On Superstition

The ancient writer Plutarch (c. 46-127) warned against two excesses in man’s relationship with the divine—“atheism is reason deceived; superstition a passion arising out of false reasoning.” Superstition is actually far removed from worship or devotion. As in occultism, the suppliant is wholly preoccupied with the fantasy of manipulating the spiritual realm in order to achieve power over people, events or circumstances. Such an outlook views divinity mainly as a malignant force. As Chesterton put it

the superstitious man sees quite plainly that the universe is a thing to be feared. The religious man maintains paradoxically that the universe is a thing to be trusted. The awe is certainly the obvious thing… the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom—but not the end.

As we know from Plutarch, superstition preceded Christianity. But given the facts of human nature it has never entirely disappeared. That is why the Church opposed not only crass spiritual fetishism like divining and witchcraft, but also cultus indebitus (the pious vagaries which people intermingle with true religion).

Traditional Christians, Catholics specifically, have long been ridiculed for their “superstitious” behavior. This is due, however, to a confusion between legitimate pious customs and those superfluous or irrational practices described above. It is also because for centuries the only form of Christianity in the west was Roman Catholic. It was thus unavoidable that well-known abuses, though often proscribed by theologians and spiritual directors, took place within a Catholic milieu. This is still the case in cultures like Latin America. Yet the absence of Catholicism has not seen any decline in spiritual absurdities. Agnostics flock to fortune-tellers and astrologers. And among the “reformed,” superstition is manifest in fraudulent “faith healers,” the Prayer of Jabez, the Rapture phenomenon, and other forms of religious enthusiasm. In such cases, one’s real moral disposition is no longer properly connected with happiness in this world, or the next.

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