As children of Descartes, westerners tend to think of the world in scientific terms. That may account for the increasing secularization of the culture. People are less likely to turn to religion for answers and more likely to turn to science. There is thought to be a vast chasm between religion and science and one must choose one or the other. That position is often based on the experience of the individual. The religious people that they have encountered and the religious sects to which they were exposed were exceedingly superstitious and always looking with disfavor on science. In many cases, religion and science are fundamentally incompatible. But that is not necessary. In this article, I would like to explain how to practice religion without being superstitious.
When I refer to superstition, I am basically okay with the dictionary’s definition of the word. Superstition is to assent to a belief that is not based on one’s knowledge or deduced from their cognitive faculties. It is based on emotion. It can manifest as an irrational fear or even blind creedalism. But as I attempt to show in this article, we should be able to cut this sort of thinking out of our religion and still preserve the truths of Christian theology. In fact, one could isolate superstitious thinking and be a practicing member of almost any of the world’s religions. But being a Christian, I will focus on the Christian faith.
Reflection Upon Beliefs
Many people never learn to think in concepts. They only think about what is right in front of them. They cannot conceive of what the world might be like if they were wrong. For example, think of a worldview to which you do not subscribe. Now attempt to describe what the world would be like if that worldview were true. If you can only think of wild-eyed exaggerations that would render that worldview palpably silly, then you might not be very good at thinking in terms of concepts and contrasting different possibilities.
Your beliefs about the world should evolve as your maturity and research expands. Somebody who reflects on what she beliefs will be willing to correct herself when she finds that she is wrong or to amend her view accordingly. A superstitious person would likely opt for blind creedalism, which is to say that he would accept a system of beliefs without question or reflection. It would fit the atheist meme of the Christian who never allows a bit of doubt to seep in. His faith would be something like a house of cards that needs to be vigilantly protected. But the non-superstitious religious person – she would not be afraid of doubt. She might indulge it to see what emerges. She would confront her doubt directly and see if her beliefs prevail.
The Devil Made Me Do It
Christian theology describes an unseen realm with rivaling wills and attempts to drive human activity for their preferred agenda. This will include invisible angels, demons, gods and spirits. Yet the extent to which the unseen realm has influence is often exaggerated. Many of us have heard of the expression, “A demon in every bush,” which is to say that people will perceive everything that they do as a constant spiritual struggle, even in trivialities such as conversations on the Internet. People will accuse somebody with whom they disagree of being under the influence of some unseen spiritual force.
The problem with attributing everything to the unseen realm is not that there is no unseen realm. It is that it is difficult to discern whether something is a product of the unseen realm. Perhaps the person with whom you disagree is just mistaken. If there are other, plausible explanations available, and the unseen realm is a superfluous addition, then there is no reason to give assent to that belief. For somebody to give assent to it would seem to be a little too superstitious for my taste. Yet you can believe in the unseen realm without being superstitious about it. You would just need discernment.
Consider a deist. A deist is somebody who believes that God created the universe and then stepped back, not interacting in any significant way since the initial singularity. In this person’s perspective, an unseen realm would exist (the realm where God is, even if God exists alone). Based on this example alone, we may say that it is possible to believe in at least a minimal unseen realm without being superstitious, because in this case, the unseen realm does not engage at all with the seen realm. But on Christian theology, the unseen realm is broader. Yet even believing in angels, demons, gods, and spirits, one could still not be superstitious. Think of the person who believed the proposition, “Angels, demons, gods and spirits exist, but they do not interact with the affairs of men in any discernible way.” Yet suppose we tweak the proposition a little to make a caveat – they do interact, but we should be skeptical of whether the unseen realm is making an appearance if there are better explanations. That should be how the religious person conceives of the unseen realm.
Discerning Between Coincidences And Signs
As a Christian, I believe that God is sovereign over the affairs of men, guides the direction of the world, upholds the universe and declared the beginning from the end. In an ultimate sense, one could say that there are no coincidences because everything, at least minutely, contributes to the unfolding of the divine decree. But the fact that there are no coincidences in this ultimate sense does not mean that there would not be coincidences from our perspective. A coincidence from our perspective would be a concurrence of events that have no causal connection. While they may have a connection in an ultimate sense, that is not to say that their connection is relevant in the way that we perceive.
For example, suppose you had a dream that you encountered a man with a broken leg. The next day, you saw a man with a broken leg. While both of these events were foreknown, they are not necessarily connected in any significant way. It is a coincidence. A superstitious person would be vulnerable to perceiving these two isolated events as having significance in his life. Suppose after seeing the man with the broken leg, he sees a sign about something unrelated that read, “Now, it’s your turn.” The superstitious person would connect the dream, the man, and the sign, and conclude that he needed to break his own leg.
While this might sound silly, superstitious people do often make arbitrary connections such as this and make decisions based on them. They will talk about how they were wondering what path they should take in their life, when all of the sudden, at that very moment, they saw a church or an advertisement for some seminar. In Christian theology, God generally does not communicate with us through obscure signs. He moves on the heart of the unbeliever and inclines her heart toward righteousness and to surrender herself to Christ. He also communicates through his word. But obscure signs are better to be interpreted as coincidences.
Don’t Go Around Saying That God Spoke To You
Some preachers have made a joke of this sort of thing. They will say that when somebody says that God spoke to them, they reply, “Which chapter and verse?” There is something worthy about this response. Protestants believe in what is known as sola scriptura, which is to say that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian church. If God is providing private revelations, then those private revelations would have to be infallible, too. God is speaking, after all. This would bind the conscience of the person to whom he is speaking to believe and obey what is being said. This would seem to violate the doctrine of sola scriptura.
But my issue with this practice is not only theological. It is that there is often no reason to believe that God spoke to the individual. People often describe their personal interactions with God as thoughts that are occurring in their own mind. The man will ask a question and then they will believe that God responded within the confines of their mind. But there is a perfectly satisfying explanation that does not involve divine communication, namely that this person is just attributing their own personal thoughts to God. It is pretty obvious why somebody would do that. It is comforting to think that God is communicating with them directly. It can also make people feel important. But succumbing to a superfluous belief just because it is comforting is to be superstitious.
Skepticism About Miracle Stories
Everybody has heard one. Your friend has a relative who swears up and down that they saw a miracle at their church. Perhaps you heard a story of something that happened to missionaries in Africa. Stories of miracles are not unique to any one religion. There are Muslims who will claim that they were healed during the Call To Prayer. Christians will claim that they were healed when they were baptized. Missionaries from different religions will return home with collections of stories about what they saw. Their congregants will listen intently as the alleged miracles help to reinforce their faith.
But for many of us, miracle stories without significant attestation will be received with a heavy dose of skepticism. Perhaps what the person who told the story is not mentioning that they are delivering a second-hand account. Perhaps they misinterpreted something because they wanted so badly to see a miracle. Perhaps they are just lying. There are plenty of reasons that somebody would lie about performing a miracle. It will give their ministry an air of authenticity and authority. People will esteem them as holy. That is to say that there are so many possible explanations of miracles that we would be wise to be skeptical of miracle stories unless there is powerful attestation. There are some miracles that I do think have powerful attestation, such as the existence of the universe. But absent powerful attestation, the wise person likely would not give assent lest she be branded as superstitious.
How To Practice Religion Without Being Superstitious
There are more elements of superstitious belief that I could have specified. I could have included the controversial practice of speaking in tongues, ghosts, “anointing,” etc., but this is not meant to be an exhaustive catalog of superstitious beliefs. I just want to provide a glimpse of superstitious thinking so that readers can attempt to identify and expunge it when it emerges. But with this assessment, one might ask what we even have left. If I have eliminated miracle stories, “the Lord told me so,” blind creedalism, and vulnerability to the unseen realm, what sort of Christianity do we have?
I think that we are left with a more thoughtful and reflective faith. I still believe in an unseen realm, but I am not constantly worried about demon gods. I believe in miracles, but I do not believe in miracles that I cannot verify or somebody that I trust cannot verify. Similarly, I also believe that God speaks to people, personally and directly, through his inspired word. The Holy Spirit can inspire somebody to believe, for example, that the Bible has to be true, and this would constitute a warranted belief. So one can maintain pure Christian theology and all of her piety without giving in to superstitious thinking.
Further, I should point out that this is not necessarily an apologetic, defending Christian theology against charges of superstitious thinking. It might be able to function like that, but if I were doing that, I would have written this a little differently. This post is instead meant to serve as a guide for Christians about identifying and expunging superstitious thinking from their religious practice and piety.
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