Having accepted the very great honour of being allowed to deliver here two lectures, I have chosen as my subject Superstition and Science. It is with Superstition that this first lecture will deal.
The subject seems to me especially fit for a clergyman; for he should, more than other men, be able to avoid trenching on two subjects rightly excluded from this Institution; namely, Theology—that is, the knowledge of God; and Religion—that is, the knowledge of Duty. If he knows, as he should, what is Theology, and what is Religion, then he should best know what is not Theology, and what is not Religion.
For my own part, I entreat you at the outset to keep in mind that these lectures treat of matters entirely physical; which have in reality, and ought to have in our minds, no more to do with Theology and Religion than the proposition that theft is wrong, has to do with the proposition that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.
It is necessary to premise this, because many are of opinion that superstition is a corruption of religion; and though they would agree that as such, “corruptio optimi pessima,” yet they would look on religion as the state of spiritual health, and superstition as one of spiritual disease.
Others, again, holding the same notion, but not considering that corruptio optimi pessima, have been in all ages somewhat inclined to be merciful to superstition, as a child of reverence; as a mere accidental misdirection of one of the noblest and most wholesome faculties of man.
This is not the place wherein to argue with either of these parties; and I shall simply say that superstition seems to me altogether a physical affection, as thoroughly material and corporeal as those of eating or sleeping, remembering or dreaming.
After this, it will be necessary to define superstition, in order to have some tolerably clear understanding of what we are talking about. I beg leave to define it as—Fear of the unknown.
Johnson, who was no dialectician, and, moreover, superstitious enough himself, gives eight different definitions of the word; which is equivalent to confessing his inability to define it at all:—