Seeing religious practices as superstitions is a common atheistic attitude. Could our contemporaries be reacting to superstitious attitudes they perceive in us?
A contemporary government official, in a high-profile speech, once enthused about the benefits and powers of science.
She also spoke disparagingly about people who believe that "personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations," and people who are "still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process, let alone, oh my goodness, a random process."
The unfortunate implication was that faith in God as the origin of being is comparable to astrology and superstition.
Is faith really only superstition? Is it as incompatible with scientific knowledge as this speaker suggests?
The question is alive today. So is superstition, though we may not always recognize it.
"Very superstitious writings on the wall/ ... ladder's 'bout to fall/ Thirteen-month-old baby broke the looking glass." So went Stevie Wonder's wonderful song, "Superstition." Decades later, our "evidence-based," "science-supported" society still doesn't need any explanation of the superstitions he lists: We know them all and if we aren't clinging to these, we have others at the ready.
Seeing religious practices as superstitions is a common atheistic attitude. Could our contemporaries be reacting to superstitious attitudes they perceive in us? Like most atheistic attitudes, it's also a believer's suspicion about ourselves. Our doubt whispers, sometimes: Is it all just made up? Am I creating and manipulating God to serve my own ends?
But how do we tell when we're indulging in superstition? Is avoiding the 13th floor different from regulated religious activities like praying a novena, hanging on to a rosary, tithing, reading a daily Scripture passage, meditating regularly?
What is the difference between a novena that is faith, and a novena that is superstition?
And if superstition "ain't the way," as the song percolates into us, what is? The singer doesn't answer but leaves us right in the middle of the dilemma. It's a tough question, because superstition is a long-standing human response to our fundamental condition, in at least two ways.
First, superstition is a protection from emptiness, the abyss that's always on the edges. Perhaps we have tasted this lurking abyss during the pandemic; with the radical loss of activities and supports -- suddenly available nowhere in the world -- the abyss glimmers.
We may not turn to look at it directly, but we can't escape awareness of it. What then? Our structures, activities, rituals, even the best of them, can become merely self-protection against the emptiness we all know.
At some point, everyone of us has to drop into that abyss, at death if not before, when at last we lean into the emptiness and discover whether there is nothing, or there is God.
Second, superstition is a way to take to ourselves the power we attribute to God, but deep down don't trust. The curious story (Mk 11:12-25 and parallels) of Jesus cursing the figless fig tree can reinforce this distrust of God. Finding no figs, Jesus curses it and the tree withers. If he had all power, could he not have forced the tree to bear fruit? Was he demonstrating arbitrary power just to scare people?
Yet the fig tree story shows us God: His desire that we be fruitful in the ways we were created for. He doesn't curse the fig tree for not bearing grapefruit. Nor does God create and then depart (another common human fear). Rather, God's creativity is in every moment, sustaining and giving life continually. "Take away their breath, they perish" (Ps 104:29); but he doesn't. Our very being witnesses God's power and goodness.
We can't self-divinize. But we can let our yearning bear fruit.
Stevie Wonder, apparently, didn't plan to write a song about superstition. He heard the rhythm and melody emerging from within him, let it come forth and take shape, and in that process words came. In difficult times, he explained, "false beliefs don't help." Trust in God does.
Faith is a relationship, which needs to be expressed. It touches our fears and longings, but in context of freedom. Superstition also seeks the divine but does not trust the relationship. It uses symbols and acts to manipulate the relationship, instead of entering into a divine-human dialogue.
Manipulating the mystery is not faith, but superstition. Seeking security above mystery, superstition loses both. Superstition seeks to take away the freedom from God. By seeking control, it tries to become God above God.
A prayer that tries to control God can be superstitious; a prayer that struggles, like Jacob with the angel, and lives the outcome of that encounter, gives faith.
Faith and superstition can look the same, but they are radically opposed. Superstition is a mechanical replacement for relationship, with one person manipulating the other. Faith, says Olivier Clement, is what happens between two people. Faith, says St. Maximus the Confessor, is a relationship, when freedom is at the core of being of each.
Can we take the risk to weed out superstitions and let faith in?
MARY MARROCCO IS A COLUMNIST WITH THE CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE.