Summary:

Paul Arnold argues that there is little to differentiate between faith and superstition, and that reason is seriously devalued by blind obedience to ridiculous rules

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In my childhood and youth, I was often reminded that Christianity had nothing whatsoever to do with superstition. In the back of my mind, by my teens at least, I went along with the traditions of my Anglican “tribal” community but found difficulty in identifying a borderline between beliefs accepted in my own, or any other religious tradition, and the ones regarded as mere superstition.

To take a trivial example, there may be logic in avoiding some kind of risk to one’s safety resulting from walking under a ladder, but I clearly remember other people suggesting that it was “bad luck” to walk under a ladder or to see one — or was it two magpies? — or having a black cat cross one’s path.

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All religions seemed to me to be full of similar warnings and prohibitions, such as not eating meat or specific kinds of meat, or of Muslim women being obliged to wear head- or full-body coverings.

I remember visiting Salisbury Cathedral in the 1950s when my mother was stopped at the door for not wearing a hat. She was allowed to proceed into the cathedral with one of her gloves balanced on her head.

Had she removed it she might have been persuaded by official disapproval that she was guilty of something, but guilty of what? Perhaps of disrespect towards the traditions of the Anglican Church, or its authority or the authority of the dean for whom the vergers were acting, but in those days one did not question authority, particularly in a cathedral.

The strict observance of religious rules, by, for instance, Orthodox Jews or the Plymouth Brethren, distances them from the rest of humanity. By their own decision, they no longer wish to be our neighbors. In a sense, they are not living in our world, even though they can see that in reality we share it.

The equally extreme Muslim stance seems to take such observance to the point at which everyone else must be made to observe specific rules or be killed, just as Christians did at various stages in the political evolution of Western Europe, or at any other time when political leaders were able to use the power of religion to help maintain their own authority.

To persuade a large number of people to be obedient to a rule, it seems to be necessary first to make them anxious or afraid and then to offer a way to escape in return for loyalty to the rule enforcers. This tactic spills over into the world of politics, taking the form, for example, of “my country, right or wrong.”

Quite apart from the politics, what is it that causes us to accept beliefs for which there seems to be no reliable evidence? I think it may be simply a desire to reduce our level of anxiety, but because we cannot be certain of everything we can choose to follow the scientific procedure of not being absolutely certain of anything and to be willing instead to accept a reasonable level of probability.

To persuade a large number of people to be obedient to a rule, it seems necessary first to make them afraid, then to offer a way to escape in return for loyalty to the rule enforcers.

This is the attitude of any reasonable person and essentially the attitude of nonbelievers. Religious and secular authorities suggest, and even warn us, that if we don’t follow their rules something terrible, or at least disappointing, might happen to us.

Why do so many of us accept this without question — is it perhaps because we lack self-confidence? Perhaps this fear is a remnant of early human development when, for instance, a solitary person risked being eaten, but when under the same threat, but in a large group, they might collectively make as much noise as possible to frighten away predators, as in the firework tradition in the Far East, or maybe the parish church bells which could also have been rung to frighten away evil spirits and reinforce a sense of community.

The English November 5th celebration of Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt in 1605 to blow up the Parliament has something of this tradition long after participants have ceased to care about the event it is supposed to celebrate. On the other hand, probably we should care because similar violent action is today being used, for example, by Islamist suicide bombers to increase our anxiety.

Another example is the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 by Trump supporters. The insurrectionist mob brought to the party an array of flags and signs that indicated that they were not only Republicans and white supremacists, but also that they were Christians.

It is rational to believe that we human animals are liable to respond to something we cannot explain by feeling anxious or at least irritated. Also, when groups of people share a high level of anxiety they are likely to want to accept almost any solution to their problems.

In the cultural tradition of Western Europe the most progressive religions and ideologies are usually the ones that teach objective criticism and self discipline, not obedience imposed by the authority of an organization, especially since the days of rabble-rousing and witch-hunts of rival religious groups or fascist and communist extremists.

The Christian Church was still murdering witches or heretics right into the 18th century, just as the extremist Islamists did in Afghanistan — and are doing so again.

Reason is seriously devalued by blind obedience to rules. In Muslim countries, the law does not seem to prevent women being raped. Is rape actually prevented by forcing women to wear all-enveloping clothing, and what does this say about the morals or self-discipline of their men that women’s faces and figures must be invisible?

To the rest of the world, it demonstrates that women are viewed by Muslim men as part of a man’s possessions, as if the assault on the woman is of less importance than the damage being done to a man’s property. This is just the kind of situation in which religion comes into conflict with reason and humanity.

Of course “purity culture” is not confined to Islam. In a blog post, Linda Kay Klein, author of the award-winning book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, pointed out that the term is generally associated with the white, American, evangelical Christian purity movement and the corollary purity Industry launched in the early 1990s.

However, evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on the ethics that undergird purity culture. The specifics may vary – Mormons, for example, use the word “worthiness” instead of “purity,” while Muslims say “honor culture” instead of “purity culture” – but the foundation of gender- and sexual-control upon which purity culture stands is global, cross-religious, and cross-cultural.

In purity culture, gender expectations are based on a strict, stereotype-based binary. Men are expected to be strong, ‘masculine’ leaders of the household, church, and (to a lesser extent) society. Women are expected to support them – to be pretty, ‘feminine,’ sweet, supportive wives and mothers.

Religious laws seem to me to have less to do with encouraging self-disciplined human behavior
and much more to do with obeying a written text and paying respect and taxes to the guardians of the holy books.

Like Chairman Mao’s poems, holy books can express ideas that need rational interpretation
or they can provide justification for all kinds of stupid behavior that have no logical let alone humanitarian results. Superstition and irrational fear of the unknown provide powerful emotional stimuli that can overcome reason and keep religious and political
extremists in power.

We need to view all leaders, secular and religious, with the deepest suspicion and be
ready to replace them. This is where secular Western democracies have such a big advantage
over authoritarian or theocratic regimes.

• Paul Arnold is an independent media production professional based in Spain. He was a regular columnist for The Freethinker magazine, edited for 24 years by Barry Duke, now a member of the OnlySky team.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....