Whilst yet to prove,
I thought there was some deity in truth
So did I reverence, and gave

                  John Donne, “Farewell to Truth”

Chances are as a child you believed more things than you believe now. Most of the beliefs you acquired during your first years are still with you, for most of them were guaranteed to come in handy in all stages of life. But there probably were at least some beliefs your holding of which was due to mere childish gullibility; and even if there were not, no one, including you, would find it shocking now if there had been.

Still early on in your education you were expected to shed these beliefs and leave them behind you as an old skin. The moment you succeeded in shedding most of them, even if some scattered patches remained stuck to you here and there, signalled your passage into what is frequently called ‘the age of reason’. Past this point, the variety of beliefs you kept began to matter. Silly beliefs then became more of a cause for worry or mockery the longer your childishness survived your childhood. For to attain the age of reason means to be invested with the special sort of dignity which comes from being reasonable, which is to say both rational and sensible, and to remain gullible beyond this stage is to offend against that dignity.

‘Superstition’ is the name commonly given to some kinds of enduring offences against this sort of dignity.[1] For some time now it has been fashionable to criticise all sorts of beliefs as superstitious, but religious beliefs perhaps especially. Many of us today will find it difficult to believe it when Cicero tells us that it was not only “the philosophers, but also our ancestors who distinguished superstition from religion” (2001, 72-73), and will probably have great difficulty as well in understanding what the distinction is Cicero has in mind when he says that “the minds of the gods are propitiated by piety, by religion, and holy prayers, not by a polluted superstition” (1917, 184). Cicero’s point is evidently not that the gods can be propitiated by unpolluted superstitions but that, in so far as a belief is a superstition, it is a polluted belief. We may without much violence to Cicero’s point read this description of superstition as a form of pollution which attaches to beliefs as signifying also that the superstitious person is made polluted, and therefore impure, by her beliefs. But we may perhaps take it also to imply that indulging in superstitious practices pollutes the gods themselves, as if to indulge in superstitious practices were to result in the gods being dragged down to the common dust. This second reading would add some colour to Livy’s definition of superstition as that which “brings the gods into the smallest circumstances” (1943, 305).

Thus, both Cicero and Livy thought that superstition is a dire thing because it amounts to an offense against the gods, and we may think of Cicero as suggesting that the offense was also a symptom of the offender’s impurity. Like Cicero and Livy, Plutarch thought that “while it is a dire thing to be incredulous towards indications of the divine will and to have contempt for them, superstition is likewise a dire thing” (1967, 431); and in a passage reminiscent of William James he suggests that  superstitions result from some defect in those who hold them. “Ignorance and blindness in regard to the gods”, Plutarch says, “divides itself at the very beginning into two streams, of which the one produces in hardened characters, as it were in stubborn soils, atheism, and the other in tender characters, as in moist soils, produces superstition” (1962, 455).[2]

Those which have a hard time understanding Cicero will also fail to get Livy’s point, for according to them bringing the gods (or God) into any circumstances whatsoever is what being superstitious is all about. And though many will agree that superstition is a dire thing, this will be not because it consists in offences to the gods (there being none), but because it shows that the superstitious person has failed to grow properly, that is, to shed her gullibility when she ought to have done so, for the development of a child into maturity is in this model seen as a sort of transplant from moist into stubborn soils.

Even if we grant that there really is this difference between then and now, between them and us, it is not so easy to say how or when that difference was or began to be brought about. Different scholars will tell us different things. And in fact neither is it altogether obvious how we could offer a comprehensive account of what such a difference consists in. One possible way, however, of beginning to form some idea of the issue would be to make use of Anscombe’s account of how we come to believe certain historical statements, as that Julius Caesar existed, was how we are told he was and did and suffered the things we are told he did and suffered.

Anscombe remarks that “[w]e could find no purchase for any dislodgement” of such facts, and goes on to ask:  “But why do we believe these things?”, to which she answers that “[t]here is nothing to say but: We were taught to do so, and in such fashion that it is part of what is called ‘common knowledge’; become knowledgeable in the things spoken as familiar facts by those who are called well informed among our people, and you will know this” (2015, 182). We reject, conversely, the truth of some statement “[b]ecause it is incompatible with what else we have in our picture”, meaning that “we take other things as fixed points by which we judge” its truth (2015, 182). Whatever we accept as fixed points, Anscombe adds, we accept because “[t]hey are ‘traditional knowledge’” and “hang together” (2015, 182).

The point Anscombe is driving at here is that “[b]elief on grounds which can be considered as premises for arguments presupposes belief without grounds, or at any rate without grounds that can be so considered” (2015, 183). Opposing “Hume’s philosophical opinion” that “these ultimate groundless grounds were sense impressions”, Anscombe suggests that “they are such beliefs as those of which one will say ‘Everyone knows that!’ or ‘Everyone who knows anything of such matters at all, knows that!’” (2015, 183). Since, however, “what ‘everyone knows’ [may] be wrong”, whenever one happens to believe some item of common knowledge to be in fact wrong, “[o]ne must then ask oneself ...: ‘How would I check it?’” (2015, 183). In case what is in question is the existence of some historical figure, like Julius Caesar, the first thing to do, Anscombe says, “would be to construct the hypothesis that he didn’t exist and then see if things ‘fell into place’ better on this hypothesis” (2015, 183-4).

If we apply this account to the difference between today and yesterday which I have outlined, we can perhaps say that what distinguishes us from the likes of Cicero, Livy and Plutarch consists in a difference between what then counted and what now counts as what Anscombe calls ‘common’ or ‘traditional’ knowledge. The things which are spoken as familiar facts by those who are called well informed among our people are not the same things which were spoken as familiar facts among their people, so that what everyone knows now is not what everyone knew then. We do not take as fixed points the same things our ancestors did, because, as time advances, new, different hypotheses as to how things are are constructed; and different things are seen as falling into place and hanging together in new ways, frequently with abundant addition of new things and abundant loss of the old.   

Though the process through which religious truths began to acquire a wholesale character of superstition was gradual, the Enlightenment is arguably the period to which an account of this historical development would especially dedicate itself. It is hardly just a curiosity that the Enlightenment is also commonly called ‘The Age of Reason’, since this phrase clearly manifests an intention to suggest that in that period of human history something very special happened.[3] Those who use this phrase usually think of that period in much the same lines as they think about the age at which children become reasonable, for the triumph of reason and the so-called “scientific outlook” over superstition and childish gullibility, taken as characteristics of humanity in general, is for them what the Enlightenment was all about. If they are somewhat educated, they will frequently refer to such figures as Bacon and Boyle, Hobbes and Locke, Descartes and Newton, Rousseau and Voltaire, Spinoza and Hume as the liberators of humankind, for it was through their works that humanity finally managed to break off reason from the chains of superstition.[4]

What  these figures showed, or at least made it easy for later generations to show, was, putatively, that there were no such things as ignorance and blindness in what regards the gods, as Plutarch thought, but only a sort of ignorance and blindness characteristic of those which, having come after them, still insisted in there being gods at all. The dire thing, because offensive and detrimental to reason, became therefore not to be incredulous towards indications of the divine will and not to have contempt for them, since to be incredulous and contemptuous is the only reasonable (indeed, rational) attitude towards the supernatural. Since humanity is thought of as having shed its childishness so long ago, people of this frame of mind censure and mock those who, though living in times of maturity, still have stuck to them so many of the beliefs which Humanity cherished in its childhood.[5]

 If one accepts the description of historical development outlined in my interpretation of Anscombe’s theses on historical statements, one will see in this proneness to dismiss old beliefs, and specifically religious beliefs, as superstitions a symptom of excessive excitement over the rise of new truth and new ways of thinking. For to see such phenomena as a sort of triumph is to take new truths and ways of thinking as final, or at least as initial versions of what shall be in due time the final truths and ways of thinking to which everyone reasonable shall till the end of time cling. It is to enshrine great and exciting instances of sophistication and originality, and to divinise and adore sophisticated and original ways of thinking and insightful candidates to truth as ‘The Method’ and ‘The Truth’.

If one stands against this attitude, one will think that the success of the thinkers of the Enlightenment is best measured by the consequences of a revolution not against superstition but against superstitions; or rather, against those beliefs of their time which were found too unpalatable for contemporary taste, or thought too old and tired to continue to be of service, and because of this were so named. If we look at the issue in this way, we shall conclude that the scientific revolution was but a revolution in ways of looking at how, and which, things hang together, and which resulted in new, and probably temporary, truths; and further that the rise of the scientific outlook was therefore but the rise of a new creed, and the triumph of reason but the triumph of a new superstition.

Having adopted this view, we shall be prepared both to denounce Thomas Paine as superstitious when he zealously declares that “[t]he most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason” (2000b, 266), and to applaud him for having said that “Time makes more converts than reason” (2000a, 1) and that “[h]e who denies to another this right [sc. of every man to his own opinion] makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it” (2000b, 266). Likewise, we will be able to relish Wittgenstein’s definition of superstition as “nothing but belief in the causal nexus” (2001, 47).

This is a strange definition. One could accept, to be sure, that someone described belief in the causal nexus as one kind of superstition, but it is not at all clear that all forms of superstition involve causality. Anscombe’s gloss over Wittgenstein’s remark gives proof of its strangeness:   

superstition is belief that ‘causality’ names a tie between things, that there is such a thing as causality itself which connects up a cause with its effect, so that the cause drags the effect after it by means of the tie. The cause would drag the effect into existence. The idea of the pure causal tie is obviously involved in some kinds of superstition: there is no need felt that there be a ‘how’ in this causality, different in different cases according to the natural properties of things. (2011, 229)

 The two first sentences consist in an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s dictum according to which it does indeed provide a definition of superstition. This is neatly summarised in the second sentence: superstition is belief in the power of (specific) causes to drag (specific) effects into existence. But then the third sentence seems to subtract the definition’s range, for in declaring that the idea of the pure causal tie is obviously involved in some kinds of superstition it allows for the existence of at least some superstitions which do not depend on the causal tie.[6]

This need not be, however, a sign of confusion. The first two sentences may be only a clarification of what Wittgenstein meant, and the third a confession of ignorance: ‘There certainly are some superstitions which consist in a certain way of dealing with causality, but whether all superstitions share this trait God only (and perhaps Wittgenstein) know’.  In any case what matters for my point is what Anscombe says next:

The thesis that the type now called ‘scientific’ knowledge is all that enlightenment can be is not itself a truth of any of the sciences, say of physics, cosmology, or biology; nor yet of such a claimant to the name of ‘science’ as sociology. It is rather an – absurd – philosophical thesis. It is absurd because it would itself have to be enlightenment but is not part of the sciences in which it says enlightenment consists. (2011, 229)

Notice that Anscombe does not here put out of the question that science can give enlightenment. She does indeed envision that possibility. When she later adds that “[w]e must be at liberty ... to discuss whether indeed natural science is the only kind of knowledge and enlightenment there is”, what she is stressing is the importance of keeping in mind that “the decision on that question is [not] in itself a scientific one” (2011, 230).[7] This implies that a decision on that question has not yet been made once and for all. And indeed Anscombe seems to suggest that it can never be made once and for all, since she seems to agree with Wittgenstein’s doctrine that “what can’t be properly expressed, and is far more important – is, indeed alone important, is the right way of seeing the world”, because “the mere facts of the world are indifferent”, according to which view enlightenment can “by no means consist in scientific knowledge”, nor, indeed, “in anything that can be said either” (2011, 229).

So the fact that Anscombe did not think the matter could be definitely settled need not entail that she could not have a settled view about it. In fact, the kind of knowledge provided by the natural sciences (and many other disciplines) she calls elsewhere  “knowledge of indifferent truth”, and contrasts it with “knowledge of the dignity of human nature”, which is “an example of knowledge by connaturality” (2005, 59), “the sort of knowledge someone has who has a certain virtue: it is a capacity to recognise what action will accord with and what ones will be contrary to the virtue” (2005, 60). Anscombe makes it clear that this kind of knowledge is what she means by ‘enlightenment’: “The spirit of such knowledge is what is called a gift of the Holy Spirit; the light of it a light that is there to enlighten everyone who comes into the world” (2005, 62).

What matters here is that there is nothing amiss in the fact that Anscombe believes at the same time that she has settled the question about what enlightenment consists in and how it can be obtained and that that question cannot be settled. The reason why there is not resides in this: first, that not all beliefs can be superstitions; secondly, that though some beliefs are inescapably superstitious, the superstitiousness of some beliefs is a feature which, rather than being part of the character of the belief itself, is attributable to the believer’s attitude towards it.

That not all beliefs can be superstitions is shown by the fact that the opposite of superstitiousness is not, or should not be thought of as being, justified true belief, but rather mistakenness.[8] A person’s superstitions are those beliefs she holds which are immune to refutation, those for which no amount and no kind of argument could be devised to knock down.[9] Someone who has a superstitious belief cannot be proved mistaken in what she believes. But this is a necessary and not a sufficient condition. For we should further characterise superstitions as those beliefs which, though immune to argument, are presented by those who hold them as being candidates for knowledge. Simply put, we should say that a superstition is not a belief without reasons to back it, but a belief which, though without reasons to back it, is presented as being reasonable to hold, and hence as being backed by reasons. Astrology and palmistry, in this sense, are necessarily superstitions, for despite there being no reason to believe in the existence of the kind of causality presupposed by such practices, and despite there being good reasons for not believing in its existence, astrology and palmistry have the form of causal explanations of phenomena, and, as explanations, are supposed to be productive of knowledge, which is why proponents of their truth and believers in them claim to know, and to have come to know after having reasoned about it, something, sometimes many things and even some Thing, which those who do not believe them do not. Religious beliefs, in this sense, need not be superstitions. Anscombe’s mention of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and her assertion that enlightenment is among these gifts, for example, are not examples of superstition, since they can neither be shown to be false nor are presented as the result of reasoning or as claimants to the status of knowledge: belief in the Holy Spirit is itself, Anscombe would say, a gift, which means that she acquired it because it was granted her, not because she considered the evidence or the best arguments at hand for its existence. If Anscombe had stopped believing in the Holy Spirit, or in what enlightenment, as revealed by the Holy Spirit, consists, this would not be a case of her having changed her opinions; nor would she realise in the aftermath that after all she knew less than she had thought she did. It would not be a case of loss of knowledge but of loss of faith.[10]

These and her other religious beliefs would, in contrast, be superstitions if her attitude towards them had not the character of a belief in a mystery, the acquisition of which was due to revelation, but of knowingness, so that, if so disposed, she could think of trying to prove to whoever cared to listen the truth of the Trinity or the Eucharist; and, if confident in her reasoning powers (as she was), express or at least feel contempt towards those who failed to follow her supposed arguments and accept her supposed conclusions. This is one reason why we can think of some instances of superstition as being, like beauty, in the mind of the believer instead of in the belief, the other being that one can have a true belief which is nevertheless, as far as one is concerned, a superstition. This is why Mill said that to know some truth in such a way that it becomes a prejudice “is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth” (1998, 41).

Religion has, to be sure, when superstitiously adhered to, caused much harm, as the abominations performed by Catholics and Protestants alike all over Europe have shown.[11] But this is no reason for religious belief as such, when it is not expressed as knowingness, to be excluded from consideration as providing reasonable grounds for passionate advocacy of social policy. Faith in reason and zeal for the results of argument are perfectly alright and to be commended and encouraged, but faith and zeal overstep their boundaries once they result in humiliation, which is what is done to those whose opinions are excluded from consideration, and sometimes mocked and insulted, because of their origin in religious belief. Once society has become decent, and its institutions have ceased to humiliate, the path to follow should be that which also makes it civilised, which is what it will be once its citizens follow the example of its institutions.[12]

What makes this difficult is the propensity of enthusiasts of this or that cause to be Platonic and Socratic about the worst Plato and Socrates had to give, so that what is needed is to turn them around and make them Socratic and Platonic about the best. For the worst Socrates had to give was his theory of Ideas, with its corollaries that Truth is one, pure and infinitely higher than us, and that finding the Truth is a matter of discovering permanent solutions to pre-existent problems, while his best was his insistence on the need that we consider human wisdom as merely human wisdom.[13] The worst of Plato’s bequests was the invention of his discipline, and his superstitious promotion of it and its practitioners to a distinguished position in the relationship between humanity and truth, while the best was his refusal to give voice, or pen, to what he truly believed in, and his care in keeping, to the despair of scholars throughout the ages, his private opinions private.

If we find this last gift unrealistic, the second best course is to follow Anscombe in cherishing the likelihood that the problems we most care about may never be settled; and cherish too, if we can, the likelihood that they may be temporary and of no interest to later generations, and our thoughts of no influence to the majority of those around us. And to cherish all this while remaining able not only to care about them but to settle in the beliefs we have, according to our best lights, found to be true. For doing this will allow us to grow, and feel alright about allowing others to grow, into and out of as many skins as enticing ways of making things hang together can be found, and to have as many childhoods as there may be insightful sources of enlightenment.

[1] I say superstitions are a kind of enduring beliefs to distinguish them from typically childish beliefs which we would generally not feel inclined to call ‘superstitions’, such as belief in Santa or the Bogey. Such beliefs are usually abandoned even before the age of reason, and if they survive into adulthood at all we have good cause to feel concern about the mental health of the person holding them.

[2]    It is noteworthy that both these passages, in implying that true religion is an attitude to be found between extremes, anticipate Aquinas’s Aristotelian account of the corruptions of the moral virtue of religiosity, the excess of which is superstition.

[3] It is very interesting that those who use this phrase to signify the triumph of natural science over religion omit that it comes from a title of a book by Thomas Paine, the subtitle of which describes it as an investigation about true as well as fabulous theology, and which begins, furthermore, with a chapter entitled “The Author’s Profession of Faith”, where Paine bluntly declares “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” (2000b, 267).  

[4] I should maybe have included Leibniz in this list, but the fact that he famously wrote a theodicy would probably not contribute towards his being seen as a liberator. But this fact suggests also why the Enlightenment is probably the critical period in the transition I am describing, since the proliferation of theodicies which occurred during that age (though this was by then a task already much seasoned) manifests an urgent need to justify the ways of God to Man, a need which would not have been felt, trivially, if people in general felt those ways to be justified in advance.

[5] They see religious people as being in a sadder state than Henry Adams thought himself to be: Adams complained that he still lived in the 18th century while the world was already in the 20th; the religious people of today are thought to inhabit the 21st while living somewhere before the 17th.

[6] Belief in things, i.e. in certain kinds of stuff, for example, as opposed to belief in relations between kinds of stuff, might be a counter-example. We might, however, argue that there is no such thing as a belief in the existence of something without at least some beliefs about the kinds of relations which it maintains with other things, for nothing can be properly said to exist which is able neither of acting nor of being acted upon; or that to have such a belief is to be committed to the truth of an instance of nonsense, and therefore to be stark mad in that particular respect; or even that one could only frivolously hold beliefs of this kind, that is, for the fun of holding or saying that one holds them, in which case these would be beliefs in name only.

[7] The insertion in square brackets is by the editors.

[8] For Anscombe’s elaboration of the distinction between superstitions and mistakes, see 2011, 221-226, (esp. the first complete paragraph of 222). Its origin is Wittgenstein’s usage of it in section 110 of the Philosophical Investigations. Anscombe relies further for her arguments on sections 241 and 497 of the same book.  

[9] This means: ‘there are no reasons which she could be made to accept in such a way that their acceptance would lead her to abandon her superstitions’; not: ‘nothing can be said against her superstitions which will make her abandon them’. Even if we can’t always argue with someone for or against a view we can always try persuasion. 

[10] Enthusiastic admirers of Hume typically fail to notice that he would agree with this view. See, for example, and of all places, “Of Miracles”: “It [sc. the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist] contradicts sense, though both the scripture and tradition, on which it is supposed to be built, carry not such evidence with them as sense; when they are considered merely as external evidences, and are not brought home to every one’s breast, by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit” (2007, 79; my emphasis).

[11] In so far as the Enlightenment contributed to the end of such abominations we are indeed justified in thinking of it as a time of liberation. In this sense, most of the figures I mentioned above, if not all, deserve the heroic status they have acquired, Spinoza, perhaps, above all.

[12] I am here alluding to the distinction imagined by Avishai Margalit. See 1996, 1.

[13] To think of human wisdom as merely human is to think human reason fallible. Here, too, as in so many respects, one should hold Mill as well as Socrates to one’s bosom: “The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still, but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of: we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us; if the lists are kept open, we may hope that, if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it” (1998, 26). 



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­­______________. “Was Wittgenstein a Conventionalist”. From Plato to Wittgenstein. 2011. ed. M. Geach and L. Gormally. Exeter: Imprint Academic. 217-230.

­­______________. “Grounds of Belief”. Logic, Truth and Meaning. 2015. ed. M. Geach and L. Gormally. Exeter: Imprint Academic.182-189.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1917. “Oration for Aulus Cluentius”. The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, vol. II. trans. C. D. Yonge. London: G. Bell and Sons. 104-187.

­­______________. 2001. The Nature of the Gods. trans. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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­­______________. 1967. “Alexander”. Plutarch’s Lives. “The Loeb Classical Library”, vol. VII. trans. Bernardotte Perrin. London and Cambridge, Mass. 223-439.

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­­______________. 2000b. “The Age of Reason – Part I”. Political Writings. ed. Bruce Kuklick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 245-317.

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