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Superstition In The Modern World

Superstition in the modern era is less likely to be contrasted with true religion and more likely to be viewed as the opposite of science, reason, or modernity. Campaigns to abolish superstition have continued but have not usually been motivated by interest in purifying religion. The early twentieth-century Chinese government in its efforts to modernize Chinese culture employed a new concept, mixin, usually translated as "superstition," to denote many aspects of popular religion previously called xie, "heterodoxy." This linguistic change accompanied a shift from the Neo-Confucian strategy of incorporating popular religion as a support for the established order to one of actively suppressing many aspects of it. The Chinese nationalist government's 1928 decree "Standards for Preserving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines," attacked superstition as opposed to science and progress. The decree distinguished between cults, which remained permissible, mostly those of deified humans such as Confucius and the Buddha, and "superstitious" cults, which were outlawed, mostly those of nature deities such as the god of rain. It was followed by several other antisuperstition edicts attacking divination and other magical practices.

Even when lacking the coercive power of a state or church, rationalist and scientistic polemicists continue to describe the beliefs of their opponents as superstitious. Psychologists have investigated the human propensity for superstitious beliefs, attempting to identify those populations most and least likely to adopt superstitions. The causes for superstition they have put forth include the human propensity to ascribe meaning to coincidence or to assert control over uncontrollable events. Much of this work has been placed in a context hostile to superstition, seeing the identification of superstition's causes as essential to fighting it and defending rational thought. The idea of "superstition" has even been broadened beyond human beings; B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), in his 1947 paper on "Superstition in the Pigeon," gave a behavioralist interpretation of superstition. Skinner claimed to have produced in pigeons a tendency to repeat behavior associated with food getting, even when there was no real causal connection between the behavior and the appearance of food. He suggested that superstitious beliefs in humans could originate in the same way.

Anthropologists and folklorists have continued their studies of superstition, producing a myriad of studies of superstitions in particular geographical areas, among particular subcultures such as actors or baseball players, and concerning particular subjects, such as cats or fertility.


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William E. Burns

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