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Superstition: A very short introduction, by Stuart Vyse

23 April 2021

Alexander Faludy looks at varying ideas of what constitutes superstition

When you believe in things
That you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way.


ALTHOUGH Stevie Wonder’s 1972 music hit “Superstition” goes unquoted in the work reviewed here, the spirit of the two coheres very closely. Professor Vyse, a behavioural psychologist, flags the dangers presented by fretting too much over black cats and “ladders ’bout to fall”, while offering much else besides.

Vyse reminds us that, like beauty, superstition is in the eye of the beholder. It is always a comparative designation, “a term that has no inherent meaning” but that “gains meaning in relation to some different, more accepted world view”.

Superstition’s applications over time have been varied and sometimes antithetical. To ancient Greeks, deisdaimonia (superstition’s progenitor) meant excessive fear of divinity more than illogical praxis: hence Plutarch’s quip “The atheist thinks there are no gods; the superstitious man wishes there were none.”

By the first century AD, “superstition” meant something rather different: less “excessive religion” than “bad religion”. Thus, “superstition” was applied by pagan Romans, like Pliny, against Christianity and later by Christians against pagans. Eventually (at the Reformation), orthodox Christians would invoke it against one another.

Betwixt and between, superstition became the pejorative epithet for transgressive varieties of magic, either imagined or actually practised, which variously aped or parodied the thaumaturgic and metaphysical logic of Christianity’s sacramental system. Post-Enlightenment “superstition” would denote “bad science” more than “bad religion”: the stubbornly persistent priority in many minds of ideas such as luck and ritual over scientific models of causality.

Vyse charts these historical twists well in chapters 1-3 before ably surveying contemporary investigation of anti-scientific “superstition” by behavioural and social psychologists in chapters 3-6.

Vyse’s attitude to religion creates some problems. While he notes “that superstition — and not religion — is our concern”, his basic hostility to faith keeps breaking through. Vsye’s assertion “science — not religion — provides our clearest understanding of the universe” would irritate Christian physicists such as Ernest Rutherford or John Polkinghorne profoundly.

Despite this caveat, Superstition: A very short introduction is stimulating and informative. It should greatly interest Church Times readers — touch wood. 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.

Two more books in the same OUP series are reviewed here.


Superstition: A very short introduction
Stuart Vyse
OUP £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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