Adapted from the Introduction to Unmasking Biblical Faiths, pages 4-6.*
Is there a qualitative difference between superstition and religion? Perhaps, there is, but you will be the arbiter. Today superstition is defined several ways: as “a belief, conception, act, or practice resulting from ignorance; as unreasoning fear of the unknown or mysterious scrupulosity; as trust in magic or chance”; or as “a belief affording the relief of an anxiety by means of an irrational notion.”
Superstition (Greek: deisidaimonia; Latin: superstitio) in the Greco-Roman period, however, is defined somewhat differently; it is “a free citizen’s forgetting his dignity by throwing himself into the servitude of deities conceived as tyrants…Thus the superstitious were supposed to submit themselves to exaggerated rituals, to adhere in credulous fashion to prophecies and to allow themselves to be abused by charlatans.” Plutarch in contrasting the atheist and superstitious person wrote:
Superstition…is an emotional idea, and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man, for he thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the Divinity, whereas the superstitious man is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted.
Cicero contrasted religion and superstition in this way: superstition “implies a groundless fear of the gods,” and religion “consists in piously worshipping them.” In the Roman period superstition (superstitio) also came to have the idea of “bad religion,” a label by which a dominant religious group might libel a minority religious group.
The term superstition (deisidaimonia) appears only twice in the New Testament (Acts 17:22; 25:19) and to judge from Greek lexicons it is a general term for religion or excessive religious scrupulosity, which generally agrees with the judgments of Greco-Roman writers. On the other hand, religious belief by modern definition is generally seen as something quite similar to superstition, differing only in a negative evaluation given to the latter and a positive evaluation given to the former. Today faith is generally defined as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” or “a firm or unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof.” Judging from their definitions, faith and superstition actually seem to function in a similar manner. What I conclude from the shades of meaning accorded the word superstition is that superstition and faith are not two qualitatively different kinds of belief. Rather they reflect a range of similar attitudes best represented by a spectrum with superstition at one end and religious belief at the other end. They presumably meet somewhere around the middle, depending on who is describing the middle point. In short, what some define as acceptable religious belief, others will define as unacceptable superstition.
The modern definition of superstition casts doubt on much of what one finds in the Bible. For example, much of what one finds in the Bible demands a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first- century person. Educated persons will recognize that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities and hence clash with the way things usually work in the world. For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in 2 Kings (chapters 2–13) one finds among other stories of the same sort the story of an iron ax-head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1–7). Elisha, described as “the man of God,” supposedly caused the ax-head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim that the ax-head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states, an object will float if its weight is equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces. The weight of an iron ax-head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of modern physics. In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief. A true believer in biblical “miracles,” however, will claim an exception to the laws of physics by arguing that God intervenes into the way things usually work in the world to accomplish God’s desired ends, and hence this incident actually occurred. Should one describe the belief that the ax-head actually floated as superstition?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Charles W. Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019. See pages 4-6 of the introduction for the documentations to this segment.