One of the most basic complaints from “rational” religious people – and many atheists – is on the subject of superstition. As defined in Dictionary.com, a superstition is:
1. A belief or notion not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.
2. A system or collection of such beliefs.
3. A custom or act based on such a belief.
4. Irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.
5. Any blindly accepted belief or notion.
In an experiential religion, the experience of the divine or the spiritual often gives reason enough for a given practice. Central to this concept are the twin forms of chiminage and taboo. Chiminage is a term that originally corresponded to the toll one paid to pass on a forest road; as I define it, it is what one does actively and usually repetitively to honor or appease a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or spirit entity, such as the covering of one’s head for religious purposes. Taboos are the opposite side of the same coin: things one refrains from doing in order to honor or appease a God, Goddess, Ancestor, or other spirit, such as when someone gives up something for Lent in the Christian religion. (These terms may also be used culturally, without regard for spiritual entities, but that is outside the scope of this particular article.) From the outside view of mainstream society, both cases have the tendency of being highly scrutinized and disparaged, especially when there is something to be gained by belittling or debunking the practice. Mainstream Christianity is still often interpreted in such a way as to oppose religious and cultural viewpoints that differ. Atheism is plagued by a similar stance, ironically because of the former mindset. Those raised in one of these two viewpoints often port these views to the religious expressions they embrace later in life. Therefore, chiminage or taboos without a readily-apparent, physical reason are relegated to the realm of “superstition” and often disparaged or ignored as a result.
This should not be a surprising phenomenon. Since the mid-15th century in Europe, the gulf between the mainstream religion and the scientific community has deepened and widened. Rationalism gave rise to Protestant forms of Christianity, which fostered scientific research until it, too, found itself at odds with scientific discoveries. Some branches chose to evolve with the new information, while others staggered or stagnated. Several sects split based on these often intense arguments. Atheists and materialists existed throughout history, but especially found purchase in scientific communities from the 16th century to the present. I do not say this to condemn atheism or any form of Christianity, but to instead point out the progression of the modern societal viewpoint.
Today, religious expression is often considered to be a “personal” thing. In most of modern society, this leads to a discouragement of public displays of that expression. This discouragement is especially applied to expressions for which the reason is, “My God/dess asked me to.” This goes back to the double standard I was talking about in Part 2, but also includes the expressions of utter disgust I find on forums of atheism and agnosticism. Barring discussion of how such an excuse might be abused, I find this to be an unacceptable stance for anyone who values religious freedom.
This leads to the complicated matter of personal chiminage or taboos versus those which are religion-wide, cultural, or societal. In much of modern Paganism, one’s personal relationship with the divine may very well lead to chiminage or taboos which are for that person. For example, the Goddess Freyja may ask one adherent to dress in skirts and dresses, while another of her devotees might have no such requirement. She may ask a third disciple to never lift a weapon in order to honor her (for some inscrutable reason – she does tend to be fond of battle). Unfortunately, for legal purposes, this issue becomes quite murky indeed, for the view fostered by both mainstream religion and mainstream secularism is that if it is good for one, then it is good for all. In short, if your chiminage or taboo isn’t followed by most of your sect of a religion, then it isn’t legitimate. It is considered a “superstition”. This is a view which is in direct opposition to the opinion that religion is a “personal” thing. In the past, this has led to people switching religions based on a specific aspect of their beliefs rather than the sum total of them.
Contrast this with the view of the Neopagan Animist. As a believer in the spirit world and spirit entities, those entities may have requirements of an adherent for living in a certain place, or working with the spirits of that area, concept, or pantheon. Religion is a community endeavor, for the spirits are part of that community. One’s role in that community often determines much of the requirements an entity may place upon a given adherent, which in a way enforces a balance between community and individuality. This stands even if the adherent in question is the only human in a given community, for again, the spirits are also part of that community.
Despite the possibility of the Gods and some of the spirits being quite a bit more powerful than human adherents, it is wise for an adherent to have limits as to what tasks one will or will not do for a given spirit. As a very simple example, I will not generally break the laws of my city or country to honor or appease a spirit. I have made this clear to the spirit entities I work with, and while reminders are sometimes necessary, I generally have not had a problem with any of them because of it. To anyone of whom a spirit requests chiminage or taboo, my recommendation is to always consider the possible ramifications of following the spirit’s request. If the risk is not something you can accept, you are better off not performing it. Chiminage and taboos always have consequences – always. This consequence may be as simple as getting strange looks or stares or as dangerous as being beaten or killed in extreme cases. Taking on chiminage or taboos marks you as belonging to the spirit or spirits which gave them to you, often publicly so.
Where experience gives way to the realm of fear is where superstition lies. As Pagans, we may respect our Gods and other spirits for their abilities, but we do not live in fear of them. Those of us who draw the ire of the Gods should be determined to either make amends or to stand one’s ground. Fear, on the other hand, prevents action as often as it spurs it. We will speak of the practice of divination in a future post, but to speak briefly, omens tell of things that may come to pass, not necessarily will come to pass. They are an early warning system, which allow one to prepare. Omens and portents of unavoidable disaster should therefore be avoided in most circumstances, or at the very least be taken as final challenges to face in one’s life, such as one of the last supposed appearances of the Morrigan to Cu Chulainn (see The Washer At the Ford, p. 230, in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by TW Rolleston). Therefore, the fourth and fifth definitions of superstition are of particular use to the Neopagan Animist, for ours is not a religion of fear, but rather of experience and responsibility. As I said in Part 1, “Life Hurts; This is a Good Thing.”