Superstition and religion

Posted on March 6, 2007


A while ago I read Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. I found the book thrilling. First of all, it approached religion not as a body of beliefs to be argued for or against – that debate having gone on for centuries without anything new and significant having come out of it for most of that time – but as a natural phenomenon to be explained. Secondly, I found Dennett’s approach to religion analogous to the kind of approach I wanted to take to superstition.

Thinking about the similarities and differences between what Dennett was doing and what I was hoping to do made me consider a number of issues that were vital for my own project.

The first was the question of the relationship between what I was doing and parapsychology. Here, it seems to me that there is a close analogy with what Dennett does and the old ‘debate’ between theists and atheists. Quite simply, given the lack of any satisfactory evidence despite years of looking for it, there seems little point to me to carry out scientific work on the question of whether there is anything like telepathy or any of the other psi powers people have invented. The far more interesting question is the continued human belief in such things – the evidence for the existence of the beliefs (rather than the powers) being almost omnipresent. Indeed, one of my worries in doing research on superstition is the worry that some people will confuse it with parapsychology.

The second question that reading Dennett forced me to think about was the relationship between superstition and religion. Clearly, the two are closely related to each other both in terms of having been historically linked and in terms of probably sharing some of the cognitive underpinnings. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are religious but who oppose superstition wherever they see it. Indeed, the religious beliefs of such people tend to be a lot more deeply held and profound than those of an average church-goer. So, it seems that the relationship between superstition and religion can not be too simple. The question is not just of purely intellectual interest to me as the closeness of the relationship between the two determined to what degree I should concern myself with the research being done into the cognitive and evolutionary bases of religious beliefs. Of course, in a sense the answer can only be arrived at the end of the research process, if then. Still, I think the similarities are such as to make it clear that developments in research on religion and those in research on superstition should be relevant across both areas in most cases. And that’s enough of a basis to act on.