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The Spectator On Superstition And Enthusiasm

In an issue of the Spectator dated 20 October 1711, Joseph Addison distinguished between superstition and enthusiasm, linking superstition with Catholicism, enthusiasm with Protestant Dissent, and "masculine piety" with the group he himself was a member of, the Church of England.

An Enthusiast in Religion is like an obstinate Clown, a Superstitious Man like an insipid Courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of Madness, Superstition of Folly. Most of the Sects that fall short of the Church of England have in them strong Tinctures of Enthusiasm, as the Roman Catholick Religion is one huge overgrown Body of childish and idle Superstitions.

The Roman Catholick Church seems indeed irrecoverably lost in this Particular. If an absurd Dress or Behaviour be introduced in the World, it will soon be found out and discarded: On the contrary, a Habit or Ceremony, tho' never so ridiculous, which has taken Sanctuary in the Church, sticks in it for ever. A Gothic Bishop perhaps, thought it proper to repeat such a Form in such particular Shoes or Slippers. Another fancied it would be very decent if such a Part of publick Devotions were performed with a Mitre on his Head, and a Crosier in his Hand. To this a Brother Vandal, as wise as the others, adds an antick Dress, which he conceived would allude very aptly to such and such Mysteries, till by Degrees the whole Office has Degenerated Into an empty Show.

Their Successors see the Vanity and Inconvenience of these Ceremonies; but instead of reforming, perhaps add others, which they think more significant, and which take Possession in the same manner, and are never to be driven out after they have been once admitted. I have seen the Pope officiate at St. Peter's where, for two Hours together, he was busied in putting on or off his different Accoutrements, according to the different Parts he was to act in them.

Nothing is so glorious in the Eyes of Mankind, and ornamental to Human Nature, setting aside the infinite Advantages which arise from it, as a strong, steady masculine Piety; but Enthusiasm and Superstition are the Weaknesses of human Reason, that expose us to the Scorn and Derision of Infidels, and sink us even below the Beasts that perish.

SOURCE: Donald F. Bond, ed., Spectator, 2:289–290.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSuperstition - Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church, Superstition And Its Foes In The Islamic World