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Superstition is the belief in supernatural causality—that one event causes another without any natural process linking the two events—such as astrology, religion, omens, witchcraft, prophecies, etc., that contradicts natural science.
Opposition to superstition was central to 17th century Rationalist Benedict de Spinoza and the intellectuals of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. The philosophes at that time rejected any belief in miracles, revelation, magic, or the supernatural, as "superstition," as well as unreasoned Christian doctrine.
The word superstition is sometimes used to refer to religious practices (e.g., Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g., Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many superstitious beliefs. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific (apparently) unrelated prior events.
The word superstition is first used in English in the 15th century, modelled after an earlier French superstition. The earliest known use as an English noun occurs in Friar Daw's Reply (ca. 1420), where the foure general synnes are enumerated as Cediciouns, supersticions, þe glotouns, & þe proude. The French word, together with its Romance cognates (Italian superstizione, Spanish superstición, Portuguese superstição, Catalan superstició) continues Latin superstitio. From its first use in the Classical Latin of Livy and Ovid (1st century BC), the term is used in the pejorative sense it still holds today, of an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief, as opposed to religio, the proper, reasonable awe of the gods.
While the formation of the Latin word is clear, from the verb super-stare, "to stand over, stand upon; survive", its original intended sense is less than clear.
It can be interpreted as "‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe", but other possibilities have been suggested, e.g. the sense of excess, i.e. overscrupulousness or over-ceremoniousness in the performing of religious rites, or else the survival of old, irrational religious habits.
Cicero derived the term from the term superstitiosi, lit. those who are "left over", i.e. "survivors", "descendants", connecting it with excessive anxiety of parents in hoping that their children would survive them to perform their necessary funerary rites.
The Latin verb superstare itself is comparatively young, being "perhaps not ante-Augustan", first found in Livy, and the meaning "to survive" is even younger, found in late or ecclesiastical Latin, for the first time in Ennodius. The use of the noun by Cicero and Horace thus predates the first attestation of the verb.
The term superstitio, or superstitio vana "vain superstition", was applied in the 1st century to those religious cults in the Roman Empire which were officially outlawed. This concerned the religion of the druids in particular, which was described as a superstitio vana by Tacitus, and Early Christianity, outlawed as a superstitio Iudaica in AD 80 by Domitian.
Greek and Roman polytheists, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods was what the Romans meant by "superstition" (Veyne 1987, p. 211).
"For there was scarce another of the celebrated bishoprics that had so few learned pontiffs; only in violence, intrigue, and superstition has it hitherto surpassed the rest. For the men who occupied the Roman See a thousand years ago differ so vastly from those who have since come into power, that one is compelled to refuse the name of Roman pontiff either to the former or to the latter.”
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments, defining superstition as "a perverse excess of religion" (para. #2110). The Catechism attempts to dispel commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:
Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. Matthew 23:16–22 (para. #2111)
As discussed above, there is a thin line of distinction between the concept of superstition and religion. What is fully accepted as genuine religious statement may be seen as poor superstition by those who do not share the same faith. Since there are no generally agreed proper or accepted religious standard among people of different cultural backgrounds the very notion of what is a superstitious behavior is relative to local culture. In this sense, Christian theology will interpret African cults as pure superstition while an evangelical person will see as meaningless the catholic ritual of crossing oneself gesture when going by a church. With the development of folklore studies in the late 18th century, use of the derogatory term superstition was sometimes replaced by the neutral term "folk belief", an attempt to go over local cultural biases. Both terms remain in use; thus, describing a practice such as the crossing fingers to nullify a promise as "folk belief" implies a neutral description from the perspective of ethnology or folklore studies, while calling the same thing a "superstition" implies its rejection as irrational.
In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons' actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans.
Skinner's theory regarding superstition being the nature of the pigeons' behaviour has been challenged by other psychologists such as Staddon and Simmelhag, who theorised an alternative explanation for the pigeons' behaviour.
Despite challenges to Skinner's interpretation of the root of his pigeons' superstitious behaviour, his conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. Originally, in Skinner's animal research, "some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an intermittent reinforcement basis." Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g., fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviours were also the most resistant to extinction. This is called the partial reinforcement effect, and this has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. To be more precise, this effect means that, whenever an individual performs an action expecting a reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual. This strongly parallels superstitious behaviour in humans because the individual feels that, by continuing this action, reinforcement will happen; or that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, although not all the time, but this may be one of those times.
From a simpler perspective, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate weak associations. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will outweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, "superstitious" associations. It has also been argued that there may be connections between OCD and superstition. This may be connected to hygiene.
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