Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Superstition in Churchgoers

By way of Ophelia Benson, I came across this rather silly article. As Benson notes, the following claim is rather absurd:

Through the Dark and Middle Ages, anyone suspected of using traditional charms to secure good or bad luck for themselves or others would usually be burnt at the stake or drowned. The victims were nearly always women.

Given how widespread charms were during the Middle Ages this is pretty clearly false. Also, one thing that isn't made clear in the article which pretty clearly should be is the methodology of the survey. Were they asking people, "Is walking under a ladder unlucky?" or "Do you believe that walking under a ladder is unlucky?" or "Have you ever crossed your fingers for luck?" Was it a telephone survey or some other type? The survey was conducted entirely among Anglicans in Wales, so it doesn't seem one can draw the general principle that churchgoers are superstitious (and since there seems to have been no group of non-churchgoers studied, we can't even say that Anglican Welsh churchgoers are more superstitious than non-churchgoing Welsh). This may be one for the StatGuy to look at. In light of it all the conclusion attributed to the authors (which, as always with reporting on any scientific or statistical work, I assume is a misattribution until I see otherwise, particularly given that some of Francis's other work seems at first glance to be done well) seems rather amusing:

In the paper, to be published in the Journal of Implicit Religion, the authors say that the findings contradict the hypothesis that Christian teaching precludes superstitious beliefs.

Given that 'precludes' usually means 'makes impossible', that wasn't much of a hypothesis, since no one has ever claimed it as a remote possibility; if understood as 'generally prevents', the evidence doesn't support the conclusion. Benson, of course, wonders about how one would draw a non-arbitrary line between religion and superstition; to which the natural answer seems to be that it would probably be in one of the ways people have been doing for centuries. Certainly Aquinas's discussions of religion and superstition are accessible, as is Hume's discussion of superstition in his essays. Both discussions, despite their differences, have the merit of being more precise and less tendentious than most contemporary discussion of superstition. Benson might even like Hume's take, which develops an account of superstition congenial to her views without making the mistake of assuming that all religious are superstitious.

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