Aquinas and Superstition: Thomist Philosopher Edward Feser Is An Aquinastitionist. What Is That?

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Aquinas and Superstition: Thomist Philosopher Edward Feser Is An Aquinastitionist. What Is That?

  1. Rob says:

    Feser knows two things:

    1. Being superstitious is contemptible.
    2. Feser himself is superstitious to the core.

    His post is a pathetic but adorable attempt to deal with his crushing cognitive dissonance.

  2. R.C. says:

    Three things: (Two Questions, and a “Walking a mile in the other guy’s moccasins.”)

    The First Question: What’s the definition of “superstition” for the purposes of this discussion? Especially, what distinguishes between a partial or full-featured worldview that we call simply a “worldview,” and one to which we ascribe the term “superstition,” with all the negative connotations of that word?

    The Second Question: Does Feser use the same definition for the term “superstition?” Or, does he use some odd definition which allows him to label atheism — I presume specifically reductive materialism, not just honest agnosticism — as an example of a “superstition?”

    The “Walking A Mile In Feser’s Moccasins”:
    Feser certainly is interested in defending Christian theism.

    This can make it look to an outsider like he is defending some things he thinks he can show logically from Aristotelian premises, while simultaneously defending other things that nobody could possibly derive by logic from Aristotle.

    But I suspect that Feser is one man, not two; and that what looks like cognitive dissonance from the outside doesn’t require simultaneous embrace of contradiction, once you hold more of his views.

    What views?

    Well, he is a Catholic.

    As such, Feser thinks that there is adequate rational reason to think that…
    (a.) Jesus of Nazareth really rose from the dead;
    (b.) Jesus of Nazareth’s claims to divinity are thereby sufficiently demonstrated to allow firm belief, soooo…Jesus is God;
    (c.) the gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth patterning his kahol (or ecclesia) as an expanded version of ancient Israel’s Davidic Dynasty (complete with stewards and an Al Bayith or “chief steward”) are reliable;
    (d.) therefore the bishop of Rome and those bishops in communion with him have, according to Jesus (God), a divinely-sanctioned authority protected from error under certain conditions;

    …and that therefore it’s rational for him to, y’know, be a Catholic.

    I bring this up because I betcha stuff Feser holds to be “non-superstitious” (but which would seem superstitious to a non-Catholic or non-Christian) are things which he would admit he can’t rationally defend, if he had to do the reasoning on his own or up from first principles.

    But he still thinks there are other (equally valid) ways to reason to them.

    I think he’d say there are two kinds of ways to know things about God. You can figure them out logically; or else, God can just tell you about them. It’s either “Natural Reason,” or “Special Revelation.” (And with the latter, you then have to use Natural Reason to authenticate the Special Revelation, to make sure you aren’t being duped.)

    So I suspect Feser believes some things for which he himself can’t provide adequate logical argument, because he holds them to have come down to him through continuous transmission from God (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) and via a reliable authoritative transmission-media (the stewards of Jesus’ “kingdom” who’re successors of the apostles, whom God protects from making errors about those kinds of topics).

    So — no offense to Rob, who posted before — I don’t think Feser is experiencing any cognitive dissonance at all.

    But, he thinks he has both the benefits of reasoning logically from shared premises as Aristotle did, and an inside track on Special Revelation via reliable authority. And the latter allows him to “know about” items that would seem superstitious if you had no other basis for them. Provided that those items are not, in-and-of-themselves, contradictory, there is no irrationality required.

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