Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Superstare

In Stacy Schiff's best-selling life of Cleopatra, she has this to say about the Egyptian goddess Isis:
In an age of general longing, she ranked as the greatest deity of the day. She enjoyed nearly unlimited powers: Isis invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way. Fiercely but compassionately, she plucked order from chaos. She was tender and comforting, also the mistress of war, thunderbolts, the sea. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life. She dispensed mercy, salvation, redemption. She is the consummate earth mother, also -- like most mothers -- something of a canny, omnicompetent, behind-the-scenes magician.
Oh, those ancient Egyptians and their silly, superstitious gods.

Wait a minute. Isis sounds pretty much like the god I was raised to believe in, although my god was a father rather than a mother. Still, everything else was pretty much the same. There he is, on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, reaching out to give Adam the spark of life, having finished setting the sun and moon on their courses, ready to dispense mercy, salvation, redemption.

Yep, there's pretty much only one thing that separates the ancient Egyptian goddess from my god (besides gender), and that is that she was their god and mine was mine.

One person's superstition is another person's true belief.

The word "superstition" comes from the Latin verb superstare, "to stand upon or over." It is about the best word we have for looking down our noses on those who believe something other than what we believe ourselves.

Voltaire, wrote this about superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in their turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians."

I have in the course of my life come to believe that the personal Christian god of my youth is no less superstitious than the goddess of the Egyptians, and that a skeptical, science-based agnosticism is the unsuperstitious way to go. But then -- as per Voltaire -- I would, wouldn't I?