Is religion superstition?

Richard asked:

Given that religion is a subset of superstition, why is there no philosophy of superstition?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

There’s a scene towards the end of Deepwater Horizon (2010), a dramatization of the 2010 offshore BP drilling rig disaster, when the rescued survivors all kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Which got me thinking: what about the Atheists? weren’t there any? If you were there — cut, bruised, burnt, half dead from exhaustion — would you be so churlish as to remain standing, stuck right out there in the middle, spoiling the vibe?

Probably not, and what does that mean anyway. To kneel requires a tiny self-sacrifice, in the larger scheme of things. Let others enjoy the comforts of their ‘superstitious’ beliefs.

There is a ‘philosophy of superstition’. The classic text is David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) which includes a compelling description of the way human beings seem to have a irrepressible bias towards believing in the improbable and the fantastical — the very opposite of the way you would expect beliefs to be formed in response to experience.

From an evolutionary perspective this seems strange. What use is a belief-forming mechanism that leads us to form false beliefs? That is a question that Freud addressed in his account of the stages of human development from the ‘omnipotence of the ego’ to the ‘reality principle’. A crude way of stating this would be that those who are more tempted to belief in the fantastical — whether it be the doctrines of religion, or Illuminati, or crop circles, or the Law of Attraction — haven’t quite made it in their cognitive development.

However, I don’t accept your premise that religion is superstition. That’s not even close. Marx was getting warmer when he said that religion is the ‘the soul of soulless conditions, the heart of a heartless world’. If the world wasn’t so bad, the oppressed wouldn’t need to drug themselves with religion.

Humans seem to have an innate tendency towards needing someone or something to thank, when thanks are due, or call for help when help is needed. Each and every one of us was once a helpless infant, and dire circumstances bring out the helpless infant in all of us. Those feelings are genuine and real. It doesn’t mean that you are infantile.

As the movie illustrates, humans also like to pray together. It gives them a warm feeling of solidarity, the celebration of communion as  the British existentialist John Macmurray called it in his Gifford Lectures (Persons in Relation, 1961).

Despite those undeniable facts, it has been proved sufficiently many times to not require further proof, that a person can live a full human life without the crutch of religion to lean upon, and many in fact do.

As an atheist, I hold that religion is a serious challenge, which needs to be overcome if the human race is to move forward and take responsibility upon ourselves for making the world better for every living being. Regardless of its touted benefits, religion has all the hallmarks of an infectious and debilitating mental illness. Finding the correct diagnosis is crucial for achieving a lasting cure.

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