By William Lyon Phelps
The best definition of superstition that I can remember was made by James Russell Lowell." Superstition, by which I mean the respecting of that which we are told to respect rather than that which is respectable in itself." Mental slavery is always degrading; and superstition is a form of slavery, because the mind is subjected to fear. As Notoriety is the bastard sister of Reputation, so Superstition is the bastard sister of Religion. The difference between the two can be easily and simply expressed, but it is literally all the difference in the world. The most elevating influence known to man is Religion; the least elevating is Superstition.
The instinctive pessimism of humanity is shown in many careless phrases such as "It's too good to be true." The majority of men and women believe that hopes are illusory, but fears accurately foretell the coming event. Yet any sensible old man or old woman will tell us that nearly all the fears and worries from which they themselves suffered almost daily during a long life really never materialised. They suffered for nothing. We learn little from their experience, but go on our way filled with apprehension and alarm. Shakespeare said the brave man dies only once, but cowards die a thousand times in fearing death. I suppose most of us are cowards. Although we are still in good enough health to carry on, we have already died of cancer, tuberculosis, and many other diseases.
Many social superstitions were cured by that great turning point in history, the French Revolution. The world has never been quite the same since the year 1789. Before that date, people really believed that those who were born in noble and royal families were superior to the common herd; after that date the nobility still believed it, but the common people did not agree. They found they had been respecting that which they had been told to respect, rather than that which is respectable in itself. A Frenchman remarked, "The great appear to us great because we are kneeling let us rise."In 1789 everybody stood up.
It is foolish to respect any person or any institution unless it is respectable. The religion of many unenlightened people seems to be based largely on fear, in which case it is of course not religion at all, but rank superstition. James Whitcomb Riley told me of a remark made by a small boy to his mother at bedtime. He jumped into bed, and to the question of his mother, "What, aren't you going to say your prayers?" the child answered, "No, I ain't going to say my prayers tonight, and I ain't going to say 'em tomorrow night, nor the next night. And then if nothing happens, I ain't ever going to say 'em again."
This all-too-typical boy looked upon prayer as a means of warding off danger, and he was sufficiently intelligent and sufficiently brave to risk its omission. But if he had been brought up to believe that prayer is neither a charm against peril nor a method of getting what you want, that prayer was intimate communion with a Divine Friend, he would have looked upon it from a different point of view. George Meredith told his son never to ask any material thing from God, but to pray to Him every day of his life.
Now many men and women have the religious maturity of a small boy, which is infinitely worse than having the religion of a little child. They never pray except when they are in danger, or when they think they are going into danger, or when they have suffered from some calamity. That is like speaking to a friend only when you want to borrow money. The profound wisdom of mysticism consists not in making use of God, but in hoping and believing that God will make some use of us.
The base-born idea that God is against us is accompanied by the idea that He may be placated or humoured. In Richard Halliburton's exciting account of his adventures in southern countries, he tells us how the pagan priests used to sacrifice thousands of young maidens to their deity.It would seem, looking back on history, that the more abominable the religion, the fewer the atheists. Every sensible person in those countries ought to have been an atheist.
Now although many "enlightened" people today laugh at the terrible fears and even more terrible remedies of those intellectual slaves, they themselves are not very much wiser. It is highly probable that the majority of Americans today would not dare to say "I haven't had a bad cold this winter" without touching wood. Some of them might grin as they touched it, but they would touch it just the same.Such a gesture is intellectually and morally contemptible.
But many are even poorer in brains. For many would not dare to say that they had not had a cold this winter, with or without wood in reach. They believe that if you express any thing pleasant, you will soon "get your comeuppance." God seems to lie in wait for us, and the moment we seem satisfied or happy or even prominent, He will teach us who is running the show. The best thing therefore is never to appear too happy. For many, who have been foolish enough to say aloud, "I haven't had a cold this winter," wake up the next morning snuffling. "Now you see what I've got! If I'd only had sense enough to keep my mouth shut, I would have been all right.But of course I had to brag about it!"
The most degrading of all superstitions is the belief that God can be placated, appeased, or diverted, as we humour a refractory boy or a drunken man. This abominable idea sometimes takes an extremely tragic form, as when the Indian mother throws her own baby into the Ganges. "Now, God, you've got to be good to me! I've given you the best thing I had!"
Sometimes it takes a merely silly form, as when one gives up some pleasant little luxury; not with the great idea of drawing nearer to God by removing an obstacle, but with the absurd idea of bargaining with Him.