Religion: The Opiate of the Masses, or Superstitious Brainwashing with Consent?

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Religion: The Opiate of the Masses, or Superstitious Brainwashing with Consent?

Jillian Davis

On my last paper, which was about the use of religion and superstition in Huck Finn, the following comment was scrawled in the right hand margin on the first page: Religion is merely superstition with an army. This got me thinking a couple of things, the first of which was, "Wow. All the books we have read for this class have really strong Christian religious themes and undertones". My second thought was, "In all of these books, there always seems to be at least one very religious character whose faith is, in some way, tested". After that came: "The way in which these characters are tested always seems to involve some sort of supernatural, occult related, or superstitious event which their religion condemns, but is unable to provide an alternative explanation for". My final thought was, "Could religious condemnation of superstition really be a cover up? Were the power players, in the days when these faiths were new, have been so worried about keeping followers, that they came up with a system of rules banning close examination of certain ideas which, if thought about critically, might actually look an awful lot like the religion in question? Are religion and superstition actually the same thing?" Fortunately, since our 19th century American novels are chock full of examples of superstition and religion, they're a good place to start looking for answers.

In our analysis of Turn of the Screw, one of the theories we posed for why the governess believed her charges to be possessed was that, in fact, she was mad. A Freudian interpretation of events suggested two things: first, that the governess's secret lust for her employer made her prone to believe any half baked idea she could come up with to bring him closer to her, including the notion that his niece and nephew were possessed. Armed with that crisis, she naturally assumed he would come out to the countryside to help her. However, according to her Christian faith, both the lust she was feeling and the methods she was employing in an attempt to sate it were sinful, and (the second point) she quickly went mad from guilt and desire. In this case, religion and superstition do not appear to be equivalent; the former inspires guilt based on some dictate, where the latter generally inspires fear and caution in expectation of preventing some catastrophic event.

This is just one theory. Another approach we took to this particular tale was to assume that the governess was one hundred percent sane, and that everything she was seeing was true. In this case, religion and superstition do seem to be the same thing. Both, in some fashion, deal with ghosts. In the case of superstition, stories of the restless dead haunting countryside manors, particularly the spirits of those who met violent ends (like Peter Quint), are very common. Religion, too, deals with the souls of the departed, though there tends to be more of a preoccupation with whether that soul goes to Heaven or Hell, not what might entice it to remain on the earthly plain. Religion and superstition also deal with demonic possession, though the former usually cites sin and depravity as reasons for it, while superstition maintains that such a thing could happen to anyone.

The second text we read, Moby Dick, had a clear connection running between religion and superstition in its pages, though not necessarily a parallel. The ghostly imagery of the white whale, and Ahab's utter conviction that the beast was out for blood and hell bent on killing him (and, consequently, his preemptive strike on the animal), are definite examples of the paranoid thinking and visual cues associated with superstition. Religion, meanwhile, played a more thematic role, coming up in reference to Queequeg (a heathen and a cannibal), Ahab's Quaker background, and the Biblical image of Jonah being swallowed by the whale, an idea that was often referenced in the footnotes of the Norton Critical Edition of the story. Specifically, the two are connected through Ahab; both religion and intense superstition play key roles in the portion of his life (and the decisions he makes, all of which are related to his pursuit of Moby Dick) described by Ishmael, and are most certainly important prior to and after the events of the novel (although, granted, he isn't technically alive at the end of the book).

Conversely, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, we see almost no instances of superstitious belief or behavior, with the one exception of Cassie's home brewed ghost story at the end of the novel. The majority of the time, the story is concerned with religion, and is so on two levels. The first is the level of the characters themselves. From the beginning, when we meet Tom, our primary information about his character is that he is a God loving and God fearing man, devoted to his Scripture, who preaches the goodness of doing as his religion dictates not out of fear or some disaster, but out of reverence. Eva echoes this sentiment later on; even more pious than Tom, she extols the virtues of being an honest, humane kind of person with compassion for others, not because of any superstitious belief about what evils it might prevent or good fortune it might attract, but because it is the Christian thing to do.

The second level of religion comes from the writer herself, and is laced in with the rest of the story's plot to make Uncle Tom's Cabin an extremely effective piece of propaganda. In the first few chapters, we see Mrs. Shelby arguing with her husband about whether or not Tom and Eliza really should be sold. Her immediate response to the situation is that it's highly unchristian of her not to be able to keep her word to them (that they'd never be sold), and that her husband is making a mockery of her by forcing her to break it. Later on, the reader encounter the Quaker abolitionists who help George and Eliza escape to Canada. Stowe uses them and their religious conviction as a major focal point of her argument, insisting that anyone who reads and interprets the Bible correctly will agree that slavery is wrong. Again, there is nothing superstitious in any of this, no need for preventative measure of any kind, no fear that, if one doesn't think a certain way, they're going to be visited by misfortune. All of Stowe's convictions, and by extension, the convictions of her more minor characters, are wrapped up in religion as a guideline for living one's life and living it well, which she maintains is a conscious choice that each individual must come to on their own.

The Scarlet Letter, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, is not a story that leaves a lot of room for superstition, either as a cause of misfortune or as a result of bad behavior. Hester's punishment is clearly dictated by people (specifically, the religious/political leadership of the settlement), and is a response to her failure to adhere to Puritan law. Any and all guilt that Dimmesdale finds himself privately suffering under occurs on account of his violation of his sacred oaths, and the sanctity of his covenant with God. The only small instance in which the idea of "religion equals superstition" appears is, as in Turn of the Screw, in the references to possession. Often times, little Pearl Prynne is described as being very "impish" or "demonic"; her mother frequently wonders if she is possessed by some unnatural evil. The general understanding among the rest of the community members is that Pearl's wicked and unchristian behavior is the logical result of having been conceived in sin by two parents destined to be forever out of God's favor as punishment for their actions.

Finally, religion and superstition as used in Huck Finn are not at all similar; as claimed in my previous paper, the two are set up as antitheses of one another, representing the opposing ideals of bondage and freedom. On a less grandiose level, there is simply not enough commonality in the way religion and superstition are brought into play in the text, especially where influence over character's decisions is concerned, for me to be able to think of them as anything but polar opposites. For example, the widow Douglas and Miss Watson spend the first chapter of the book trying to force religion down Huck's throat, teaching him all about the significance of his own life (i.e. the comparison the widow makes between Huck and Moses), and Heaven and Hell, and how he should model his behavior after the teachings in the Bible. The only case in which a threat of some ill befalling Huck should he chose to ignore their advice is mentioned, is in his discussion about the afterlife with Miss Watson, when she informs him that his wickedness will lead him into Hell. She does not imply that he will be struck down, or that any long term pain or untimely death will come to him; she merely informs him that after his death, his soul will be damned.

Superstition, as used in Huck Finn, is much more about immediate consequences, usually strange and cruel twists of fate leading to some kind of injury, illness, discomfort, bad luck, or an early grave. For example, when Huck kills a spider in his room in the first chapter, he goes ballistic, trying every way he can think of to make up for the deed, certain that the cosmos is going to punish him for his transgression. He's not worrying about the future state of his immortal soul fifty years from then; he's worried about what bad luck will come into his life the following day. Unlike religion and religious texts, which spend a lot more time talking about the benefits of living a "right" life, superstitious beliefs are things that can't be pinned down, and which are almost always bad. On the one occasion Huck mentions this to Jim, asking if there's any such thing as a good omen, Jim asks him what the use is in seeing the good things coming, and lets on that, while there are a few good signs and superstitions, they're really not that numerous, and the ones that do exist never tend to do people any good.

The one point on which religion and superstition are the same in Huck Finn is in the fact that both emphasize the idea that life is what you make of it, and you honestly shouldn't expect much. Living well (or, in the case of superstition, getting by at all) is its own reward, and if you happen to encounter some good grace or stroke of luck, and good things come into your life, they should be a pleasant surprise; they are not to be taken for granted. Apart from that, life seems to be guaranteed to be full of pain and suffering and loss, though at least with religion, the grieving are given somewhere to turn in their time of need. Superstition shrugs that off; there is nothing to suggest that things will work out in the end, and that whoever it is that's miring their way through a down period will come out the other side in one piece. There's not the same sense of hope one finds in religion, and that, for all its symbolism as a source of bondage, the idea of religion in Huck Finn perpetuates.

Given all these varying degrees of fact and analysis, what can one glean about the nature of religion and superstition from 19th century American literature? As far as I'm concerned, you can't really tell anything about whether or not the two are the same, at least not by comparing their use across novels. While it seems fairly obvious that religion and superstition are related (either loosely connected or polar opposites), there's no consistency in their application between (or even, sometimes, within) the stories we've read this semester. The differences in their use have certainly helped me to refine my definitions of religion and superstition (the former being a publicly supported ideology which sets strict guidelines for how to live one's life in order to achieve happiness on earth and in the afterlife, and the latter being a set of fear inducing cause-and-effect parallels which provide a complicated list of do not's in order to avert bad luck), but little else.

Another way to approach this question in future might be, instead of trying to figure out and prove that religion is "superstition with an army" or, as Karl Marx put it, "the opiate of the masses", to look at how the uses of religion and superstition run parallel to each other. Do they run parallel at all? Where do they intersect, and why? What was the author's purpose in creating those intersections (if it is assumed to be intentional)? If it's not, then what meaning can the reader draw from them on their own? Can the definitions of the two terms change depending on the extent to which they are parallel versus the extent to which they overlap? Are the definitions I've given above universal, even among 19th century American novels, or is meaning entirely subjective? These are just some things to explore in future writings, and perhaps in future class discussions, which might contribute better to an understand of the material at hand, and help establish (or, potentially, break down) connections between the novels in question.

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