Moon Lore, by Timothy Harley, , at sacred-texts.com
Superstition may be defined as an extravagance of faith and fear: not what Ecclesiastes calls being "righteous overmuch," but religious reverence in excess. Some etymologists say that the word originally meant a "standing still over or by a thing" in fear, wonder, or dread. 265 Brewer's definition is rather more classical: "That which survives when its companions are dead (Latin, supersto). Those who escaped in battle were called superstitës. Superstition is that religion which remains when real religion is dead; that fear and awe and worship paid to the religious impression which survives in the mind when correct notions of Deity no longer exist." 266 Hooker says that superstition "is always joined with a wrong opinion touching things divine. Superstition is, when things are either abhorred or observed with a zealous or fearful, but erroneous relation to God. By means whereof the superstitious do sometimes serve, though the true God, yet with needless offices, and defraud Him of duties necessary; sometimes load others
than Him with such honours as properly are His." 267 A Bampton Lecturer on this subject says: "Superstition is an unreasonable belief of that which is mistaken for truth concerning the nature of God and the invisible world, our relations to these unseen objects, and the duties which spring out of those relations." 268
We may next briefly inquire into the origin of the thing, which, of course, is older than the word. Burton will help us to an easy answer. He tells us that "the primum mobile, and first mover of all superstition, is the devil, that great enemy of mankind, the principal agent, who in a thousand several shapes, after divers fashions, with several engines, illusions, and by several names, hath deceived the inhabitants of the earth, in several places and countries, still rejoicing at their falls." 269 Verily this protean, omnipresent, and malignant devil has proved himself a great convenience! He has been the scapegoat upon whom we have laid the responsibility of all our mortal woe: and now we learn that to his infernal influence we are indebted for our ignorance and superstition. Henceforth, when we are at our wit's end, we may apostrophize the difficulty, and exclaim, "O thou invisible spirit, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!" We hesitate to spoil this serviceable illusion: for as we have known some good people, of a sort, who would be distressed to find that there was no hell to burn up the opponents of their orthodoxy; we fear lest
many would be disappointed if they found out that the infernal spirit was not at the bottom of our abysmal ignorance. But we will give even the devil his due. We are not like Sir William Brown, who "could never bring himself heartily to hate the devil." We can, wherever we find him; but we think it only honest to father our own mental deficiencies, as well as our moral delinquencies, and instead of seeking a substitute to use the available remedy. "To err is human"; and it is in humanity itself that we shall discover the source of superstition. We are the descendants of ancestors who were the children of the world, and we were ourselves children not so long ago. Childhood is the age of fancy and fiction; of sensitiveness to outer influences; of impressions of things as they seem, not as they are. When we become men we put away childish things; and in the manhood of our race we shall banish many of the idols and ideas which please us while we grow. Darwin has told us that our "judgment will not rarely err from ignorance and weak powers of reasoning. Hence the strangest customs and superstitions, in complete opposition to the true welfare and happiness of mankind, have become all-powerful throughout the world. How so many absurd rules of conduct, as well as so many absurd religious beliefs, have originated, we do not know; nor how it is that they have become, in all quarters of the world, so deeply impressed on the mind of men; but it is worthy of remark that a belief constantly inculcated during the
early years of life, whilst the brain is impressible, appears to acquire almost the nature of an instinct; and the very essence of an instinct is that it is followed independently of reason." 270
But if superstition be the result of imperfection, there is no gainsaying the fact that it is productive of infinite evil; and on this account it has been attributed to a diabolical paternity. Bacon even affirms that "it were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of Him; for the one is unbelief, the other is contumely: and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity." 271 Most heartily do we hold with Dr. Thomas Browne: "It is not enough to believe in God as an irresistible power that presides over the universe; for this a malignant demon might be. It is necessary for our devout happiness that we should believe in Him as that pure and gracious Being who is the encourager of our virtues and the comforter of our sorrows.
"Quantum religio potuit suadere malorum,"
exclaims the Epicurean poet, in thinking of the evils which superstition, characterized by that ambiguous name, had produced; and where a fierce or gloomy superstition has usurped the influence which religion graciously exercises only for purposes of benevolence to man, whom she makes happy with a present enjoyment, by the very expression of devout gratitude for happiness already enjoyed, it would not be easy
to estimate the amount of positive misery which must result from the mere contemplation of a tyrant in the heavens, and of a creation subject to his cruelty and caprice." 272 The above quoted line from Lucretius--To such evils could religion persuade!--is more than the exclamation of righteous indignation against the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon, at the bidding of a priest, to propitiate a goddess. It is still further applicable to the long chain of outrageous wrongs which have been inflicted upon the innocent at the instigation of a stupid and savage fanaticism. What is worst of all, much of this bloodthirsty religion has claimed a commission from the God of love, and performed its detestable deeds in the insulted name of that "soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil spirit," whom the loftiest and best of men delight to adore as the Prince of peace. No wonder that Voltaire cried out, "Christian religion, behold thy consequences!" if he could calculate that ten million lives had been immolated on the altar of a spurious Christianity. One hundred thousand were slain in the Bartholomew massacre alone. Righteousness, peace, and love were not the monster which Voltaire laboured to crush: he was most intensely incensed against the blind and bigoted priesthood, against the malicious and murderous servants who ate the bread of a holy and harmless Master, against "their intolerance of light and hatred of knowledge, their fierce yet profoundly contemptible struggles with one another, the scandals of their
casuistry, their besotted cruelty." 273 We have been betrayed into speaking thus strongly of the extreme lengths to which superstition will carry those who yield themselves to its ruthless tyranny. But perhaps we have not gone far from our subject, after all; for the innocent Iphigenia, whose doom kindled our ire, was sacrificed to the goddess of the moon.