Very superstitious

One of my favorite bloggers, Niels K. Peterson, recently posted about the historical meanings of superstition, in a post called .”The product of superstitious and false beliefs.”

Humanists, atheists, and skeptics have a problem. And the problem is that they are limited to communicating using language. This is an English-language blog, yet, for the most part, all Indo-European languages face the same problem. We want to talk about things, using language, but language is a horrible medium for talking about things. Superstition is an especially egregious word, as its a direct borrowing from Classical Latin, and occurs in many Indo-European languages, not to mention the New Latin in which so many Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment texts were written.

Niels’s post is about a very specific sort of problem: When 18th. c. commentators describe vampires as a superstition, what the hell do they mean by superstition? It’s a remarkably non-trivial problem.

Enny ful knows what “superstition” is, right? Black cats, rabbit’s feet, walkin’ under a ladder, Friday the 13th, innit?

Sadly, no.

The Wikipedia article actually provides a fairly decent overview of the historical changes in meaning of the word “superstition.”

For those atheists and skeptics who turn their glassy eye on American religious fundamentalism, it’s tempting to adopt the Classic view of superstition, and accuse fundamentalists of magical thinking. This, of course, is precisely the opening that Catholic theologians and “sophisticated” apologists are waiting for. Like I said in a previous post, never let the enemy define the terms of the argument.

Niels writes of the transitional period between Moderism and early Enlightenment thinking in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where superstition meant different things to different people, depending on their political and philosophical fortunes. It’s important to recognize that we here in the early 21st c. have our own political and philosophical fortunes at stake as well.

“Superstition” is one of those words, like Bronze-Age, medieval, and so many others, that should prompt you to reach for your gun.

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