The Spiritual Delusion/1.3.2

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The Spiritual Delusion/1.3.2/1.3.1 The Spiritual Delusion/1.3.2/1.3.3

2. In its effect on spiritual health by fostering superstition.


What is superstition? Who shall decide for us what is superstitious? Webster, it is true, defines superstition as excessive exactness or rigor in religion, and as belief in omens and prognostics. As to the first, it may be questioned whether excessive exactness or rigor can exist in religion itself, and we may conclude that the “excess” is a sign of no religion, a mere sham substitute for religion. If, however, is meant a rigor in what is called religion by those in whom we think we discover the symptoms of excess, we should then conclude that exactness must never overstep a certain line which still remains indefinite. How far shall we be exact to our conceptions of truth and duty without overstepping the boundary-line between the rational and the irrational, and entering the domain of superstition? I think I am not a superstitious man, and I discover that my neighbor has the same good opinion of his own rationality. So we are again brought to our starting-point: What is superstition?

John Wetherbee, in a thoughtful article published some time since in The Index, though professing not to be able to answer the question, still felt certain that there was “no body of people, in Christendom or out of it, so free from superstition as the modern ‘spiritualists.’ “If all spiritists were as sensible as Mr. Wetherbee, these pages would be unnecessary; yet even he did define it, in his estimation, as “the dry-rot of the Christian church,” a definition aptly illustrating our proneness to discover the mote often existing in our neighbor’s eye, and recalling to mind a remark attributed to Josh Billings, that the best place to have a boil was somewhere on your neighbor’s body!

If we say belief in omens and prognostics—that physical signs or events in the natural world are material evidence of spiritual facts—does it remain clear that Mr. Wetherbee’s friends are of all bodies the most free from this charge? Mr. Wetherbee declares of his belief that “its most accented expression is that everything is natural and nothing supernatural. The moment a man is a believer, he can be superstitious only so far as he is inconsistent. A man may be credulous; he may be shallow; he may be ignorant: these are human attributes, and may appear in human beings who are spiritualists. But the subject tends to correct all such weaknesses.”

Is this indeed true? Does an “instantaneous conversion” occur “the moment a man is a believer”? or is this assertion but what any sectary announces of his own pet theory of the universe? Does an earnest, entire belief in the presence of our departed friends, and the possibility of conversing with them on any subject, tend to render us more self-reliant and less credulous? Does the possibility of consulting a trusted friend removed to a higher plane with a broader scope of vision, and the adoption of his advice, tend to eliminate shallowness? If belief in such intercourse tends to correct ignorance, is the extent of the correction in any proportion to the intensity of the belief? Are they who believe least, or they who believe most, the most intelligent in the ranks of spiritism?

Mr. Wetherbee’s articles invariably bear evidence of their author’s possessing good common sense; whether his faith or his skepticism is the greater always appears to me a matter of doubt, but not which is more in harmony with his common sense.

Let us take a closer view of the field, and by comparison see if we can place our hand on any one belief and say. This is indeed superstitious. I read that a Tartar shaman lies in a lethargic slumber while his soul journeys in other lands, or visits the realms of the departed. In former years I was accustomed to look on this as superstitious, but the light of the New Dispensation has made the phenomenon as common among us as with the Tartars; for I read in the Banner of Light (of August 31, 18T2) a communication from Ohio, setting forth the wonderful manifestations performed by “invisibles” in that State, where soul-communion is attained through the humble instrumentality of a tin trumpet. The souls of all present having been harmonized by an influx of spirituality, radiating from the aforesaid trumpet of tin (is tin preferable to other metals as a conductor of spiritual influence to our spiritual natures? A query for spirital science), the writer adds, “Miss Annie M--------, a member of the circle, passed into a clairvoyant state, and remained for a time entirely under the control of departed spirits, who spoke to us through her, while her spirit, in the mean time, wandered with our spirit-friends amid the beauties of the brighter world, a recollection of which she always retains, and relates to us as soon as her spirit takes charge of her earthly form.” Shall we say the Tartar or the degraded Bushman is irrational and superstitious for believing in Asia or Africa what in America is not only rational, but the rational method of correcting credulity, shallowness, and ignorance?

I have been accustomed to see superstition in the belief of savage tribes in spectral appearances; to regard apparitions as subjective only in origin; to believe that in hallucination

“The soul—
Wrapt in strange visions of the unreal—
Paints the illusive form.”

But the familiarity of our own friends with ghostly acquaintances must lead us to revise our judgment of Karens or Caribs, or to extend the borders of superstition to include many in our midst. When I read in the Banner of Light (of February 11, 1871) a detailed account of the return of a “spirit,” who manifests his presence by purloining corn from a reverend gentleman’s corn-crib, opening windows, and scattering culinary furniture, I am forcibly reminded of the agreement between the savage and the Banner writer in their interpretation of phenomena, and have no doubt they would still further agree that superstition is a deadly weed and should be eradicated whenever found on our neighbor’s ground.

To believe that our friends are ever with us, and anxious to impart counsel and assistance in our many perplexities, would inevitably lead the mind to listen to their monitions, coming as we would believe from a being of a higher condition, and removed from the influence of the petty things which contract our vision here; in inverse proportion to our belief in the reality of their presence and communications would be our inclination to calmly weigh their words in our mind. To test, to weigh in the scales of reason, is to doubt, to be uncertain whether the phenomenon does proceed from the source claimed; and our spiritist friends claim to have knowledge, not faith. Mediums often boast of the numbers that come to them to consult their friends in higher life regarding. their business speculations, and claim that thousands never make any venture unless it has received indorsement from these friends. And this claim is consistent with the spirital theory; for the whole tenor of the “philosophy” is to show that “spirits” can not only impart information, but that they possess better means of forecasting the future than mortals still confined in the “cramping influence of material environments.”

A story was recently current of a young lady in Maine having been married to the sublimated form of her deceased lover. Was this act any evidence of superstition? If he was with her, visible in bodily form to her eyes, and she could converse with him and hear the words that passed his spirital lips, why not become in fact, what she was in intention, his wife? “Material” minds may indeed regard her action as superstition, but not so the spiritist. Admitting the premises, no such conclusion could possibly follow. He would regard her as having attained to a clear conception of real things, a knowledge of spiritual truth,—confessedly the highest development,—and the conversation of her sublimated husband would necessarily tend to broaden her field of vision, and eliminate credulity, shallowness, and ignorance.

Leaving the spiritist firm in his “knowledge,” we will not need to seek further for an answer to the question, “What is superstition?” for if the ground on which superstition is produced be once regarded as true knowledge, and assiduously cultivated, we need not marvel that spiritist writers confess their inability to define superstition.

In discussing the effects of spiritism on the mind, I would not be supposed to assert that all spiritists are superstitious. I do not regard Mr. Wetherbee as a superstitious man; not, however, because his belief has eradicated superstition but for the reason that he has not accepted all the logical conclusions of the spirital theory.

I have in several places criticised some of the written expressions of A. J. Davis as materialistic and gross, yet Mr. Davis has ably protested against some of the popular views current among spiritists. As an act of justice to him, I here quote from one of his recent works—“The Fountain”—his views on “popular errors.”

Whether be is strictly logical in affirming the “philosophy,” and denouncing as errors what others regard as essential elements of it, is another question, on which we should undoubtedly differ.

“Among the errors and hurtful superstitions which have sprung up in modern fields—in fields where we fondly hoped the immortal flowers of reason alone would grow and forever bloom—I will in this place mention only nine, as follows:

“1. That departed spirits, both good and evil, continually float and drive about in the earth’s physical atmosphere.

“2. That evil-disposed characters, having died in their active sins, linger around men and women both day and night, in order to gratify their unsatisfied passions and prevailing propensities,

“3. That all known mental disturbances, such as insanity, murder, suicide, licentiousness, arson, theft, and various evil impulses and deeds, are caused by the direct action of the will of false and malignant spirits.

“4. That certain passionate spirits, opposed to purity and truth and goodness, are busy breaking up the tender ties of families, and take delight in separating persons living happily in the marriage relation.

“5. That spirits are at all times subject to summons, and can be ‘called up’ or made to ‘appear’ in circles; and that the ‘mediums’ have no private rights or powers of will which the spirits are bound to respect.

“6. That spirits are both substantial and Immaterial; that they traverse the empire of solids, and bolt through s«lid substances, without respecting any of the laws of solids and substances; and that they can perform anything they like, to astonish the investigator,

“7. That every human being is a medium in one form or another, and to some extent; and that all persons, unconsciously to themselves, are acting out the feelings, the will, and the mind of spirits.

“8. That spiritual intercourse is perpetual; that it is everywhere operative; and that, being at last established, it cannot be again suspended.

“9. That the reading of books, and reflection, as a means of obtaining truth, are no longer necessary to believers; that the guardian band of spirits will impart to the faithful everything worth knowing; and that, for anything further, one need only wait upon the promptings of intuition; and that, in any event, ‘whatever is is right.’

“These errors, these superstitions, and these dogmas, like all other human developments, contain rich intimations and germs of truth. These theories have taken deep root among a large class of avowed spiritualists. And the legitimate effects, it will be remembered, are visible in the disintegrations and decompositions of character; in mutual disrespect and recriminations; in the disorganization of all our public efforts and the abandonment of our beneficent enterprises; in the irreverence manifested towards even the great central principles around which all persons and facts must bow and cling; and, lastly, in the gradual suspension of the delightful intercourse itself, by which the glory and unspeakable opportunities of immortality have been brought to life.

“After twenty-five years of constant investigation into the many and various phases of this subject, and with almost daily realizations of somewhat of the infinite goodness embosomed in these high privileges, I can most solemnly affirm, and I do now make the declaration, that the nine propositions contained in the indictment are mostly errors and hurtful theories, injurious in their effect upon the individual judgment, and still more injurious when made the foundation of faith and practice. They belong to the age of broom-riding witches, to the shallow doctrines of personal devils and sorcery, and the fiction age of astrology and the small gods of superstition. They will not bear analysis by the philosophical method of detecting the presence and value of truth. They will not stand a test by the supreme infallible authorities,—Nature, Reason, Intuition.”