Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Faith and Superstition

In common vernacular superstition is a negative word. It evokes images of voodoo, magic objects, and fetishes. In a milder form in the modern world it might relate to things people carry for luck, such as a rabbit’s foot, or things they wear for protection, such as a cross necklace or the evil eye, or holding certain beliefs about the nature of the universe. Faith, on the other hand, is a positive word, and evokes such acceptable images in a democratic society as family worship in a synagogue, or men praying prostrate in a mosque, or people in pews praying and singing hymns together in a church sanctuary. Nevertheless, the definitions of the words reveal that, as concepts, faith and superstition are similar ways of thinking. Here are the Google definitions for religious faith and superstition. Religious faith is: “A strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.”1 Superstition is defined as: “An excessive credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.”2 God, Allah, and Yahweh, as generally conceived by religious people, are all supernatural “beings.” Why should not Christian, Muslim, and Jewish beliefs in supernatural “beings” also be regarded as superstition? Many, if not most, people in these three religious groups also share a belief in supernatural spirits. Why should not such beliefs also be labeled superstition?

            I confess that the close similarity between faith and superstition, as revealed by the definitions of the words, has always surprised me and have described their relationship as follows:

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 [or a continuum] with superstition at one end and religious faith at the other end. They 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.3

In short, superstition and faith are the same mental exercise. That one is negative and the other positive depends on who is doing the evaluating. In my view, however, they can only be judged good or bad in how they affect believers. In other words, religious faith and superstitious beliefs may only be judged positively or negatively in terms of their ethical effects on believers. Where the behaviors of believers are judged unethical or harmful to themselves or others, their beliefs are best judged as superstition. Where the behaviors of believers are judged to be ethical and beneficial to themselves or others, their beliefs are best judged as faith.

            Google offers a second definition of superstition: “A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such belief.”4 This definition fits a short episode in Acts 19:11-12:

And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul. So that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them” (RSV).

This episode in the Bible (and others as well; for example Acts 5:15-16) immediately plunge one into the occult world of ancient magic, superstition, and religious fetishes.5 The Bible has many similar accounts fitting the Google definition of superstition; they offer encouragement to contemporary Christian and Jewish believers to think and act superstitiously. The Bible contributes to superstitious beliefs in the modern world because many take it as a handbook for understanding the universe.

How do you define superstition and faith? Where do you draw the line between faith and superstition?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For the definition of faith, google: “definition of faith.”

2For the definition of superstition, google: “definition of superstition.”

3Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 5. There are various explanations of superstition in Graeco-Roman antiquity, see pages 1-12.

4Google: “definition of superstition.”

5Hedrick, Unmasking, 7-10.


Anonymous said...

Howdy, Charlie
I see the words as more or less synonymous. When I make sauerkraut I start it when the moon’s sign is high, because grandma & grandpa told me that if you begin it when the sign is in the belly or below like today, since it’s in Libra, it will not ferment correctly and will taste horrible. That is a superstition, but it harms no one, it is passing down tradition, and the kraut is delicious. It, like other forms of faith and superstitious beliefs, when “put into action,” is or can become “tradition.”

Not all faith or superstitious beliefs put into action are innocuous. The superstition or faith that “God” has chosen a certain ruler, nation or people, for instance, has caused no end of suffering when it has been “put into action” to promote imperialism, subjugation or enslavement of others, even genocide. (That superstition, interesting to me, is far older than the Bible.) Anyway, I’ll keep making my sauerkraut when the signs are high, a superstition practiced not because I have faith that it keeps the kraut from spoiling but a tradition in memory of my grandparents, who taught me the recipe and technique.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

"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."

"Religious faith is: 'A strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.' Superstition is defined as: 'An excessive credulous belief in and reverence for supernatural beings.' "

"Why should not Christian, Muslim, and Jewish beliefs in supernatural 'beings' also be regarded as superstition?"

People who are obsessed with labels are also obsessed with other people's beliefs. When they are confronted with beliefs they deem to be inferior to their own- it's labeled as superstition... Another term they use is"myth"... In their view, all religious beliefs are founded upon ignorance rather than fact. Beliefs are nothing more than strongly held opinions, judgements, and conclusions. The author seems to think that certain beliefs carry the same weight as facts. As it turns out, beliefs are not facts.

The popular term today is misinformation... Important question is, where do people get the information upon which they form a belief? Many today want an approved set of data sites that are agreed upon as being the authoritative source of information and dissent is not tolerated. Even in religious circles, dissent is not tolerated. There's one set of facts and everyone has to sign onto them.

We will always live in a society where we're judged by our beliefs. That will never change. Once you form a belief, you've formed a judgement and your mind is closed.

That's why beliefs are not an important contribution to the truth. Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

I'm thinking that faith and superstition can be major contributors to the perception of one's personal identity. Folks, particularly insecure ones, will do most anything to fight off the threats to how they view themselves.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

You’re onto something. Here is a secular take about “identity development.” While belief or faith is personal, it is also corporate, engrained in cultures. “Belief” is not only what one believes, but how one receives, perceives, and actualizes the belief. What does one believe about oneself and others? How is one’s identity constructed? Multi-cultural education addresses this. Does one construct one’s identity primarily by “thinking less of” and rejecting those of other ethnic or racial cultures based on false stereotypical beliefs or does one develop one’s identity by accepting one’s cultural identity by understanding both its positive and negative attributes? One has to get past false cultural beliefs that negatively stereotype different groups and understand the positives and negatives of his or her group before one can form a positive self-identity (i.e., one grounded in cohesion, working toward a just society).

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

It's impossible to have a discussion about faith and superstition and identity without first defining the foundation upon which all three are based- and that is belief. Belief has two primary definitions: 1) To accept or regard something as true. 2) To hold something as an opinion. 2 + 2 = 4 doesn't require belief. I don't need to "believe" the answer is 4. I know the answer is four. Knowing something and believing something are two completely different concepts.

Judgmental people are very strongly identified with their beliefs- and as such, with their opinions. However, they bristle at being told their beliefs are nothing more than strongly held opinions. They don't want to hear, it's an insult to their intellect. Nonetheless, scholars take great pride in their opinions because in their judgement, it's based in "fact." Not superstition!

Is the bible a book of faith or superstition? Either way, it's just someone's opinion. Maybe it's not a good idea to identify with something so judgmental. Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

I write something, hit “publish,” and poof! It goes off into the netherworld, never to be seen again. I decide the fates have intervened and saved me from making a fool of myself—not that I’m superstitious!

I do not see faith and superstition as wholly synonymous, although I think the two are closely aligned. I like your idea of a continuum, Charlie. I might draw that as a circle with a tiny gap between the two words. I checked several on-line dictionaries and was struck by the bias in the definitions of the two terms. .One definition of faith is, “a strong belief in something or someone for which there is no proof.” The same source defines superstition as, “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Faith is positive, but superstition is negative. I couldn’t help but notice the references to Voodoo, spiritualism, evil eye, etc., in the definitions for superstition, all negative terms and all usually associated with the religious practices of people of color. So much for multiculturalism.

Faith doesn’t require an action; superstition usually does. A person’s faith might include superstitions: covering mirrors following a death, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, etc.

Of course individuals think what they do or don’t believe is “right.” Why else would they believe it? We have only one perspective when viewing the world—our own. We are naturally self centered. Maybe the best we can hope for is to recognize that this is true of all humans. The problem seems to arise when we label someone else’s belief as superstition.

To paraphrase Paul Tillich, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”


Anonymous said...

I was thinking of some of the “neutral” superstitious beliefs relating to “natural phenomena” from around here, maybe other areas. Here are a few.
The width of the stripe on the wooly bear (a caterpillar found in the fall) determines the harshness of the winter.
It will snow three months after the crickets quit chirping.
If the snow lingers on the ground for three days, there will be another snow.
Crappie won’t bite if you talk when fishing for them. (That may have merely been a way for the older folks to keep us youngsters quiet, since I only heard it as a kid.)

Those are superstitions that are engrained as “traditional beliefs” for some older people I have known, neither seen negatively nor positively by most who have at the least a sense of humor. They are also predictive, not prescriptive. Religious views, purporting to also be prescriptive, are not so neutral. They seem to have several variables that engage the hearer in the haze of hope and fear, the behavior modification of future positive & negative reinforcement, but perhaps more than that, they have narratives associated that become object lessons. There are other factors, like the view by some of their religious canon (Jewish, Christian or Muslim) being “the word of God,” with which the oral tradition of “superstition” can’t compete. Perhaps religious faith is merely superstitious faith codified.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

I appreciate the quote from Paul Tillich. The older I get, the more I question my beliefs. I no longer trust people who are a little too certain of their judgments and opinions- because they refuse to see things from another person's perspective. If there's no openness in the person talking to me, I usually gravitate elsewhere. I prefer openness to certainty.

In my church experience, friends would cling desperately to their faith because they wanted that certainty... To them, faith was a substitute for certainty. "if you'd had more faith, then this would have turned out better... Where's your faith?" Everyone's looking for something they can hold onto, something they can be certain of. They want a guarantee that if I believe this religious scripture- then I'm protected from evil.

Funny how when you let go of needing be certain of everything, you start to trust life more... And then you start to experience life in a different way.

Once you make up your mind about how life should and shouldn't work- your mind is closed. Elizabeth