The superstitious are the same in society as cowards in an army; they themselves are seized with a panic fear, and communicate it to others.

—Voltaire

When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts. Coincidentally, at both my mother’s and my father’s house, I had a nextdoor neighbor who very much encouraged the fear. Both were girls, both a couple years older than me, and both told me ghost stories that filled me with wonder and scared me half to death. Once, I remember being so frightened of ghosts in the attic that I begged my mother, with tears in my eyes, not to go up, sure that she would meet some horrible end. (She was miraculously unharmed.) I even went on ghost discovery missions with my neighbor and my brother, in the forest behind my house; we didn’t find anything, but once we took a polaroid in which the sun’s rays, coming through the trees, created an odd aura that looked vaguely ghostlike.

Naturally my superstitious beliefs weakened with age until they left me altogether. Admittedly, living in a very secular part of the country helped. Since those ghost hunting days, I have not personally come into contact with a lot of superstitious behavior. But whenever I have, I am filled with a strange mixture of pity and revulsion, for superstition strikes me as the lowest depth to which the adult human mind may fall. Traditional superstitions are the child’s fear of the dark, of the strange creaks at night, of the unexplained coincidence—in short, fear of the unknown—hardened into a belief handed down the generations. They are socially condoned phobias.

While I am no friend of religion, I can at least sympathize with the comfort provided by a faith in a just and caring God. I can see how a belief in a higher power might ennoble a person and lift them up above circumstances. But superstition, as I understand it, does just the opposite: it shrinks the universe down to petty dimensions, and fills the superstitious with debilitating and needless fears. For to believe that throwing salt over your shoulder, walking over a grave or under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors or saying some forbidden word, being passed by a black cat or doing something at a certain hour or on a specific day—to believe that these trivial events can significantly influence your life is to give monumental importance to one’s smallest actions, and is thus really a form of egotism.

And how does the belief in ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, monsters, or even “luck” itself, add to your experience of the world? All these are boogeymen who cause us to revert to a state of childlike terror. And what are the consequences of these beliefs? If you believe that certain very normal things are cursed, haunted, or even “bad luck,” you will go through life needlessly avoiding things. Indeed, I admit that it strikes me as an affront to human reason for a person in this century to become nervous because they have spilled salt.

But the most nefarious part of superstitions is not that they are illogical, but that they are socially condoned, often through association with religion. Thus people are not encouraged to test these fears in order to see if they are justified, but exactly the opposite, they are encouraged to obey the fears and never to criticize them. This is what I mean by calling them socially condoned phobias. For an irrational fear in one person is a phobia, to be treated by a psychologist; but in a whole society it is a superstition, to be respected.

In general I think that fear should be combated wherever it isn’t absolutely necessary, for fear limits our options, distorts our views, and shrinks our world. And superstition, being a socially contagious form of irrational fear, is perhaps the worst example of this. Yet having written this diatribe, I must here admit that I enjoy picking up pennies when I find them on the ground. I do not believe they give me good luck, but somehow it feels like winning a prize. What strange stuff we are made of!

3 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #63: Voltaire

  1. Lol. I’m a believer, and yet we are all sometimes prey to some superstitions, or some irrational practices like the one you describe. I believe the basis for the belief in ghosts and such are in the strong and innate recognition of forces beyond or above our control and understanding. There’s also a natural curiosity for that in the real of the imagination, outside the confines of reason. But sure, to really believe in those things, -versus just engaging our imagination in them-, would mean to make our life a limited one that doesn’t truly acknowledge God.

    Liked by 1 person

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