Essay on Superstitions

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religion and islam.
A light hearted article in Tablet Magazine caught my eye today. The writer, Allison Hoffman, is a reform Jew who is in the midst of a pregnancy.

As a reform Jew, Ms. Hoffman takes pride in her enlightened, rational, science and fact based beliefs. She is not superstitious, nor does she use halacha as a guide for living her life. Like many reform Jews, she may equate the two as one and the same.

The problem for Ms. Hoffman is that during her pregnancy she has developed some nasty superstitions. Like many women who are carrying a fetus inside their body, Ms. Hoffman has developed a need to protect her baby at all costs. And this includes tapping into tried and true superstitions like not calling the baby by name until the baby is born and formally named.

We’ve all seen this happen. Perfectly rational people become irrational at certain times. Ms. Hoffman talks about her experience as a pregnant mom. Death does the same thing to other rationalists. Illness does it to others. Ironically enough, this phenomena has a scientific explanation too. When there is a uncertainty and doubt, the mind seeks to establish some control over the situation. Thus superstitions emerge.

Ms. Hoffman is disappointed that there are so few superstitions in reform Judaism. The whole thing is rather entertaining. As a side note, it is interesting to see people defend superstitions that were borrowed from pagans or non-Jews as “real” or kabbalistic.

Pregnancy is one of life’s greatest mysteries. So much that is happening is unobservable and the stakes are so high that we want to somehow influence the result. We do what we cant, but we wish we could do more. We start to develop superstitions.

Death is no different. What happens after we die? What happens to the soul? What does it feel like? All these questions cannot be answered by observable fact. Science does not address these questions, other that to say “nothing”. Rational people become less rational around death. People who don’t believe in God or care about Mitzvah observance will come to shul and say Kaddish. I’m not saying that Kaddish is superstition. I am saying that it is out of character for a rational, non-believer to say a prayer for someone who died.

What does all of this mean?

It means that when things require an explanation but there is no explanation coming, human nature is to turn to a deity. This is what we call The God of Gaps. This belief system asserts that since not everything can be explained the only explanation that remains is God. In other words, God is to be found in the mysteries of life. Superstition and religion are siblings in this model. Closely related. Religion is legitimate beliefs that cover things that we can’t explain. Superstition are illegitimate beliefs that accomplish the same thing.

The problem with this belief system is that there is a line of progress that is shrinking the gaps. Drastically. What we know today is far more than we knew 20 years ago. Compared with medieval scholars we are all super-scholars. To borrow a phrase: If they are humans we are like angels. If we are humans they are like donkeys. Compared with the ancients we might even know more than they thought God knew! If one of us would travel back to the time of the ancients I am certain that person would be considered a God. This system encourages people to cast skepticism towards science. It causes people to doubt things that can be proved. It does not increase critical thinking. In short, it makes people less sophisticated, not more sophisticated.

The gaps are shrinking. Is God shrinking too?

It does not have to be this way. Maimonides wrote that God is seen in observable phenomena. The more we know about our physical world, the more we can appreciate the greatness of God. This is the opposite of the God of the Gaps. It is the God of Everything. Superstition and religion have nothing to do with each other. One is an attempt to explain...
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