In Defense of Superstition

On April 6, 2012, the New York Times published an essay titled “In Defense of Superstition” by Matthew Hutson.

Hutson argues that everyone believes in the supernatural to some degree. Spiritual beliefs are not only inevitable but also beneficial–even when those beliefs misrepresent reality. Nobody can can enjoy a sense of control or meaning without being at least modestly superstitious.

Hutson reports how the psychological effects of superstition improves sports performance and reduces anxiety through offering a sense of control. Superstition also enables people to cope with disaster by allowing them to attach meaning to their misfortune. Furthermore, regardless of how irrational spiritual beliefs may seem, everyone is religious to some degree. When faced with pressure, uncertainty, and loss, people expose their core beliefs, and those beliefs always include some supernatural element. Contrary to the claims of skeptics, religious people are not insane. Spiritual belief makes sane behavior possible.

Romans 1:18-32 teaches that all people know God instinctively but suppress that knowledge because they want to do wrong. Hutson points out areas where even the most ardent atheists cannot consistently maintain their self-deception. Theologians call such inconsistencies evidence of common grace, where God restrains the effects of the fall. From a Christian perspective, Hutson’s argument implies that unbelievers rely heavily on God’s common grace, even for their own sanity.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Superstition

    • That quote is often attributed to Chesterton. It usually appears like “A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything” or “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” Despite popular opinion, Chesterton never actually said that. The quote appears to originate in a 1937 study of Chesterton by Emile Cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet. Cammaerts is quoting Father Brown, one of Chesterton’s fictional characters.

      “It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: “And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.” [p. 211]

      In between the two quotes, Cammaerts includes a comment of her own. Christopher Hollis appears to attribute Cammaerts statement to Chestertion in The Mind of Chesterton (1970), and various forms of the phrase have since appeared in numerous lists of quotations, including The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century. For more information about this quote, see the American Chesterton Society.

      As a description of Chesterton’s humorous jabs at skeptics, the statement is pretty accurate. However, in a more serious sense, it may be better to stress the fact that everyone has a worldview and is willing to lay logic aside to make that worldview hold together. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Yeah, I did bit off a bit much for a 200 word post. Since it was more exploratory than argumentative, I probably should have asked more questions and left it a bit more open-ended.

      The crux of the argument is:
      Sane people find meaning in life.
      Everyone must make spiritual assumptions to find meaning in life.
      Religion/spirituality is inherent to sanity.

      Hope you stick around. I’m working on it.

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