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Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church, Superstition And Its Foes In The Islamic World

Superstition has had different meanings in different cultures and epochs. One thing binding these meanings together is that they are usually negative—superstition is a concept defined principally by its self-declared opponents. A second is that superstition is defined as the opposite of something praiseworthy—usually true religion or true science.

The ancient Greeks referred to superstition as deisidaimonia—fear of the spirits or daimons. This term was originally used positively, in the sense of "God-fearing." The first known negative use occurred around the fourth century B.C.E. in Theophrastus's Characters. His character of the superstitious man shows a person so obsessed with carrying out rituals to ward off the gods' anger that he could not lead a normal life. After Theophrastus, negative uses of deisidaimonia became much more common, although positive uses never entirely ceased. Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 C.E.), in his essay on superstition in the Moralia, used the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue as a means to distinguish between atheism and deisidaimonia, opposite vices in the field of religion. He argued that atheism was in every way superior to superstition, as it was a lesser insult to the gods to assert that they did not exist than to assert that they were cruel. The atheist was insensitive, but the superstitious person lived in constant terror. Plutarch included a wider range of religious behavior in the category of superstition than had Theophrastus, including human sacrifice, Jewish observance of the Sabbath, fear of punishment in the afterlife, and belief in the literal truth of Greek myth. Unlike Theophrastus and many other ancient writers, Plutarch emphasized the grim rather than the comic aspects of superstition. The consequences of superstition could be disastrous not only for the superstitious person but for everyone—Plutarch's life of the Athenian general Nicias ascribes the Athenian disaster at Syracuse in large part to Nicias's timorous fear of a lunar eclipse.

The word superstition itself originates with the ancient Romans, who used the term superstitio mainly as a pejorative for those religions and religious practices they found barbarous, including Judaism and Christianity. Superstition was the opposite of religion, the decorous and pious worship of the gods. The antiquary Varro distinguished between the superstitious man, who feared the gods as his enemies, and the religious man, who was devoted to them as his parents.

Christians countered accusations of superstition by accusing their pagan opponents of both superstition and deisidaimonia. Christian polemicists particularly emphasized the superstitious nature of pagan "idolatry." Saint Augustine (354–430), in a particularly influential passage of On Christian Doctrine, explicitly linked idolatry with divination as superstitious practices, essentially reducing all of pagan religion to superstition. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century and the growing Christianization of Roman institutions led by the fifth century to Roman laws referring to all non-Christian religions as "superstition." Christian authorities for a long time ascribed the superstitious practices of Christians themselves to lingering paganism.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to Swifts