What is Superstition

The world is dominated by ignorance. Although much of the ignorance is the result the of superstition, and superstition is, itself, a kind of ignorance, all ignorance is not superstition, and the difference is very important.

Ignorance that is not superstition has several different causes, such as the unavailability of information, honest mistakes in reasoning, or intellectual inability, for example. Superstitious ignorance has only one cause, the intentional misuse of the rational faculty to avade, distort, or obfuscate the truth.

The importance of this difference is that ignorance resulting from a lack of information or mistakes in reasoning can be corrected by obtaining more information or using the same process (reasoning) to correct the mistakes. Even where ignorance is the result of a limited intellect, more effort and time will often overcome the limitation, and even limited knowledge, rationally obtained, is better than superstition.

Superstitious ignorance, however, cannot be corrected by the process which caused it, and often leads from a mild form of ignorance to belief systems so bizarre as to be little distinguishable form mental illness. In fact, the more superstitious one's views are, the more one's thinking and behavior resemble what is called insanity.
But if mistakes and errors can cause beliefs which are incorrect, how does one decide if false beliefs are the result of superstition, or merely ignorance and error?

The test is the source of the belief. If the source is rational, even if mistaken, it is not superstition, but mere ignorance, and can be corrected. If the source is irrational, it is superstition, and more of the process that caused it will only make matters worse.

Take, for example those who get caught up in religious enthusiasms that promise joy and happiness, not as the result of any clear rational process one can understand, but through "faith," by which is meant "credulity" in whatever that particular religion's leaders are hawking. When their faith does not produce the desired objective, instead of rejecting the failed process and walking away from the nonsense, they believe their leaders when they tell them, the reason for their failure was not their faith, but their failure to have enough faith. This is a kind of fantastic syndrome that frequently leads to such bizarre and seemingly inexplicable behavior as that associated with [Jim Jones][more][more] or [Heaven's Gate][more].

Some examples of irrational causes for beliefs may help to make this clear. Feelings, for example, are irrational. This does not mean that feelings are illegitimate, or that we should not pay attention to our feelings or the feelings of others, but that they are not a source of knowledge about anything except how we feel. When attempting to decide if something is right or wrong, for example, feelings can never give the answer. It may turn out that what is rationally right is also the thing we "feel" is right, but it might just as well turn out that what is right will not "feel" right at all. Beliefs based on feeling, or even beliefs that have been adjusted to take account of feeling, away from a strictly rational view, are superstitious.

Other irrational sources of belief are, the opinions of others, especially, those closest to us such as family, friends, and peers; the opinion of authorities such as teachers and "experts"; media (books, papers, radio, television), tradition, general opinion (everyone knows that), popular views (or consensus), tastes, or desires.

Believing what one's family or friends, authorities or teachers say does not automatically make one's beliefs superstitious. If the beliefs are held because one's family or friends, authorities or teachers say it, and only because they say it, the belief is superstitious, but, if one understands why what they believe is true, and how their family, friends, or teachers came to that conclusion, the belief may be rational. Learning from others is one good and rational way to much knowledge.

When one simply believes what they hear, read, or are told by others, without understanding either why what they have been told is true or what the source of the authority is, such beliefs are superstitious. It is entirely rational to learn from others so long as the learning is understanding and not mere "acceptance" or "credulity."

Why Men Love Superstition and Hate the Truth

When we understand what superstition is, it is obvious it can never result in the truth, that whatever one believes irrationally, is at best a mistake, but at worst, leads to actions and choices that produce bad results and are frequently self-destructive.

It is almost unbelievable that men can believe the things they do.What could possibly make men choose falsehood over truth, what motive is so universal that it can make men everywhere prefer to believe what reason could never believe?" We have already answered that question, but it belongs here too. We quote "Truth and Superstition." Mankind, generally hates reality, just because mankind does view reality as ruthless, demanding, cruel, and unforgiving. What mankind wishes for is a reality that is pliable, easy-going, kind, and forgiving. At bottom, mankind hates reality, hates the necessity of having to work hard all the time, hates the necessity of having to learn so much, hates never being able to act on whim, or passion, or impulse without consequences, hates knowing they cannot do wrong and get away with it, hates knowing you cannot get something for nothing.

What mankind wants is exemption from consequences and a shortcut to success, wealth, happiness, or whatever else their current whims and fancies convince them they want. Reason does not show them how to have or achieve what they want the way they want it. Reason only enables them to understand the truth that describes reality as it is. They don't want truth, either. The truth just condemns them for their hate of reality. They hate the truth, too.

Here, finally, is the secret, that unrevealed factor, the mystery of why almost all men prefer their superstitions to the truth.

At the heart of all superstitious beliefs, sometimes explicit, but always implicit, is the promise that there is something more than reality, something above reality, something which cancels the requirements of reality, a secret that enables those who know it to rise above mere reality, to defy it and get away with it. Superstition, which is never called superstition, is a magic wand that makes exist what in reality cannot exist, a metaphysical wild card that makes one automatically a winner, the universal "get-out-of-jail-free" card that allows one to escape the consequences of their choices and actions, the flying carpet that defies all of reality to give its owner a free ride to success and happiness.

Dangers and Evil of Superstition The danger of superstition is not just ignorance or mistaken beliefs. All ignorance and all mistakes can be dangerous, but as we have already stated, plain ignorance and mistakes are correctable, but superstition never is. Those who are ignorant or those who hold mistaken ideas do not choose to be either ignorant or mistaken. Those whose views are superstitious are superstitious on purpose. Their ignorance is intentional. At some level, to hold a superstitious belief, one must intentionally choose to embrace something as true, knowing full well, there is no sound rational reason for believing it true, while stubbornly insiting on some unidentified "higher" source of knowledge.

What is "higher" than reason? Well nothing, but there are plenty of things people hold as higher, such as, "the good of Society," or "compassion," or "revelation," or "mystic insight," or "their feelings," or "others feelings," or "nature," or anything else they can think of to use as an excuse for refusing to think and be responsible for their own lives and choices.

The more you understand about the nature of the world you live in, the nature of society, and the nature of the people that make up societies (which is how you understand the nature of societies), the more successful you are likely to be. Since superstition is a dominant trait of human beings, we conclude this article with four comments about the nature of the superstitious, and how to deal with them.

1. Since most people are irrational, by their own admission ("I am a person of faith"), most of the people you will deal with in this world are going to be at least partially irrational and unreasonable by their own admission. While most people are not totally irrational and in their day-to-day activities must maintain a certain level or rationality to survive, in those areas that are affected by their "faith" or "higher convictions" they are irrational, and their own words warn you, "about these things I am not willing to reason." So, be warned. You cannot trust the irrational, and to the extent people's beliefs and values are based on superstition, you must be wary. While it is very frustrating to the rational when dealing with the irrational, it is not necessary to try to "understand their point of view," (it is wrong), or convince them of their mistakes, (they cannot understand and you'll only aggravate them), or be concerned about their feelings or losses (their bad feelings and losses are the result of their irrationality, not your rationality).

2. Animals are predictable, but irrational human beings are not. Most human beings are dangerous for just this reason. (A great deal of irrationality also makes most human beings unnecessarily paranoid, fearful, and cowardly. These factors frequently mitigate their dangerousness. Still, you must be wary.)

3. Since all human behavior is determined by what individuals believe, and since they can apparently believe anything, there is no evil of which they are not capable. This is too easy to dismiss. Recent history shows the price of this dismissal.

4. When dealing with the irrational, you must always remember, any clear-cut rational explanation of their error is a threat to them. They have built their lives around their beliefs, all meaning and purpose for them is in their superstitions, every emotion they feel is disturbed the moment their convictions are threatened. Even rational people, who have long held mistaken beliefs, are disturbed when something forces them to face the truth of their error. The difference is a rational person knows the bad feelings arising from an exposed error are the result of error, and prefers to correct the error rather than assuage the feelings. The feelings will come around on their own. The superstitious would rather kill you and protect their feelings and cheished superstitions, than to face that fact their cherished superstitions are self-destructive and morally evil.