Suggest you read Michael Shermer's book " why people believe in weird things and superstitions of our time".

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#3
Its difficult to define as even many self-proclaimed atheists have little superstitions of their own. I think superstition (considered apart from those imposed by religion) may have something to do with the evolutionary development of human beings and their physiology.
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#4
(06-Sep-2010, 10:00 AM)madhav Wrote: Its difficult to define as even many self-proclaimed atheists have little superstitions of their own. I think superstition (considered apart from those imposed by religion) may have something to do with the evolutionary development of human beings and their physiology.

Those atheists have perhaps not developed critical thinking skills. But please give an example of what you are talking about.

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#5
(06-Sep-2010, 12:23 AM)TTCUSM Wrote: In other words, he considered certain forms of Shaivism to be "idolatry and superstition." This led me to wonder, what exactly constitutes a superstition? Where do we draw the line between superstition and genuine religious belief?

1. The definition of superstition is fairly easily available if you use google. From wikipedia: Superstition is a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.

2. Religion is organized superstition- that is, superstition with a socio-political infrastructure.


"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#6
(06-Sep-2010, 12:18 PM)Sajit Wrote:
(06-Sep-2010, 10:00 AM)madhav Wrote: Its difficult to define as even many self-proclaimed atheists have little superstitions of their own. I think superstition (considered apart from those imposed by religion) may have something to do with the evolutionary development of human beings and their physiology.

Those atheists have perhaps not developed critical thinking skills. But please give an example of what you are talking about.

I agree completely with Madhav here. In fact, most self-proclaimed atheists cling onto other superstitious beliefs. Tom Clark, the director of the Center for Naturalism, calls them 'Little Gods'. Two popular Little Gods are Contra Causal Free-Will and the dualistic view of reality which is often expressed by ascribing an objective reality to inherently subjective experiential states.

Being an atheist does not preclude superstitious thinking. The best examples are obtained by observing societies that do not have strong god concepts. For example, Iceland has really low numbers of god believers, the Christian Church having fallen out of favor (and power) with the creation of the Icelandic state. Yet over half the population believes in elves/gnomes. This has multiple reasons, including the unique geography of Iceland (unpredictable weather and strange and haunting natural formations) and the local folklores. Another good example is Japan, where very few people (mostly Christians) have a fully-formed god concept. Yet Japanese people are very religious, in their traditional, almost non-denominational kind of way. They may be Buddhist or Shinto, and subscribe to superstitions of both. In essence, Japanese superstitions are opportunistic- very market-based, in a way of speaking. If a superstition makes economic sense (broadly speaking, including benefits of all kinds), then it becomes popular. This has resulted in the proliferation of a hodge-podge of superstitions that are culturally embedded in Japanese society. The Japanese have literally thousands of names for different spirits.

But I digress. The point is, belief in god is just one superstition. There are many others. This is why the way we think and reason is extremely important. Our beliefs should change given the right attitude when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Given the right mindset, we can transcend culture-bound ideas such as 'superstition' and focus on the real philosophical question here, concerning the existence of a 'supernatural'.
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#7

[/quote]
The point is, belief in god is just one superstition. There are many others. This is why the way we think and reason is extremely important. Our beliefs should change given the right attitude when confronted with evidence to the contrary.
[/quote]

Well said. You nailed it.

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#8
Quote:Where do we draw the line between superstition and genuine religious belief?

There is no line. Superstition is a genuine belief until the person stops believing in it.
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#9
(06-Sep-2010, 12:18 PM)Sajit Wrote:
(06-Sep-2010, 10:00 AM)madhav Wrote: Its difficult to define as even many self-proclaimed atheists have little superstitions of their own. I think superstition (considered apart from those imposed by religion) may have something to do with the evolutionary development of human beings and their physiology.

Those atheists have perhaps not developed critical thinking skills. But please give an example of what you are talking about.
A person may be an atheist, but may think that he needs to certain things in only certain ways for things to "work out". For example, an atheist who is preparing for a job interview may behave in irrational ways in putting on his tie etc thinking that those things help in his getting the job. Also, I have heard of cricket players having a lot of superstitions regarding how they tie their shoe laces or put on their gear etc. All these have nothing to do with religion, but they are still practised. So, I think in order to truly understand why humans do the things we do, it is important to study the psychological and physiological reasons behind them.

Not only that, one also has to realize a lot of these superstitions are "picked up" by the environment in which one grew up in. Most people would not know why they practise such things, but these things just seep into the subconscious because of the environment around them. I think the example given by Ajita Kamal about the Icelanders believing in gnomes and elves illustrate this.
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#10
(06-Sep-2010, 01:13 PM)Ajita Kamal Wrote: Being an atheist does not preclude superstitious thinking. The best examples are obtained by observing societies that do not have strong god concepts. For example, Iceland has really low numbers of god believers, the Christian Church having fallen out of favor (and power) with the creation of the Icelandic state. Yet over half the population believes in elves/gnomes. This has multiple reasons, including the unique geography of Iceland (unpredictable weather and strange and haunting natural formations) and the local folklores. Another good example is Japan, where very few people (mostly Christians) have a fully-formed god concept. Yet Japanese people are very religious, in their traditional, almost non-denominational kind of way. They may be Buddhist or Shinto, and subscribe to superstitions of both. In essence, Japanese superstitions are opportunistic- very market-based, in a way of speaking. If a superstition makes economic sense (broadly speaking, including benefits of all kinds), then it becomes popular. This has resulted in the proliferation of a hodge-podge of superstitions that are culturally embedded in Japanese society. The Japanese have literally thousands of names for different spirits.

It's interesting that you brought up Japan and Iceland.
Japan has an HDI of 0.960, and Iceland has an HDI of 0.969.
Apparently, a country can be steeped in superstition and still have a very high level of development.
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#11
Quote:It's interesting that you brought up Japan and Iceland.
Japan has an HDI of 0.960, and Iceland has an HDI of 0.969.
Apparently, a country can be steeped in superstition and still have a very high level of development.

Improper use of correlation. As discussed above, we all have superstitions, including atheists. You are simply extrapolating from the facts about two countries to make a general statement. This is not a proper correlation analysis. We can study the question of whether the degree of superstition in a culture affects socio-economic growth and quality of life, but that degree of superstition has to be measured on a relativistic scale by quantifying acceptable indices of superstitious belief among the populace, and then comparing them to other cultures and their superstition index.

The other thing to note is that not all superstitions are alike. Some are more prone to holding back the development of a population than others.

I would be interested in seeing a study comparing the development index of the least superstitious countries with that of the most superstitious ones. I suggest that there is a direct correlation, but it goes the other direction from the one you pointed out. That is, more developed countries have lesser superstitions. This is not an empty claim, but is backed up with evidence from psychology, although I still think there need to be more work done to test for this properly.

There are plenty of studies demonstrating that superstition (which technically is the tendency to see patterns in random and un-related stimuli) is directly related to lack of security and higher stress. Here's one. Typically, the more insecure a population feels, the greater the number and influence of the superstitions that they subscribe to. Security here relates to quality of life and a range of socio-economic factors. Essentially, the more pressure there is for a population to struggle to survive and be content, the more superstitious they are. This is an indication that the most superstitious countries are probably the least developed ones (in terms of socio-economic security, which relates to quality of life).
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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#12
(06-Sep-2010, 11:12 PM)Ajita Kamal Wrote:
Quote:It's interesting that you brought up Japan and Iceland.
Japan has an HDI of 0.960, and Iceland has an HDI of 0.969.
Apparently, a country can be steeped in superstition and still have a very high level of development.

Improper use of correlation. As discussed above, we all have superstitions, including atheists. You are simply extrapolating from the facts about two countries to make a general statement.

Actually, I was not.
I was merely pointing out two exceptions to the rule (superstitious countries are less developed).
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