How dangerous is superstition?

Posted on October 9, 2007

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The issue of how much damage superstition causes is one that I find myself constantly coming back to. Interestingly, however, I have not come across any real work on the issue. My personal intuition is that it actually isn’t all that damaging on the whole though there must be real horror stories. On the other hand, Voltaire wrote of it as the force that is in opposition to reason and philosophy, claiming that superstition was at the root of much that was wrong with the world at his time. Of course, I would not agree with his simple opposition between reason and superstition but I wonder if there isn’t more to the difference between how Voltaire saw things and how they seem right now. One way to explain it would be by saying that superstition just isn’t what it used to be thanks to the efforts of enlightened individuals and societies. Just as there are lots of diseases that are now easily controlled with antibiotics and have, therefore, ceased to claim thousands of lives, so superstition, on this view, is but a shadow of its former self. In this one could compare it to the gentle English vicar of today as opposed to religious fanatics such as Guy Fawkes. On the other hand, however, it seems more likely that the causal connections actually run mostly in the other direction – superstition being more an effect rather than a cause of chaotic, dangerous times.

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