Superstition and Supernaturalism

Why are superstition and supernaturalism so widespread in America, a Western society, centuries after the Enlightenment, with the results of that intellectual revolution all around us?

Superstition, broadly speaking, is belief without recourse to evidence, especially belief in non-existent cause and effect relationships. For example, a belief in atoms is not superstition even though the believer relies on others to provide the actual evidence, while a belief in creationism is superstition, since there is no evidence for it. This of course makes much superstition unwitting.

Homeopathy is superstition because it posits natural causes and effects that do not exist. Much of so-called “alternative medicine” is superstition based upon anecdotes rather than systematic research.

Supernaturalism is belief in entities and actions outside of nature, or denying natural explanations. Beliefs in gods, angels, and devils are instances of supernaturalism. So are god-based explanations of natural events. Creationism is therefore supernaturalism as well as superstition.

Because all supernaturalism lacks evidence, all supernaturalism is also superstition, while not all superstition is supernaturalism. Sometimes the supernaturalism is hidden, as in “energy medicine”, where the so-called “energy” is posited to be undetectable by ordinary (natural) means.

Why do superstition and supernaturalism permeate every aspect of our society? Most children are brought up in a religion, and retain or even expand their superstitions as adults. Religion is a gateway to other superstitions; if a person can believe the tenets of a typical religion, he or she might believe anything. Religions offer easy “answers” to many difficult questions.

Another explanation is that we encounter supernaturalism as often by going to the movies as by going to church. And television shows–including many news, history, and even science programs–often have elements of supernaturalism. Many novels feature supernaturalism. Insidiously, self-help and “healthy lifestyle” books often promote superstition and even supernaturalism, especially books that delve into “spiritualism” and “new age” beliefs. Perhaps all of these sources have been “primed” by the general acceptance of religion.

The mainstream media seem never to counter stories that report or promote superstition and supernaturalism, as if reluctant to offend believers, or perhaps reluctant to undermine a “good story”.

The information needed to counter superstition and supernaturalism is available, but requires a reliance on authorities and an effort to understand. Because of general anti-intellectualism and specifically anti-science attitudes, much of the ignorance resulting in superstition is self-inflicted. It is far easier to accept astrology, for example, than to learn why it is silly.

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