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At its core, superstition is treating as God things or persons that are not God. Superstition is a failure in faith and reason. It is a key human pitfall, one that will be around as long as human beings are human, and one we must guard against whatever its source.

“Superstition” is a word encountered with some frequency in historical discussions; yet almost never is it defined. We might read something along the lines of “during the Dark Ages Europe was in the thrall of illiteracy and superstition.” This, it seems to me is to speak in crude and vague generalities. First, in this instance, one should inquire into what “superstition” is, and then one should examine what relation in bears to literacy. The word superstition comes from the Latin root superstitio, meaning something like “to stand beyond or above.” A standard dictionary definition of superstition is “an irrational belief in the ominous significance of particular things,” or “irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.”

Thus, superstition is commonly associated with a tendency of religious folk in prescientific times to explain natural things solely with reference to God, angels, spiritual powers, and the like. Now, it can’t be denied that some common folk probably used religion in this way. But among better-informed believers, those guided by intellect, there was surely a more sophisticated understanding of causes and of the respective functions of religion and natural philosophy.

Those who speak vaguely of superstition in connection with religion, however, tend not to make relevant distinctions. Is the very belief in God and a supernatural dimension of reality “superstitious”? What is the true purpose of religion—regardless of how it may be misunderstood by the unsophisticated? Do religion and science each perform complementary functions? These are surely areas in which both the religious and the secular can often stumble. Before evoking “superstition” as a social force, one ought to define one’s terms and one’s philosophical outlook from the outset, so as to avoid vagueness or misunderstanding.

We are familiar with popular expressions of superstition like lucky charms, occult practices, horoscopes, astrology, and the like. This is essentially to invest spiritual power in things instead of in God. But what of the medals, crosses, and devotional objects carried by Christians? Anyone who is well educated will understand that these are images, bearers of meaning, aids to prayer and recollection. A saint’s medal, for example, is an expression of the believer’s faith and a reminder of the relationship between him and the saint, but no “magic power” resides in the medal itself. If I dive into the lake, I won’t be saved from drowning by virtue of my St. Michael’s medal.

Much pagan religion, for example that of the Greeks and Romans, was inherently superstitious. The pagan votary would, in effect, seek to bribe the gods into giving him particular favors. The Jewish and Christian revelations put an end to this kind of crude religiosity which treats God like some cynical human being.

In its most basic sense, then, superstition is irrational belief. Now, this implies that there is also rational (reasonable) belief. Belief of its very nature involves making a leap of faith. It implies that not all truth is immediately known through reason; and this is undeniable. Thus belief, in and of itself, is not irrational or senseless. We subsist and rely on belief from day to day.

However, there is another sense to superstition, found usually in religious discourse: “unseemly or irreverent worship given to God, or giving to a creature the worship that belongs to God.”

“Unseemly or irreverent worship given to God.” It first glance it might be surprising that worship of God could ever be irreverent; but surely it becomes so if it is insincere or finds its reason for being in the fulfillment of minor external practices (such as repeating a prayer a certain number of times—the “vain repetitions” disapproved by Christ). It’s hard not to notice sometimes among religious people a failure to distinguish between the essential and the subsidiary, between what is an essential object of faith and what is an auxiliary aspect of religiosity. To cite an example that comes to my mind, one might treat a belief in the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as if it were an essential object of faith, when of course it is not.

“Giving a creature the worship that belongs to God.” In a word, idolatry. Now we get to concepts closer and more familiar to us. Idolatry, which at one time took the form of worshipping natural forms or manmade objects as deities, now commonly takes the form of investing a godlike importance to manmade things.

Now we’re warming up. Excessive or misplaced faith in the power of science—what we might call scientism—is surely a form of superstition. This includes an excessive credence in things like statistics and data, in which a kind of salvific power is invested in them. Science deals with the conditions of the material world, not with human happiness or the human soul.

Pope John Paul II wrote, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” One of the ways in which Christianity in particular purified the world of superstition was through its insistence that reality makes sense and can be examined through reason. Scientific materialism, however, has claimed that science can explain all things and is the final word on reality—a magnificent overreach.

“Idolatry of persons” has, I suppose, been part of human history from ancient times, but has become definitely pronounced with the cult of celebrity in the modern era and its auxiliary the mass media. There arises a new political leader who seems (perhaps especially to those who lack a genuine spiritual life) the salvation of the society and all its ills; he is lionized and followed unquestioningly, and all hopes for the future are invested in him. Hence the rise of dictators and demagogues—Hitler, Stalin, etc., etc., etc.

Such an attitude goes back a long way and is not limited to the political world. St. Paul tells of dissention in the early church over rival priests: some wanted to belong to Apollos, others to Paul. Another instance of a perhaps superstitious overattachment to persons. In the late Middle Ages, there emerged a sect of Franciscans who treated the founder, St. Francis of Assisi, as if he were a new Christ; the Church authorities wisely suppressed this.

Examples could be multiplied, but perhaps it suffices to say this: At its core, superstition is treating as God things or persons that are not God. It also can include a failure to see things in proper proportion, giving too much importance to a small part of the whole. As such, superstition is a failure in faith and reason. It is a key human pitfall, one that will be around as long as human beings are human, and one we must guard against whatever its source.

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The featured image is “Looking for the Comet” (between 1830 and 1870) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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