What is the relationship between religion and superstition? The religious may argue that the two are fundamentally different types of beliefs. The non-religious, however, often notice fundamental similarities between the two. Even the very label ‘superstition’ implies a lack of rationality, a certain childishness or primitive way of thinking. Religious believers will often make efforts to have their own particular beliefs stand apart from what they themselves would call superstition.
The similarities between religious and superstitious beliefs are not just on the surface but run deep and often intertwine. Both are non-materialistic in nature. They do not look at the world as a place controlled by cause and effect but rather explain the vicissitudes of existence by the presence of immaterial forces (God or gods; angels or demons – see post: Devils and Demons) which influence or control the course of life.
As human beings, we crave meaning in our lives. We are unable to easily accept that events may be random or chaotic. If a friend gets struck by a car, was it because a black cat crossed his path? Or was it because he did not go to church last Sunday? Does he not pay respect to his ancestors?
Some have explained the difference between religion and superstition this way: ’A religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. Superstition, on the other hand, is a ‘credulous belief or notion, NOT based on reason, knowledge, or experience. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the irrational belief that future events can be influenced or foretold by specific UNRELATED prior events.
This is perhaps, not a very good defence of ‘religious’ belief as opposed to ‘superstitious’ belief. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) contains many books focused on prophecy. In both the Old and New Testaments as well as the Muslim Koran, spiritual beings (angels, devils, demons) play important roles. The weakness of these ‘definitions’ is bared forth by asking straight-forward questions such as: Jesus changing water into wine or Mohammed flying to heaven on Al-Burāq, the ’mythological’ winged horse…Is it reasonable to believe that either of these two ‘events’ are true?
The definition of ‘superstition‘ has changed with the times and changes depending upon whom you ask. Generally, superstition is a belief in ‘supernatural causality‘, the belief that one event leads to the cause of another without any process in the physical world linking the two events. Such as God striking you down because you ‘sinned’?
Opposition to superstition was a concern of the intellectuals during the 18th century when philosophers ridiculed any belief in miracles, revelation or ‘magic’ and typically included as well much of Christian doctrine.
During the time of the Roman empire, superstition simply meant a fear of the gods.
Martin Luther, one of the first of the ‘Protestants‘ called the papacy and the Roman Church ‘that fountain and source of all superstitions’.
Today, according to the Roman Catholic Church, ‘superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes’.
It seems that the term superstition contrasts with the term religion, simply by focusing on what is seen (by the religion in question) as excessive or false religious behavior as opposed to a standard of proper or accepted religious activity.
Are you afraid to walk under a ladder? If you do, do you cross yourself or say 12 ‘hail Marys’? The following are examples of (what most would call) ‘superstitions‘:
Triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number ’13′ is a specifically recognized phobia (a word which was coined in 1911). Sufferers of triskaidekaphobia try to avoid ‘bad luck‘ by keeping away from anything numbered or labelled ‘thirteen’.
The number ‘four‘ (四, sì) in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean cultures: Because the number ’4′ sounds like the word ‘death’, ’4′ is considered an ‘unlucky’ number (see post: Fun With Numbers).
This all leads to the concept of ‘Luck’ which can be good luck or bad luck but whether good or bad, ‘luck’ occurs beyond one’s control, without regard to one’s will, intention or the desired result. In the prescriptive sense, luck is the supernatural concept that there are forces (e.g. gods or spirits) which determine whether certain events occur in the same way that the laws of physics will prescribe that certain events occur. Cultural views of luck vary, some regarding ‘luck’ as random chance whereas in ancient Rome, ‘luck’ was embodied as the goddess Fortuna.
Finding a ‘four-leaf clover‘, a rarity among clovers, is considered a sign of ‘good fortune’ to come.
Numerology is a modern day practice that is based on converting virtually anything material into a number, using that number in an attempt to detect something meaningful about reality, and trying to predict or calculate the future based on ‘lucky’ numbers (see post: Gematria Fun With Numbers Again).
In some European countries, spilling salt is a sign of evil things to come. One explanation of this belief is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper but salt was a valuable commodity in medieval times and a symbol of trust and friendship. There is an old German saying: ‘Whoever spills salt arouses enmity’.
There is an old concept in folklore (superstition?) the seventh son of a seventh son possesses special powers. The seventh son must come from an unbroken line with no female children born between, and be, in turn, born to such a seventh son. This number ’7′ (see post: Fun With Numbers) has a long history of mystical as well as religious associations: the seven days of creation, the seven hills of Rome, the Seven Sages (see post: Seven Sages and Four Horsemen). In some cultures, the seventh son of a seventh son is believed to have a direct link to Satan and because of this, possesses ’special abilities’.
A curse (or execration) is an expressed wish that some form of misfortune will occur to someone or to something. The ‘curse’ may be inflicted through ‘casting a spell’, magic, ‘witchcraft’, act of God or by a prayer. It is at this point that the defining lines between superstition and religion start to blur for many religious and non-religious people alike. Often, the curse itself (or accompanying ritual) is considered to have some causative force in the result. There is a broad popular belief in curses being associated with the violation of the tombs of mummified corpses of ancient Egypt.
So, is this where the line of demarcation between superstition and religion is? The following are examples of (what most would call) ‘religious practices’ but, depending on your religion, some may disagree:
Satī was (and still is) a religious funeral practice among some communities in India where a recently widowed woman commits suicide by throwing herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre.
Prayer is an act that seeks to activate a relationship with a deity or object of worship through deliberate communication. Prayer may involve the use of words or song or simply words from the praying person. Several scientific studies regarding prayer and its effect on the healing of sick or injured people have been carried out, mostly with equivocal results.
The most common form of prayer is to directly appeal to God to grant one’s requests. God supposedly listens to the prayer, and may or may not choose to answer in the way one asks of him.
A ‘rite‘ is a formal ‘ritual‘, often performed under specific circumstances for specific reasons. In Roman Catholicism, for example, ‘rite’ often refers to the sacrament (ceremony), such as the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
The Qiblah is the direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays. It is fixed as the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. Most mosques contain a niche in the wall (called the mihrab), that indicates the correct direction in which to pray (the Qiblah). The Qiblah’s importance also plays a part in various ceremonies. For instance, the head of an animal that is slaughtered using Halal (religiously sanctioned) methods is aligned with the Qiblah. After death, Muslims are buried with their heads in the direction of the Qiblah.
The Kaaba is a cube-shaped building in Mecca and is the most sacred site in Islam. The Kaaba was said to have been constructed by Abraham and his son Ishmael, after settling in Arabia.
The Black Stone is the eastern cornerstone of the Kaaba. The stone was venerated at the Kaaba in pre-Islamic pagan times and now is revered by Muslims as an Islamic relic. It was set intact into the Kaaba’s wall by Muhammad in 605 A.D. Since then it has been broken into a number of fragments and is now cemented into a silver frame in the side of the Kaaba. The stone is a fragmented dark rock, polished smooth by the hands of millions of pilgrims. Islamic tradition states that it fell from Heaven to show Adam and Eve where to build an altar and has often been described as a meteorite.
The sign of the cross or crossing oneself, is a ritual hand motion made by members of many branches of Christianity. The motion is the tracing of the shape of a cross in the air or on one’s own body, echoing the traditional shape of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. There are two principal forms: the older—three fingers, right to left—is exclusively used in the Eastern Orthodox Churches; the other—left to right, other than three fingers—is the one used in the Latin-Rite (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran).
Exorcism is the religious practice of evicting demons (see post: Devils and Demons) or other spiritual entities from a person or place which they are believed to have ‘possessed’ (see post: Execution by Crucifixion). Depending on the spiritual beliefs of the exorcist, this may be done by performing an elaborate ritual, or simply by commanding it to depart in the name of a higher power. The practice is ancient and part of the belief system of many cultures and religions.
All this brings us back to the same question(s) once again: Jesus changing water into wine or Mohammed flying to heaven on Al-Burāq, the ’mythological’ winged horse…Is it reasonable to believe that either of these two ‘events’ are true?
Today, many would say that both of these tales are merely metaphors, storied descriptions of the influence these two men of history had on the world. But, when these stories were first told and even only a few hundred years ago, these tales were taken as real, as ‘gospel’ truth. Does that mean that Christianity and Islam were superstitions at that time and only now are true religions?
And what will be said about today’s beliefs in another two or three hundred years? Will the religious of the future claim that today’s stories of popes and ayatollahs, of missionaries and dedicated nuns are really just metaphors too?
Will they also say that the beliefs that many follow today are ‘superstition’ which eventually (some time in today’s future) became true religion?
*Superstition and religion: subjects of research for the novel The Tao of the Thirteenth God – Amazon Kindle.