Atheism vs Superstition

My man Plutarch is pretty awesome.  He is interested in all kinds of things, everything from discussing how young men ought to be taught how to properly and beneficially read poetry (lest they be sullied by the fake hocus-pocus crap and salacious stuff) to the parallel lives of Demosthenes and Cicero.  He is also an astute commentator on religious things.  He is a philosopher, in the sense that he lives a philosophy (an eclectic [Middle] Platonism), and he is a priest of Apollo at Delphi, a job he takes seriously.

One work that displays Plutarch’s interest in practiced religion is his de superstitione (peri deisidaimonias).  Superstitio, the Latin rendering of the Greek deisidaimonia, doesn’t quite do justice to deisidaimonia.  The two lexemes in the compound are deid, fear, and daimon, deity; so a periphrastic rendering would be something like terror of gods meaning terror for gods.  Anyhow, in this work Plutarch lays out his basic question: On the spectrum of religion, with atheism on the one terminus and superstition on the other, where does true religion lie?

Plutarch immediately demonstrates his detestation for superstition.  He points out that it is irrational, destructive, and a far worse condition that atheism.  One example of this odium for superstition that is of interest for students of Judaism and Christianity is Plutarch’s disgust for the account of the Jews refusing to defend Jerusalem’s walls on the Sabbath.  Instead of taking up weapons to defend themselves, their wives, and their children, the Jews, overawed by irrational fear of their god and his rites, sat idly and were slaughtered along with their non-combatants.  How awful the effects of superstition!

Atheism Plutarch sees as something like an unfortunate mindset that usually only hurts the atheist.  It is like a malady that can be cured while the disease of superstition has no remedy since the sufferer fears both the disease and the doctor.  The atheistically minded are often driven to a more hardened atheism due to the ridiculous and shameful actions of the superstitious, laments Plutarch.  This really chaps Plutarch’s hide.  The generally decent but misled atheists are being soured to true religion by those ignorant superstitious rubes!  I could go on for pages summarizing the spleen venting in which Plutarch indulges in his attack on superstition. Really, you should read the entire treatise, it will only take 30 minutes (here is a link at a rad website that devotes some loving attention to Mormons).

One might be disappointed to come to the end of his essay and discover that Plutarch does not spell out just where he places true religion on his spectrum.  But Plutarch does give us this: True religion lies closer to atheism than it does to superstition.

This feels right to me.  I do not agree with Plutarch’s vitriolic rhetoric and his dismissal of all superstitious folks as hopeless causes but I do think that true religion must lie closer to atheism.  I need a god who exists in a removed sense, cares for, provides for, and occasionally intervenes on behalf of humanity and individuals, not a god who is immanent, persnickety, officious, quick to anger, needy for appeasement, and the source of all good and/or evil.  Also I need religion that has a healthy regard for outrageous fortune.

But I also love and respect many people close to me who need and believe in religion much closer to the superstition terminus.  And these people are my co-religionists.  What about you all?  Where do you fall on Plutarch’s spectrum of religion?  Are you more a god fearer or an atheist?  Does or can Mormonism provide an umbrella spanning one end of the spectrum to the other?

11 Replies to “Atheism vs Superstition”

  1. As an atheist, I guess the problem with Plutarch not describing true religion in his piece is that I have no idea what I’m supposed to be missing out.

    On the one hand, I can see the problem with the superstitious (in many ways, it seems like he is describing maltheism here), but I can’t see what he would rather people believe in. It seems like he wants to say, “Atheists are ignorant and blind” by just ASSUMING there is an all-good god there (which atheists therefore don’t see), but that obviously doesn’t seem all that persuasive to me.

    As far as the final question, for me, I lived for so long feeling that I could rejoice in the practical aspects of the church. But eventually, I realized that what really matters — even given all the popular talk about orthopraxy — is the spiritual foundations upon which the practical aspects of the church are predicated. So unfortunately, Mormonism doesn’t provide the best umbrella to this side of the spectrum, from my perspective. Or at least, even if it does, many members just don’t want to live as if it does.

  2. The anti-Nephi-Lehis would drive Plutarch into a snit then.

    I guess I’m closer to the superstitionists, but no farther than half-way down the spectrum — if that far.

  3. Have you read Dale Martin’s book on superstition? It is pretty awesome. He analyzes it rhetorically, where, like “magic,” superstition is just religion that one doesn’t like. That is way oversimplifying it, but his account of the rise of superstition as a category is pretty compelling.

  4. I probably should have specified in the OP that this was not a critical engagement of atheism and religiosity–it is more like an evening’s worth of extemporaneous musings after a re-reading of a favorite text. Something akin to a EQ lesson.

    Andrew S.,

    Yes, you are totally on target for feeling ripped off by Plutarch. Unfortunately in none of his extant works does he lay out his theological positions, these must be cobbled together from thousands of pages of surviving stuff and many other preserved fragments. If you want a quality introduction to his intellectual and theological context you should take a look at the first 59 pages of Robert Lamberton’s Plutarch. Also, for a discussion on what theodicy means for Plutarch you should read his de sera numinis vindicta (On The Delays of Divine Vengeance). In the introduction to the Loeb edition of the essay (Plutarch Moralia Vol. VII) there is a quaint story about the power of Plutarch’s treatise

    “In modern times [the treatise] has received high praise from Christians as diverse in belief as Joseph de Maistre and A. P. Peabody. In an American edition we find this note:

    It is within the knowledge of the writer that the reading of this very treatise of Plutarch, which we are about to examine, had a salutary effect on the mind of Professor Tholuck, at a time when he was inclined to skepticism, and was among the providential means of leading him to find the best solution of his doubts in the teachings of the Bible.”

    Doesn’t that just warm your heart? It is a good read, although I doubt that it really has such a marvelous power over most readers. Certainly Plutarch would have been scandalized to discover that his paper was being read by Christians to promote Christianity. Ye gads.


    Yes, I have read Martin’s work (Inventing Superstition: From the Hippocratics to the Christians) and I thought it was amazing. And I agree that Plutarch is engaging in the rhetoric of the era when he paints everybody else as either superstitious or atheists. One great comparandum for this rhetorical phenomenon is Lucretius’ de rerum natura, where he eviscerates religio/superstitio and sets up Epicureanism as the only pious modus vivendi, even while dismissing the notion of piety. Lucian, of course, is another source for this phenomenon, he who undermines and lampoons every philosophy and religion.


    Totally. I remember thinking of just that BoM scene the first time I read de superstitione. But don’t you kind of get the heebie-jeebies when you actually think about an actual event wherein people are praying whilst they get their heads hacked to pieces? As much as the story thrills me and awes me, it also scares the pants off of me. Probably Plutarch’s pants as well.


    Yeah, that is a pretty good summation of how I feel sometimes.

  5. This is not judgment or commentary, but a genuine question I have. I am new to the blogernacle and I’m wondering if anyone else feels that disaffected Mormons trend toward atheism. Does anyone know of any posts on this topic?

  6. (PDF alert)

    There’s a section here called “Retention of childhood members”).

    For Mormons, it says that 70% of childhood members identify as Mormon at adulthood (I’m pretty sure that later surveys tease out that this number includes those who may have left, but returned to the church), 15% “convert to another group” and 14% “convert to no religion.”

    So, if it appears that disaffected Mormons trend toward atheism, then it probably is because of some other bias (e.g., the ones that converted to another religion probably don’t advertise their prior Mormonism as much…or maybe disaffected Mormon atheists are more likely to than the average disaffected Mo to blog, or maybe it’s something else. Who knows?)

  7. for me, it depends on the day.

    the anti-nephi-lehi episode is frightening. i was thinking about this with your suicide post. big difference, but perhaps still not altogether separate from the mass suicides that ‘cults’ are famous for.

  8. Depends on how much guilt I’m dealing with. If I feel particularly guilty, then it generally leads to superstition and it becomes easy to see every instance of bad fortune as being tied to my sinful behavior. If I’m feeling particularly guilt free, it is easier to adhere to a “distant god” theory.

    Unfortunately its hard to divorce my feelings from the years of indoctrination in primary and seminary that the wicked are punished and the pure are blessed.

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