Superstition is a Bad Word

Before moving house, I throw away all the old brooms. But this is just an antiquated superstition.


Inscription in the Asclepion at Epidayuros in Greece, imploring the god of Health for healing

There is, at the outset of any serious pursuit of understanding religion and the history of religion, the need to isolate and redeploy the use of the term ‘superstition’ as routinely applied in contemporary English.


In the first classes of the semester of my World Religions course, I included a short aside on the terminology that I would be using, and the terms that I would be avoiding.

Some of the important terms we had examined were, ‘cult’, ‘idol’, ‘pagan’ and ‘superstition’.

I insisted that the term ‘superstition’ be avoided in the introductory course. When the level of the class required an explanation for my exclusion of this term, I then guided the class in an exploration of the original Greek and its ancient uses.

But any instructor would be negligent to omit the fact that the word ‘superstition’ is primarily used to distinguish one’s own, superior religious beliefs; as such, this word has little value in the pursuit of religious literacy.

It is from the ancient biographer and essayist, Plutarch, writing at the turn of the millennium, that we have taken our notion of religion and superstition.

Plutarch's Moralia

Plutarch’s Moralia, containing his essay De Superstitione

The important essay comes to us by the Latin title of De Superstitione, “On Superstition”, as part of Plutarch’s Moralia.

Plutarch defines and discusses religion, superstition and atheism in his essay, imploring the reader to sober religion, denouncing atheism and defining superstition as an inordinate preoccupation with ritual and the gods.

He defines his own version of piety as true religion; he then defines as superstition, anything religious that falls outside of his own concept of piety.Plutarch02

In this way the term ‘superstition’ serves Plutarch in his declaration of ‘right faith’; clearly this use of the term is not well aligned with the goals of religious studies.

In the Greek version, the term δεισιδαιμονίας ‘deisidaimonias’ is used, but this word had been employed throughout the classical period of Greek antiquity to mean ‘religion’ in general, depending on who was speaking.

Herein lies the problem for the honest student of religion: who is calling whose religion ‘superstition?’


Hermion performs an incantation, from Harry Potter

Superstition is defined in contemporary dictionaries as: ‘an irrational belief that objects, actions, or circumstances that are not logically related to a course of events will influence its outcome.

This contemporary definition of superstition serves a similar purpose to that of the ancient, as it implies the existence of a logical (or rational) religion versus an illogical (or irrational) religion.

The only available use of the word ‘superstition’ is this distinction between orthodoxy (right belief) and heresy (belief or practice contrary to doctrine).  As such, the term ‘superstition’ belongs only to the arguments between believers, or to arguments between believers and atheists in the case of someone who considers all religion to be superstition.

Of what use can this term be to someone studying the religious practice of humanity? Simply put, the term itself should be left to higher studies.

I argue that the term can only misguide you in your efforts to discovery the religions of the world; the word is no better than any other pejorative term; what, exactly is it supposed to mean?

You can’t learn what religion is if you are trying to distinguish between religion and superstition. Superstition is a bad word.

1 Comment

Filed under Religious Literacy, Ways to Learn the World Religions

One response to “Superstition is a Bad Word

  1. nicolas1106

    I always felt religion and superstition were opposed somehow… Your article made that clear. Funnily enough, I can find a common point between the two. They both are based on beliefs holding no evidence so far. Both religious and superstitious people have the same need to believe, often to fight a fear…


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