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Is religion more than superstition?

By Corey Eastwood (age 14), Archbishop Holgate's School, York


Photo of Corey receiving his prize

The mark of a truly fascinating question such as this is that it raises more questions than it answers. 800 words cannot comprehensively summarise such a vast subject, but I will make my best effort to this end. Religion has provided explanations and moral frameworks throughout human history and superstition has existed just as long but the two serve distinctly separate purposes with religion being the more rational of the two. The philosopher René Descartes' ideas are certainly compelling enough to make religions ideas seem almost as plausible as scientific ones and perhaps enough to convert a less committed agnostic than myself.

To start, I should define the terms 'religion' and 'superstition'. to remain objective, I will use the Oxford Dictionary. Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.' Superstition an 'excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural s'attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature'] especially as leading to good or bad luck or practices based on such beliefs'. At first the two seem comparable, a superhuman controlling power could be considered beyond scientific understanding and good and bad luck is attributed to God(s) in various ancient and modern societies. For the Ancient Egyptians a bad harvest was punishment from the Goddess Renenutet and the practice based on this belief was to offer a sacrifice. Bad and good luck in modern times is heard to be similarly explained as 'God's will' or 'plan' and the action may be to pray. Yet there are implications of religion beyond those of superstition, for over a millennia religion acted a kind of manifesto or constitution on which societies could function above the chaotic conflict of individual human wants. Even beyond those times when religion had greater influence over laws and practices, after increasing Western secularisation, religion continues to offer moral direction to many, greatly impacting our society as a result. A prominent example would be the Quaker B.S. Rowntree who was influential in what was termed the war on poverty in the 1900s. This is where the distinction lies, the societal implications of religion are due to it being an attempt, akin to science in this manner, to find a cause for the phenomenon of the reality we and our society are within, based on the rationale that something that exists is made and therefore must have a creator. Superstition has no such rationale at its core which is where the 'excessively credulous' side of the definition comes into play, there is no widely accepted phenomena to suggest that walking under a ladder causes bad luck, yet the suggestion is so widespread that even someone who is not superstitious may pause before walking under one.

The ideas of Descartes can be applied to evidence the rationality behind religion. He argued that when we're awake we know we're awake but when we're asleep we don't know we are, so how do we know we aren't dreaming? What our senses tell us could be suggestions by an evil being. Indeed, we know we can't trust our senses. Charles Bonnet Syndrome which usually occurs in the partially sighted is where an individual begins to hallucinate, seeing unfamiliar and often complicated images and faces because of the visual parts of the brain becoming hyperactive and firing signals randomly. In addition, temporal lobe epilepsy can cause an individual to feel themselves transported back in time, say to the restaurant when they were having their first date or suchlike. Descartes concludes I think therefore I am' effectively that the only certainty is that we think and therefore must exist in some capacity. This already begins to put science, being based on our perceived reality, on a similar intellectual plain to religion but Descartes goes further... If we think then our notion of perfection is a certainty but since no human is perfect, God must exist to plant this notion which we could not otherwise comprehend and God would not allow the existence of an evil being who manipulates our reality. However, we now know that Artificial Intelligence is a theoretical possibility and could these machines, surpassing our intelligence immensely, not plant such a notion while manipulating our sensory impulses to create this reality? Rather like 'The Matrix' I suppose but which science itself proves to be plausible.

To conclude, Religion is more than a superstition. It is far from a credulous belief, perfectly feasible if you agree with Descartes. Perhaps the first paragraph was most appropriate, after all Occam's razor states that 'Plurality should not be posited without necessity'. Perhaps an apt phrase to draw this to a close, considering that religion is rational aside from the lack of definitive evidence, is 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'.

© 2018 Corey Eastwood

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