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Hume on Superstition and Enthusiasm

Hume believed there were two psychological mechanisms that led to religious feeling, which he called superstition and enthusiasm.  Superstition is fear of the unknown, which leads to trust in priests and rituals to keep supernatural forces from harming one.  Enthusiasm is a positive belief about the unknown, such as that God or gods are talking to me, or I am their special favorite.

Enthusiasm is dangerous in the short term — think Manson, or the Taiping rebels — but ultimately burns itself out.  Superstition creeps in subtly and does long term damage as priests either deliberately or by gradual imperceptible evolution achieve positions of political power by exploiting superstition, promising the superstitious to allay their fears if they are obeyed.

Enthusiasm is love for what we do not understand and superstition is fear of what we do not understand.  Writing in the eighteenth century Hume is especially concerned to limit the power of religious emotions to provoke cruelty, bolster oppressive regimes, and give rise to inquisitions.  Yet while superstition seems unequivocally bad — a sort of learned helplessness that causes us to mistrust our ability to think our way through our own problems and to rely upon the unscrupulous or ignorant to allay our anxiety — enthusiasm can be good.  The challenge is to figure out how to harness enthusiasm so it doesn’t burn us with an auto da fe or holy war, but doesn’t go out either.

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6 thoughts on “Hume on Superstition and Enthusiasm

  1. It seems to me that context is key. Superstition as fear of the unknown is the human riff on an evolutionary adaptation. If we incorrectly fear that a tiger is behind a bush, then we might waste a minute or two. If we incorrectly believe there’s no tiger when there is one, then we’re dead. Fear isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

    Superstition can be good or bad: In the middle ages, the wealthy believed that the prayers of the poor were especially helpful for getting into Heaven. That led them to engage in morally laudable charitable behavior. It is a judgment call (really), but I would rather have people behave morally because they’re superstitious than behave immorally because they’re empiricists. The same thing can be good or bad, depending on the people and the circumstances.

    BTW, we had a joke in grad school: “Empiricists never have a nice day.” By the time they know it’s a nice day, it’s over. 🙂

  2. Nowadays we are living in a changing world and lacks of security; Enthusiasm must have a solid basis of reality, cultivated by an organised & healthy mindedness in spite of it sometimes by tradition, the Superstition prevails over it then we must learn to apply a reasonable equilibrium between them.

  3. I think I read a book of his on the Sabbath. Does he address Hume’s concerns about the dangers of enthusiasm, namely that it makes people think it is okay to do cruel and irrational things because they believe God is on their side?

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