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Image of Superstitions - finding an impenetrable prophylactic against ignorant beliefs

One of the many fun things to do as a kid is to sit around a campfire late at night and hear adults tell ghost stories. Our imaginations would run wild - are there really such things as ghosts?

But then there are other things we learn as kids not from fun, but out of fear. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. Hold your breath while passing a cemetery. Don't let a black cat cross your path.

Whereas the term superstition was noted in 1st century BC, it was later applied "to any beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity." Nowadays, 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."

spock black cats your preposterous superstitions are quite illogical demotivationalSome of these we develop based upon coincidences in our lives (e.g., wear your lucky shirt to do well on a test). Others are spread through stories, and perhaps even used to teach safety (e.g., don't walk under a ladder). Then there are traditions we never understood but just accepted (e.g., the girl who catches the bride's bouquet will be married within a year). It's interesting that, even if it is difficult to determine the origin of many superstitions because they are so old, they persist. And education or intelligence aren't always "an impenetrable prophylactic" against ignorant beliefs.

It's one thing to claim that you believe something that hasn't been scientifically proven because you had a particular experience. For example, there are some who consider themselves psychic with ESP because they have had certain experiences that others cannot verify. However, this is quite different from claiming to believe something in which you haven't any direct knowledge or experience whatsoever. To believe what someone else believes "just because" is to give-up responsibility to think for yourself.

Given how much knowledge we have accomplished through science, why do superstitions persist? Why do we continue to attribute the unknowns to explanations of the past which, themselves, were based on fear and ignorance? Why do we defend unjustified beliefs? What is it about human nature that allows superstitions to spread so wide and remain around for so long? Does a lack of curiosity lead to superstitions? How does one rise above superstitious prejudices? What's the best way to deal with those who have superstitions: condemnation, indifference, or inquiry?

THE true origin of superstition is to be found in early man's effort to explain Nature and his own existence; in the desire to propitiate Fate and invite Fortune; in the wish to avoid evils he could not understand and in the unavoidable attempt to pry into the future. From these sources alone must have sprung that system of crude notions and practices still obtaining among savage nations; and although in more advanced nations the crude system gave place to attractive mythology, the moving power was still the same; man's interpretation of the world was equal to his ability to understand its mysteries no more, no less. For this reason the superstitions which, to use a Darwinian word, persist, are of special interest, as showing a psychological habit of some importance. Of this, more anon.

The first note in all superstitions is that of ignorance. Take three representative and widely different cases. The first is a Chinaman living about one thousand years before Christ. He has before him the "Book of Changes," and is about to divine the future by geometrical figures; the second is a Roman lady, bent on the same object, but using the shapes of molten wax dropped into water; the third is a Stock Exchange speculator seated before a modern clairvoyant in Bond Street, earnestly seeking light on the future of his big deal in Brighton A. The operating cause here is a desire to know the future, and, so long as man is man, so long will he either rely on the divinations of the past, or invent new ones more in keeping with mental science. But ignorance exists in several varieties, and one of them has to do not with the future, but with the well-established present; in other words, an accepted doctrine may be based on a misinterpretation of the facts. As Trenchard remarks in his Natural History of Superstition, "Man's curiosity is in excess of his capacity to interpret Nature and life." Thus early man attributed a living spirit to everything--to his fellows, to the lower animals, to the trees, the mountains, and the rivers. Probably these conclusions were as good as his intelligence would allow, but they became the mental stock-in-trade of all races, and were handed down from one generation to another, constituting a barrier to be broken down before newer and truer ideas of life could prevail. And the same contention applies equally to the superstition of the moment. The woman who will not pay a call unless she wears a particular amulet, or the man who starts up from a table of thirteen, his face blanched and his blood cold, are just as truly, though not in the same degree, the victims of ignorance as the animist who tried to propitiate the anger of the spirit of the stream. Ignorance is the atmosphere in which alone such superstitions can live.

Allied with ignorance is fear, which is the second element calling for notice. Fear, too, has its varieties, some of them both natural and justifiable. If I visit an electrical power-house and know nothing of its machinery and appointments, I am very chary what I touch and prefer to keep my hands to myself lest I make a mistake. Rational fear, however, is the offspring of a reasoned knowledge of danger. It is irrational fear which forms the bogey of superstition. The misfortune of early man was to have experiences more numerous and subtle than he could understand; to his power of analysis they were altogether unyielding; and yet his unrestrained imagination demanded a working theory of some kind, and he got one, grounded in ignorance and fear. An earthquake is a phenomenon calculated to strike terror into the heart of all but the strongest man; no wonder then that the primitive mind invented all sorts of ideas about spirits of the under world, and ascribed to gloomy caverns the possession of dragons and other fearsome enemies of the race. The thunder, the lightning and the tempest; the blight which spoiled the sources of food; the sudden attack of mysterious sickness, and a hundred other fatalities were to him more than merely natural forces busily employed in working out their natural destiny; they were Powers to be propitiated. That is the third note of the superstitious mind; its effort to propitiate intelligent and semi-intelligent forces by suitable beliefs, rites, ceremonies, and penances. Where ignorance and fear beget a sense of danger, knowledge, even defective knowledge, is always equal to the task of inventing a way of escape.

The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (by T. Sharper Knowlson) - Introduction

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Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on Aug 12, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=619

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