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Superstition VS Religion

13 May 2013, 16:03

Superstition is defined as “a Belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance or a false conception of causation”

The word superstition is often used derogatively to refer to ‘religious’ practices other than the one prevailing in a given society, although the prevailing religion may contain just as many superstitious beliefs (examples in SA would be African ancestor beliefs, the tokoloshe, witchcraft or astrology).

There exists very little debate or disagreement around the fact that humans are hard-wired for superstition, we have an innate tendency to believe things that are unsupported and often irrational. But where does this superstitious tendency originate from AND why do so many people, in the 21st century, still believe in Angels, demons, ghosts, gods, the afterlife, reincarnation, psychics, prayer, telepathy, astrology, lucky charms, Friday the 13th, karma, etc. when we now know that many, if not all, of the above mentioned beliefs clearly do not coincide with reality?

In man’s early years he had no shortage of ignorance, his existence on this beautiful yet terrifyingly complex planet was the perfect breeding ground for superstition seeing that he lacked the knowledge and understanding necessary to logically contemplate his existence and that of his surroundings.

Our superstitious nature is best explained as an evolutionary trait, engraved in our DNA through natural selection, this suggests superstition was beneficial to our existence at some point, for those of you unfamiliar with superstition explained as an evolutionary trait, here’s a piece by Michael Shermer that explains it simplistically: 

‘We are pattern-seeking primates. Our brains are designed by evolution to constantly be forming connections, patterns, learning things about the environment. We connect A to B to C, and often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. This is called association learning. But we do not have a false-pattern-detection device in our brains to help us distinguish between true and false patterns, and so we make errors in our thinking. A type 1 error is believing a pattern is real when it is not(a false positive) and a type 2 error is not believing a pattern is real when it is(a false negative)

Here’s my thought experiment - Imagine you’re a hominid on the plains of Africa, three and a half million years ago, and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume it is a dangerous predator and it turns out it’s just the wind, you’ve made a type 1 error, a false positive, but to no harm, you just become a little more cautious and vigilant.

On the other hand, if you think the rustle in the grass in just the wind, and it turns out it’s a dangerous predator, you’d be lunch and would thereby have removed yourself from your species’ gene pool. Thus, natural selection took place and we are the descendants of those who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous.  - This is the basis for superstition and magic thinking.’

Superstition, despite once being vital to our survival, is without any practical use to us today. One could even convincingly argue that superstitious beliefs in comparison to a rational outlook can be detrimental in many situations.

The only real difference between religious beliefs and superstitious beliefs is a lack of objectivity. “Religion is what you believe. Superstition is what the other guy believes”. ‘Religion’ is nothing more than a label under which we hide superstitious beliefs and ideas in an attempt to avoid criticism and acquire credibility through levitating respect and sacredness, relating to these beliefs, to unjustified levels.  

Once we’ve discovered the origins and realized the irrationality of our ideas, the time has perhaps come for us, as a species, to grow up, to abandon superstition, to embrace reality, to allow ourselves to grasp how valuable every moment of our infinitely short existence is and most importantly, to make the most of it. 

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