“Rather than thinking of magic, religion, and science as three distinctively successive stages in the world’s history, the author would now use a mode of analysis that dealt with all three as aspects of motivation ‘forever born anew’ in the resource of language as such.”
Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose.
My father-in-law had been on the hunt for a new vehicle, preferably a truck, he told me. Searching online spaces and full, car-dealership parking lots for weeks, he finally found the one he wanted at a dealership nearby, for an unbelievably good price.
It was your run-of-the-mill warm springtime day. The oil needed changing, the trash taken out, some yard work here, some coffee there, and it was noon. The time had come, and as my father-in-law pulled up to the lot, another person drove away with the truck.
I wake up around the time he gets back. He explains what happened, understandably bewildered because ten minutes earlier and it was his. “I guess God has something else for me,” he told me. “What’s not meant to be isn’t meant to be, I guess.” This was a perfectly acceptable summary to my Evangelical in-laws. His wife agreed. But he continued, “Although, maybe if I would have left twenty minutes earli—.” My mother-in-law cuts in, saying “And the sun doesn’t shine, it only rains because of you. If only you had woke up on the left side of the bed instead of the right side.”
My in-laws are conservative, Evangelical Christians. They say God did this or that; they pray for things to happen. They talk about God’s plan. Yet, for them, losing the truck deal by a matter of minutes doesn’t have anything to do with “God’s plan,” at least in a negative sense. That “God has something else for me” is an orienting expression, something religious people say when they’re trying to convince themselves to be open and hopeful about the future; it’s not a claim about the causes of events.
What they recognized implicitly was a significant difference between an orientation that bestows a false sense of control and importance, ending ultimately in despair, and an orientation of openness grounded in hope. The religious attitude has much more to do with your temperament toward reality than it does with magical powers making certain things happen that otherwise wouldn’t. This is a distinction between religious attitudes and superstitious attitudes.
Superstitions and superstitious attitudes are multifarious in their types, manifestations, and motivations. Here, very simply and briefly, I want to suggest that the superstitious attitude is motivated by a need to control, whether as desperate pleas in desperate situations or as power grabs grounded in hubris. I also want to suggest that superstitious people hold beliefs that, if followed to their logical conclusions in our modern world, would give them undue power over outcomes, not appropriate for either the real relations of things in the scientific universe or their political and social circumstances, in light of how compelling their beliefs are to others and the kind of authority people in their communities confer to them.
A superstitious person is motivated by a need to control, and their beliefs are like mirrors that are mistakenly taken for windows: bewitched by conspiratorial thinking of all kinds, the superstitious person believes he or she has a view of the true nature of things; whereas, in reality, what was believed to be the true nature of things is simply a reflection of personal inhibitions about which one has become unaware.
Let me draw the distinction more practically: You’re superstitious if you think praying for the Cubs to win the World Series causes, or helps, the Cubs to win the World Series. It’s the same thing as thinking the length of your beard causes the Red Sox to take the pennant. Or the belief that wearing the same Kaepernick jersey without washing it causes the 49ers to beat the Bears. Or the belief that praying for a person to heal causes that person to heal.
For the superstitious, personal devotion and whim ultimately determine events science wouldn’t attribute to a single human cause. And when the outcomes desired aren’t realized, the superstitious mind is reinforced more. Maybe the 49ers jersey didn’t cause the victory, and, well, I just realized I drank Bud Lite instead of Miller Lite today. That’s got to be it.
Cults, organizations, and communities built upon superstitious ways of thinking are good cases in point. When their shaman gets the facts of the matter wrong, for instance predicts the end of the world, the cultic members become more entrenched in their cult, seeking rationalizations within its boundaries. Tom Follery missed the fact the moon signifies five stars, which in turn equal three years minus the girth of yesterday’s chicken haul. Don’t you get it, man?
Just imagine the kind of person it would take, what kind of desperation, insecurities, delusions, and hubris you’d have to demand that people follow you, to their graves, because you, by no warrant of logic or authority, know the causes and reasons for the ills of humanity. This is the very logic of demagogues, authoritarians, and extreme fundamentalist groups.
The dawn of secularism has exorcised superstition from religion for the most part, although its demons are still present in darker reaches. Religious people aren’t immune to this kind of thinking, and in fact we see it in many (if not all) forms of fundamentalist movements. The salient distinction genuine religious attitudes possess is a distinction worth considering.
As laid out by the likes of Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and many others, the religious perspective is constituted by an orientation of openness and hope toward life as a whole, and it’s motivated by a desire to be fully human, to live and live abundantly. This is perhaps the reason why Jesus defined truth, at least in a religious sense, as that which sets you free.
Significantly, the religious attitude, especially from a Christian point of view, isn’t anything you can attain by reasoning your way or working your way toward it. The Father of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher, once remarked that faith is “the feeling of complete dependence.” And this is what he was talking about. Whereas the superstitious attitude grants disproportionate power and unwarranted belief, the religious attitude understands that all moral projects eventually end; that, even when you have the best of intentions, you can be misunderstood or even mistaken.
Of course there is a difference between merely sitting around, waiting for a miracle, and reaching out to help others in need. Your habits furrow the fields of your mind, and vice versa. Nevertheless, the religious attitude which explicates the dawn of faith as a “miracle” is in direct opposition to the idea that we as a species conduct all our actions with the best possible world for everyone in view. This is why we’re told to “Seek God:” the good cannot be determined beforehand, but is an emergent property of relationships with others.
An experience comes to mind as an illustration. I remember one day, as I ate dinner (probably cereal, to be honest), the news reported on a murder. Whether about a man or a woman, I can’t remember now, nor can I remember any of the details. Although I caught myself agitated, annoyed even, that the news wasn’t covering a specific topic I wanted to hear about.
I heard the case about the murder, but I was desensitized. I was in that moment convicted by my conscience, “How could you not have any empathy?” So I reasoned about it, I tried to intellectually connect with the fact this person has a mother, a father, friends, people who will grieve about their absence. I intellectually understood and grasped the situation. And yet I felt no sense of remorse or sadness. I only felt ashamed at my inability to connect with what I had been desensitized to on a human level.
This is the kind of experience the religious orientation speaks to. Not everyone will be saved. Go and do likewise, we’re told, and pray you hear the Word of God. Work out your salvation in fear and trembling. The religious attitude may make demands on your life, like selling everything you own, that you just won’t do because the habits of thought and action you’ve cultivated have contaminated the depths of your humanity.
The distinctively human problem religion speaks to is rooted in the experience that sometimes people can become alienated from what makes them authentically human; sometimes people can go too far one way and feel like they don’t have the power to make choices about their lives; and sometimes, out of nowhere, a wonderful, unexpected event occurs: a new realization, a new friend, a new hope. Both superstitious and religious attitudes speak to this domain of experience. What sets them apart is the kind of orientations each possess.
The Human Element
The human element in anything remains mostly under the surface. What a person’s intentions are can be difficult to ascertain at times, although you know they’re there, hidden. In fact the same applies to the language we use. There’s an imperative to not simply write-off religious language as mere superstition, even when it appears, by the grammar of sentences, to be this way. In the opening quote Kenneth Burke recognized this as “…aspects of motivation ’forever born anew’ in the resource of language….” And as Gerhard Ebeling once wrote, language has a human element: “Language, the essentially human in humankind, can be abused in order to dehumanize. The task of a theory of language in the most ambitious sense therefore consists of a defence of the humanity of language, for the sake of the language of humanity.”
Next time you hear someone assert what appears to be blatantly superstitious claim, listen closely, see how the concepts used are connected, and think about whether the person is attempting to make certain things happen or, in a genuinely religious way, is attempting to establish an orientation toward reality and life as a whole. Then you’ll know whether he who claims to be religious is religious or merely religious language shrouding superstitious attitudes.
Superstitious thinking makes claims about how things are, how things go, and what makes things happen. Religious thinking doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the cause and effect world, but testifies to and orients toward certain ways of living in the world. Where the superstitious attitude is motivated by a, perhaps desperate, desire to control, the religious attitude is motivated by an openness to life and novelty, grounded in hope and love.
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