“The cause of my life has been to oppose superstition. It’s a battle you can’t hope to win – it’s a battle that’s going to go on forever. it’s part of the human condition”. (the late) Christopher Hitchens
I was first made aware of this quote in a recent article on Medium.com by Erman Misirlisoy PhD (1). I’m not sure of the source, but it is widely repeated on the internet, so I assume it’s genuine.
It’s hard to argue against the challenge that Hitchens set himself; we should oppose superstition whenever it occurs, as Misirlisoy says, when we wrongly identify the cause of a particular effect. If something is wrong, it should be challenged. There is an immediate problem, however; who gets to define what is superstition, thus what is wrong? Misirlisoy continues, “…especially when we invoke a supernatural belief or myth in that estimation”. Christopher Hitchens was well known for his fervent atheism, and was indeed a member of the Four Horsemen (of the Non-Apocalypse). Should we let people like him decide what is and what is not superstition?
Are all supernatural beliefs superstition, or only some of them? Is belief in God a superstition? Are the various types of extrasensory perception — telepathy, remote viewing, psychokinesis, and so on — superstition? Some continue to say so, for example Richard Dawkins, despite the impressive scientific evidence piling up (2). Is a belief that consciousness can exist independently of the body — out-of-body experiences, life after death — a superstition?
In the past it would have been considered superstition to believe that “trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers”. Now, in The Hidden Life of Trees (3) Peter Wohlleben “draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries” which suggest exactly that. (The quotes are taken from the back cover.)
Is it a superstition that an ill person can be cured by a homeopathic treatment? Again, some would say so; there have even been demonstrations outside chemists which sell homeopathic remedies, based on the claim that there is no evidence that they work. Is homeopathy in error, or is it just something that makes the modern ‘scientific’ thinker feel uncomfortable?
I could go on, but I hope the main point is clear. It is important to oppose actual superstition, as long as we are clear what that is. We should not confuse ridding ourselves of superstition with a dismissal of anything that appears mysterious or supernatural to modern science, thus throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Getting rid of superstition should not be done under the umbrella of the philosophy of scientific materialism. We would be missing out on a lot, and would be holding humanity back in its ongoing search for knowledge.
(2) see, for example, the works of Dean Radin
(3) William Collins, 2017