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Atheism vs Superstition

Atheism vs Superstition December 19, 2010

My man Plutarch is pretty awesome.  He is interested in all kinds of things, everything from discussing how young men ought to be taught how to properly and beneficially read poetry (lest they be sullied by the fake hocus-pocus crap and salacious stuff) to the parallel lives of Demosthenes and Cicero.  He is also an astute commentator on religious things.  He is a philosopher, in the sense that he lives a philosophy (an eclectic [Middle] Platonism), and he is a priest of Apollo at Delphi, a job he takes seriously.

One work that displays Plutarch’s interest in practiced religion is his de superstitione (peri deisidaimonias).  Superstitio, the Latin rendering of the Greek deisidaimonia, doesn’t quite do justice to deisidaimonia.  The two lexemes in the compound are deid, fear, and daimon, deity; so a periphrastic rendering would be something like terror of gods meaning terror for gods.  Anyhow, in this work Plutarch lays out his basic question: On the spectrum of religion, with atheism on the one terminus and superstition on the other, where does true religion lie?

Plutarch immediately demonstrates his detestation for superstition.  He points out that it is irrational, destructive, and a far worse condition that atheism.  One example of this odium for superstition that is of interest for students of Judaism and Christianity is Plutarch’s disgust for the account of the Jews refusing to defend Jerusalem’s walls on the Sabbath.  Instead of taking up weapons to defend themselves, their wives, and their children, the Jews, overawed by irrational fear of their god and his rites, sat idly and were slaughtered along with their non-combatants.  How awful the effects of superstition!

Atheism Plutarch sees as something like an unfortunate mindset that usually only hurts the atheist.  It is like a malady that can be cured while the disease of superstition has no remedy since the sufferer fears both the disease and the doctor.  The atheistically minded are often driven to a more hardened atheism due to the ridiculous and shameful actions of the superstitious, laments Plutarch.  This really chaps Plutarch’s hide.  The generally decent but misled atheists are being soured to true religion by those ignorant superstitious rubes!  I could go on for pages summarizing the spleen venting in which Plutarch indulges in his attack on superstition. Really, you should read the entire treatise, it will only take 30 minutes (here is a link at a rad website that devotes some loving attention to Mormons).

One might be disappointed to come to the end of his essay and discover that Plutarch does not spell out just where he places true religion on his spectrum.  But Plutarch does give us this: True religion lies closer to atheism than it does to superstition.

This feels right to me.  I do not agree with Plutarch’s vitriolic rhetoric and his dismissal of all superstitious folks as hopeless causes but I do think that true religion must lie closer to atheism.  I need a god who exists in a removed sense, cares for, provides for, and occasionally intervenes on behalf of humanity and individuals, not a god who is immanent, persnickety, officious, quick to anger, needy for appeasement, and the source of all good and/or evil.  Also I need religion that has a healthy regard for outrageous fortune.

But I also love and respect many people close to me who need and believe in religion much closer to the superstition terminus.  And these people are my co-religionists.  What about you all?  Where do you fall on Plutarch’s spectrum of religion?  Are you more a god fearer or an atheist?  Does or can Mormonism provide an umbrella spanning one end of the spectrum to the other?


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