I’ve been banging on about unhealthy religion, with the premise that it’s we that are more or less healthy, rather than religion per se.
Incidentally, it doesn’t really matter to my argument whether religion is an evolutionary by-product or the genuine reflection of reality I believe it to be. In fact, there’s no inherent dichotomy between the two – they’re not mutually exclusive positions. What I strongly reject is the idea that religion is merely man-made; it would I think be more reasonable to argue that humans are religion-made. Whether God or evolution (or both) hardwired us this way, we are inherently religious beings (see ‘Born to believe?’).
One of the less healthy forms our basic religious instinct takes is superstition. To this extent I agree with the New Atheists – where I disagree is that they view all religion as groundless superstition (and that they claim to be entirely free from religion themselves). Indeed, it was the ability of Christianity to liberate me from the superstition which had dogged me for most of my life (including many years of nominal churchgoing) that in part persuaded me that here at last I’d found the genuine article.
Having said that though, there can be a lot of superstition in our approach to and practice of the Christian faith – again, the problem is with us, not with Christianity itself.
What is superstition? I’d say that it’s characterised by fearfulness and magical (as opposed to rational) thinking, coupled with a belief in good and bad luck (or benevolent and baleful influences). So on the one hand there’s often a fear of particular objects, words, numbers, events or actions that are thought to bring bad luck; and on the other there’s a reliance on talismans, charms, mantras or ritual actions to attract good luck and ward off evil.
Bad luck is often associated with ‘the evil eye’, a malevolent spiritual force which is always on the lookout to cause mischief and harm; or else with demons, spirits, gods or ancestors who have to be appeased. Good luck may be associated with benevolent spiritual forces such as angels. But almost always the fear seems to be stronger; the bad luck trumps the good.
We’re all superstitious
I believe that a superstitious element is part of the psychological make-up of all humans, stemming partly from our childhood experiences and perhaps also partly from the primal and pre-scientific part of our evolutionary heritage – the childhood of our species if you like.
When we were young children, most of us were irrationally afraid of the dark, or avoided walking on the cracks in the pavement, or had particular ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ numbers or objects, or little rituals and phrases to keep us safe. For children, with limited understanding of the world and depending almost entirely on adult protection, the world can sometimes seem fearful and unpredictable, full of unknown perils which become the monsters of nightmares and superstitious terrors. For some (like me), these superstitious fears and protective rituals can develop into a form of OCD, which in many ways is a psychological self-defence strategy to provide rudimentary (though ineffectual) boundaries and protective barriers though the use of anxiety-relieving rituals and repetitive litanies.
Of course, many otherwise rational and even atheist adults retain elements of superstition and ritual, for example touching wood, crossing fingers, asking to be ‘wished luck’, having a lucky number or item of jewellery, not walking under ladders, etc.
A recent trip to Lyme Regis was enough to remind me that superstition is alive and well under the New Age guise. In one of the town’s rock and fossil shops, every basket of stones and crystals was labelled with a legend like ‘thought to attract positive energy’ or ‘aids thought / helps with emotional issues / clears the bowels’ (I may be paraphrasing slightly). The scientist in me wanted to ask what tests they’d conducted to arrive at these conclusions. I’m pretty sure the majority of people who buy these stones don’t fully believe in their powers; for most there’s a kind of ‘well, it might work and it can’t hurt’ mentality – the more rational end of superstition if you like. I used to share an office with an agnostic ex-Catholic scientist who had a postcard of the Pope and a little statue of the Buddha on his desk, just to cover both bases (albeit largely in jest).
Superstition and religion
The more primitive and magical religions often seem to be merely a more spiritualised version of childhood superstition, though some are far more sinister. I recently read some BBC articles about Ugandan ‘juju’, and the kidnapping of children by ‘traditional healers’ (aka witch doctors) for blood rituals and even child sacrifices intended to bring good fortune and ward off evil. It’s horrifying stuff that seems to belong to another era, but it’s still very much active in the world.
It’s not just primitive or animist religions that are prone to superstition and magical thinking though; it’s a danger for all religions, even the most enlightened and sophisticated. Superstition and religion are both elements of the human psyche. They are not in fact the same, but they can all too easily get mixed up together, with inevitably unhappy results. (On the other side of the scale, reason and rationalism can become just as unhappily entangled.)
The tricky part is that almost any harmless element of life and of religion can become superstitious if it’s approached in a fearful or ritualistic way. Rituals, ceremonies and forms of words are a normal and often helpful part of community life; but there’s a key difference between ritual and ritualistic. The rituals and liturgies of most Christian denominations aren’t inherently superstitious, but at the same time any of them can become superstitious. For example:
- Making the sign of the cross to ward off evil (as though the mere shape of the cross somehow has power in itself, or as though demons are so scared of it that they’ll flee at the sight)
- Reciting the Lord’s prayer repetitively and without meaning or thought (or saying ten Hail Marys and fifteen Our Fathers)
- Saying ‘in Jesus’ name’ at the end of every prayer; mindlessly repeating religious set phrases like ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Praise God!’
- Opening the Bible at random and seeing what verse comes up as though consulting an oracle or horoscope
- Reading random everyday events as spiritual signs; interpreting every minor misfortune as God’s judgement or an attack of the devil
- Regarding certain words or phrases as inherently powerful or dangerous, regardless of the speaker’s intent (e.g. I was once told not to say ‘blimey’ because it means ‘may God blind me’); fearing that words can invoke evil (‘speak of the devil and he pops up his horns’)
- Treating certain objects, places or days with veneration, as though they had special power for good or ill
- Being afraid of exposure to (say) Harry Potter or Halloween for fear of malign spiritual influences.
Of course, many of these things can be absolutely fine if done meaningfully and with good intent rather than in a superstitious way. There’s nothing wrong with people crossing themselves as a sign of devotion, or saying the Lord’s prayer, or using the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’. It’s when they’re done mindlessly or fearfully – superstitiously – that there starts to be a problem.
Now I do actually believe that there are spiritual forces for good and evil abroad in the world; I’ve had some pretty terrifying encounters with the dark side of spirituality in the past, so I’m not wishing to downplay this reality. But when we think or act superstitiously we accredit these things with far more power and presence and influence than they really have. The world does contain many dangers, some spiritual, some material, many a mixture of both. But if we’re in Christ we don’t need to live in fear. (That’s part of what I was trying to get at in my recent piece on engaging with Halloween rather than running away.)
The mystery of the broken-down bus
As a postscript, it’s worth recording that just as I was typing “interpreting every minor misfortune as God’s judgement or an attack of the devil” above, my bus broke down; we all had to get off and get on another one, making me late home (and having to pay twice for the privilege). This was exactly the kind of minor misfortune which it would be very easy to attribute to spiritual causes, particularly given the coincidental timing.
So was it an attack of the devil, a divine practical joke, or just a meaningless coincidence? I’ve no idea, but either way it was a minor inconvenience and hardly worth getting superstitiously worked up about. Perhaps the devil does like to play annoying little tricks on us; I hope not, but either way superstitious fearfulness isn’t likely to help matters. Indeed, if the devil does exist and operate in this way, this kind of fearfulness surely plays into his hands and is exactly what he wants. Trusting in Christ, I want to choose to live free from fear even if the devil is real and active; what kind of a life is it otherwise?