Saturday, December 02, 2006

Religion and Superstition

It's not uncommon for those who disparage religion to equate it with superstition, thereby robbing religion of all credibility. I mean, what's the difference between believing in carrying a rabbit's foot and believing in God?

If you don't dig religion, it's all the same to you. But if you're actually involved in religion, the difference is pretty clear, even though people are often unable to articulate it.

So I'll articulate it here.

The Superstitious World View

In the view of the superstitious, the world is populated by myriad forces, some of which can cause you harm (and might even want to), and others of which can favor you. These forces are variously characterized as spirits, mojo, luck, fortune, or whatever.

The purpose of superstition is to ward off the bad forces and/or entreat the good forces. Or as Paul Simon said in "The Rhythm of the Saints,"
To overcome an obstacle or an enemy
To glide away from the razor or a knife
To overcome an obstacle or an enemy
To dominate the impossible in your life

Superstition aims to provide its practitioner with control over the natural chaos that is our life in this sphere.

The Religious World View

In the view of the religious, the human soul is populated by myriad forces, some good and some bad. Humans have a devil of a time not succumbing to the bad or lower forces (so to speak) and need contact with the divine to rise above them.

The purpose of religion is spiritual maturity, which is characterized by the elimination of bad impulses to be replaced with good ones.

Religion aims to provide its practitioner with control over one's own soul.

Comparing Superstition and Religion
  • Superstition focuses on the external, religion on the internal.

  • Superstition does not require the practitioner to improve; religion is all about self-improvement.

  • Superstition seeks to control outside forces; religion seeks to control inner forces.

One of the reasons that superstition and religion are so often confused is that many pratitioners of organized religions approach their religion from a superstitious point of view. And some religions contain elements of both real religion and superstition.

For example, Christians used to believe that the sign of the cross would ward off the devil or vampires or whatever evil spirits might be lurking around or that the bone of a saint could produce miracles. To the extent that a religion utilizes material objects such as amulets, tokens, rites, or whatever to ward off evil, they are indulging in superstition.

When I was in Colombia, I observed that for most of those Catholics, prayer was a way to entreat the favor of a saint or the Virgin so that they could avoid some bad event or gain something good. Winning the lottery was a common petition there, and because the lotteries paid out often (but not huge amounts), winning the lottery wasn't particularly rare.

I remember from my studies in Spanish Literature that there was a medieval collection of songs to the Virgin, some of which included rather ribald stories of how the Virgin is way cool because she helped a guy escape from a woman's closet, where he was hiding from her husband. In this case, the worship of the Virgin was tantamount to superstition because there is no interiority involved: she was more like a pal who bails you out of jail rather than someone who could help you along the path to spiritual maturity.

That said, I need to emphasize that I'm not condemning Catholicism in general nor all Catholics, because I know that there are superstitious folks who also participate in organized religion of all sects and denominations: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, or whatever. I just use these examples because I'm familiar with them. I also hasten to emphasize that Catholicism also provides a path to spiritual maturity; it's just that most of the Catholics in Colombia (and in Latin America, I imagine) don't avail themselves of that path. The same applies to adherents of other religions.

I also hasten to add that praying for something good to happen or something bad to not happen is not necessarily superstition; it's only superstition if you think that God is a celestial vending machine — insert prayer, press button, blessing drops into the bin. It's superstition if you use God the same way you'd use a rabbit's foot.

This is the thing: insofar as a person practices a religion for the purposes of acquiring spiritual maturity, that person is practicing true religion. Anyone who attends church or prays or invokes religious symbols or practices for the purpose of warding off evil or invoking favor is superstitious.

Because anyone who practices religion for real knows that being in contact with the divine won't necessarily protect you from bad things or bathe you in good things: junk still happens to you just as it happens to everyone else. The difference is that you look to God to help you through the bad times, to help you make lemonade with your lemons, or to make the best of what you have.

And that's the difference. Any questions?

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