Aquinastition. When you mix Aquinas with superstition you get Aquinastition.
So an Aquinastitionist is an intellectual Thomist who makes apologies for religious superstition.
Thomist philosopher Edward Feser is an example, as displayed in his recent essay, “Religion and Superstition,” in The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (2015).
Edward Feser’s Thomistic defense of religious superstition. Perhaps the most revealing part of Feser’s essay is when he quotes Hayek endorsing the idea that it’s okay to believe things that have not “been demonstrated to be true.” This is followed not many sentences later with Feser explicitly writing this: “Certain roles and practices may have benefits that we cannot see.”
What are the sorts of religious superstitions that win Feser’s seal of approval? Here are some of them:
- We may reasonably owe “reverence or dulia” to “angels and saints.”
- False conceptions of the one true God do not constitute superstition, as with those who believe in “anthropocentric ‘theistic personalism'” (such as Alvin Plantinga), and those who “may think of Him as an old man with a long white beard.”
- Quoting The Catholic Encyclopedia, Feser endorses the view that people who worshiped “the ‘false gods’ of the heathen” may have been worshiping “the only true God they knew,” and so their impulse was rightly directed to the divine–and therefore, to that extent, they were not engaging in superstition.
- Belief that prayer and the sacraments are efficacious, and that miracles, angels, and devils “cause unusual events to occur” are not superstitious beliefs.
- Belief in “disembodied souls” is not superstitious, but “fully intelligible.”
Feser and atheism. So what is superstitious? Atheism. It’s “the last superstition” (which is also the title of Feser’s book attacking atheism). Why? Because to believe that there are things not fully “intelligible through and through” is to be superstitious.
So long as you believe that God is intelligible through and through, and that God’s ways are intelligible through and through (though appearing mysterious to our feeble intellects), then you’re not superstitious.
Put another way, when atheists conclude that maybe some things just happen by accident (shit happens), or exist as brute facts (as with the idea that matter and the laws of nature have no particular cause, but just have always existed), then these atheists are, for Feser, engaged in the height of superstition.
All things happen to an intelligible purpose–God’s purposes. Even the Holocaust (presumably).
Other superstitions Feser targets. Who else is superstitious besides atheists, according to Feser’s essay? These would include those who conjure devils for purposes of power, astrologers, believers in extraterrestrials, conspiracy theorists, and alternative medicine practitioners.
But these, of course, have their analogs among religionists (faith healers for alternative medicine practitioners; prophets for soothsayers; those who hope Jesus will one day fly down from the sky for those who hope UFOs will one day fly down from the sky, etc.). But Feser doesn’t draw these parallels. For Feser, religious believers who focus on the one true God are not superstitious.
Why? Because their hearts are in the right place, and their intentions are directed at the right object. For Feser, the right orientation is all (trust in God and institutional religious authorities vs. fear of the unknown; piety vs. impiety; faith vs. doubt; belief in–if not demonstration of–intelligibility vs. unintelligibly, etc.).
So Feser wants to decouple “true religion”–the sort of religion of which Feser approves–from superstition.
And if his essay doesn’t convince you to separate religion from superstition, Feser at least wants the reader to cut some slack to the Dark Ages. In the last sentence of his essay, he quotes Peter Dendle as writing the following: “There is little sense in singling out the Middle Ages, then, as a time of especially pronounced or absurd superstition.”
In other words, traditional religion is not superstition, and, well, if you say it is, it’s certainly no worse than the superstitions that circulate in non-religious circles today.
Thus an Aquinastitionist like Feser might say he opposes all superstition, but he actually makes intellectual excuses and exceptions for superstition—specifically, religious superstition. I think it’s undeniable that this is what Feser does in his essay; he carves out a space for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable superstition.
The descent into superstition. So we’ve got two sorts of persons here. The first is the epistemically cautious theist interested in Aristotle and Aquinas. This is the philosophically oriented person who is persuaded by the cosmological argument for a First Being’s existence, and leaves it at that.
Aristotle, for example, rejected atomism and surmised that there must be some sort of Unmoved Mover who got the cosmic ball rolling, but he attached no particular superstitious beliefs or behaviors to that conclusion.
But then there is the Aquinastitionist. This is the philosophically oriented person persuaded by Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics, but who defends certain forms of religious superstition as good. She or he may even be a practitioner of religious superstition—and thus a practitioner of Aquinastition—and therefore Aquinastitious.
The Silly Aquinastitionist. But there’s a third person here, which I’ll name the Silly Aquinastitionist. Think Monty Python’s silly walk skit; think Stevie Wonder’s song, “Superstition.” This person, to echo a phrase from that song, is very superstitious.
The Silly Aquinastitionist accepts Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics, believes in various religious superstitions, and combines these with still other forms of superstition (conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc.).
In other words, the Silly Aquinastitionist is a full-on practitioner of Silly Aquinastition. She (or he) is the Caitlyn Jenner of Aquinastitionists—as far out and imaginative as you can push Aquinastition. If there’s a bead to finger, she’s there. If there’s a ring or foot to kiss or rub for luck, yes! Church on Sunday, Alex Jones on Monday.
Umberto Eco, by the way, called the mixing of authoritarian religious traditionalism with conspiracy theories and the occult a symptom of what he coined Ur-Fascism.
Miracle, mystery, and authority combined with Aquinas can cascade into a variety of superstitions.
A question for Graham Oppy. The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Religious Philosophy, in which Feser’s essay appears, was edited by the Australian philosopher Graham Oppy, an atheist whose most recent book, The Best Arguments against God (Palgrave 2013), defends naturalism. My two-part question for Graham is the following: Would you personally make the sorts of distinctions that Feser does between religious superstition and superstition generally–and what do you make of Feser’s classing of atheism among the superstitions?