SUPERSTITION

13-June-2015


"Superstition" isn't just a classic song by Stevie Wonder. We atheists use the word "superstition" prominently in our assessments of religion. Indeed, it seems almost the defining feature of religion. But it's a word with several different shades of meaning.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition in the following way:

1(a) : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation [italics are mine]

(b) : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition

2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary

(It's odd that Merriam-Webster would commit the sin of using the word being defined as part of the definition, but they are the pros.)

I believe religion fits all parts of that definition, but I want to focus on that last bit of 1(a): A superstition is a belief or practice resulting from... a false conception of causation. It is this feature of superstition that gives religion its staying power.

The biggest source of "false conceptions of causation" is proximity in time. I once read a claim that "the human mind is designed to link, at least tentatively, any two events that occur close together in time." If any of us is having trouble starting a car, for example, and suddenly the engine starts immediately after we roll down the driver's side window, there is a strong tendency, among all of us, to theorize that rolling the window down caused the car to start. We might then laugh at the idea -- but not all of us. Some people would never again try starting any car without rolling down the window first.

My only argument with the claim cited above is with the implication that this is something uniquely human. The psychologist B.F. Skinner, during the course of studying learning in pigeons, set up one experiment in which a hungry pigeon was confined to a cage in which a mechanism dispensed pellets of food at completely random intervals, not connected with anything the pigeon was doing. Skinner observed that if, for example, a pigeon bobbed his head immediately before the mechanism dropped a food pellet into the cage, the pigeon would afterward consistently (one might say religiously) bob his head in expectation that the bobbing would cause the release of another food pellet. According to Skinner, "Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return." They had once made this move immediately before the (unrelated) release of a pellet, had apparently formed a connection between the motion and being fed, and continued thereafter making that same motion in hopes it would produce more food, which Skinner called a "superstition." I laughed, for a moment, when I heard that word used in that context, thinking, yes, it is kind of like a superstition, isn't it? But then I realized it wasn't like a superstition; superstition is exactly what it was, in the same sense we use the word for humans.

Religion would not survive in the world without the reinforcement of this type of superstition: beliefs based on making connections between events that occur close together in time, regardless of whether there is any actual evidence of the events being related.

I am thinking, for example, of the recent news story out of Malaysia, in which members of a tour group from various countries were arrested for stripping naked on the slopes of a mountain because, according to local officials, the nudity had offended the spirit of the mountain and had caused a subsequent earthquake that killed 18 climbers on the mountain. I should mention that causing the earthquakes and deaths is not the official charge, but the connection is widely believed by the local populace. Their superstitious belief in the mountain god has now been reinforced by associating the offensive act with the earthquake, an association made because the latter occurred immediately after the former. Such imagined causal connections are an important force in maintaining a religious belief system: See, these people are able to say, our god acted on his anger. It doesn't take many events such as this -- once in a generation, perhaps, or even less often than that -- to "prove" the existence of the god to all those who want to believe.

I don't want to dwell on that particular example, however. It's easy for Americans (most of them Christians) to dismiss rural Malaysian beliefs out of a feeling of cultural superiority. But I don't need to look to Malaysia for illustrations of the power of superstition in maintaining religious beliefs. I can find plenty of them closer to home. California, say.

At the California Pro-Life Legislative Banquet last week, Shannon Grove, an elected member of the California state legislature, said that California's historic drought is God's punishment of the state for allowing abortions. In support of her assertion, Ms. Grove pointed out, "Texas was in a long period of drought until Governor Perry signed the fetal pain bill. It rained that night."

There you have it: God had been afflicting Texas with drought because, in accordance with Roe v. Wade, the state had been permitting abortions up until the 24th week, and God allowed the rains to return as soon as the Texas legislature passed a bill moving the deadline up to the 20th week. (That was the content of the bill to which Ms. Grove was referring.) The signing of the bill, immediately followed by much-needed rain, proved the causal connection to Ms. Grove's satisfaction.

(It should be noted that Ms. Grove is not the first person to suggest the drought/abortion connection. Last year Bill Koenig, editor of World Watch Daily, said much the same thing, also adding same-sex marriage to the list of God's grievances.)

It occurs to me that, among the many problems with Ms. Grove's claim, one of them would cause her particular trouble as soon as it occurs to anyone with a large audience (a qualification I lack): If it is true that God said to Texas, "Okay, y'all can have your rain back" once Gov. Perry signed that bill, it would imply that God considers abortions prior to the 20th week acceptable. Restricting them after that point, it seems, was all God was trying for: if that didn't satisfy him, He would have continued enforcing the drought. I'm pretty sure that's not what Ms. Grove was trying to say, but it's clear that following her own statements to their logical conclusion is not Ms. Grove's strong suit.

Right at this moment Texans, especially those who have lost everything they owned in the floods caused by recent torrential downpours, are wishing for a little of that drought back. Tell us, Shannon Grove, what is Texas (along with Oklahoma and Arkansas) doing wrong this time?



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