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?
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.