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Copyright © 2001
Ryan J. Haase
1. WHAT IS SUPERSTITION?
Superstition is defined as
any belief or attitude that is inconsistent with the known laws of science or with what is generally considered in the particular society as true and rational; especially, such a belief in charms, omens, the supernatural, etc." It is also "any action or practice based on such a belief or attitude (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language).
2. CONCRETE AND ABSTRACT SUPERSTITIONS
Based on these two definitions, superstition can be categorized as both concrete and abstract. Concrete superstition would relate to the belief itself, a belief that is not founded on the reasonable concepts of the world and human life. Abstract superstition is related more to the disposition to attribute normal everyday occurrences to the spiritual or occult. Within the idea of abstract superstition, we could define superstition as a readiness to accept unverified statements regarding the supernatural interference in this world.
An interesting thing to note about superstition nowadays is that it is not considered "cool" to be superstitious. Because of that, a person may not recognize superstitious actions coming from themselves, but are quick to point fingers at others and consider them superstitious.
3. SUPERSTITIONS - PRESENT AND PAST
Superstitious practices as we know them today, especially those practiced in the western world are considerably different from those practiced originally. It is important to realize that most, if not all, superstitious practices can be traced back several thousand years. In ancient times, superstition was a lot more widespread than it is today.
The reason for this was mainly the ingenuity regarding scientific explanations for many of the simple things of life. The fact that a flower could grow from a little seed was considered to have something supernatural about it, because they didn't understand how the seed worked. With the advancement of technology and subsequent scientific progress, superstitious belief has sharply declined.
Though all sciences were originally born out of theories, some even strange, superstition never had any reasonable beliefs. In the ancient world, superstition was common even among the Greeks, who were known for their intellect. With time, skepticism took its toll, but in the end it paved the way for more superstition with its exaggerated idea of the impossibility of any kind of certainty.
In the medieval times, the Church rooted out the most conspicuous superstitious beliefs. In fact, it is a fact that most of the heresies that the Church had to deal with were riddled with superstition. But even though the major superstitions had been rooted out for the most part, the more innocent ones persisted. These would include things such as the belief in fairies, knocking on wood, etc.
During the Renaissance and Reformation period, the influence of superstition suffered a severe blow, and was almost wiped out completely. However, superstition persisted stubbornly in men's hearts. When man has not intelligible reasoning for something, he always wants to know more about the supernatural and spiritual world, and will very readily and willingly submit to any authority that has a traditional and even maybe a divine sanction.
In the past century, superstitious beliefs have suffered another large decline due primarily to the rise of education that is more intertwined with science. Our educational system deals more with the scientific, and though it makes a good case for the spiritual significance of life, it is by no means compatible with superstition. The reason is that by definition, superstition is unreasonable.
4. SUPERSTITION AND BLAME GAME
Most superstitions can be traced back in time to when ancient people had no understanding of the natural world, as we know it. Not knowing the laws of nature, superstition naturally arose from ignorance and fear. And most superstitions that began thousands of years ago still persist in our society today. Some people still believe in little people such as elves or leprechauns. Belief in these imaginary people gives them someone to blame when evil happens. They assume it's the leprechauns playing pranks.
5. SUPERSTITIONS IN AMERICA AND AROUND THE WORLD
An important note is that superstition has no power outside what our thinking gives it. Superstition as we know it here in America takes seemingly innocent forms such as carrying around a rabbit's foot. These superstitious practices are very common in our country. This is the kind of superstition that I would like to focus on for this essay.
Every country in the world has its superstitious beliefs. Every people group has its set of beliefs. In fact, it is hard to find an individual even among the Christians that doesn't have some sort of superstitious belief. We may even practice it subconsciously, but nevertheless, it is practiced. It is easy for us to view other cultures as superstitious, or to view other individuals as superstitious, but when it comes to us, we tend to put it in other terms or simply not acknowledge what we do as superstitious.
There are many superstitions practiced here in America that we do subconsciously, and most of them we have no idea why we do them. My question is if we would continue to practice them if we knew how they came about. All of these superstitions that I want to point out now have been passed down as tradition, and we unknowingly practice them. Most of us don't know the meaning behind them either.
6. COUNTLESS SUPERSTITIONS AROUND US
There are many other countless superstitions all around us, many of which we don't even notice or recognize as superstitious. Superstition is attached to countless things in our everyday life, and most of it is simply tradition passed on from ancient beliefs. They started because of ignorance or fear of a certain fact, and not that we know better, we still are superstitious. They may have started as a folk religious belief, and we practice it out of ignorance. The reason is, for the most part, tradition. Most people who practice tradition have no clue why they're doing what they're doing. They do it because their parents and grandparents did it. And that is how it works most of the time with superstition.
Because of the fact that most of us do not accept our culture as superstitious, we believe that there are no superstitions among us. As I pointed out, we practice superstition every day in America, even when we bless somebody after a sneeze.
7. SUPERSTITIONS AMONG THE BELIEVERS
Superstition is also found among the believers. The Bible speaks about Peter's shadow falling on people and they would get healed. This was a genuine miracle, but today we have Christians practicing this in an attempt to reproduce the miracle in a miraculous way. When the Bible speaks of Paul's handkerchief healing people, we are talking of a unique miracle. Today in America we have the anointed cloth ministry, where a minister prays over the cloth and sends it to the sick person so they might be healed. In Brazil, where I was brought up, there is the anointed water ministry. The minister on television tells people to get a glass of water and put it on the TV set. When the time comes he prays over the water, so that when you drink it you might be healed. There are many other such happenings among the Christians. These things that may have happened in the Bible as an incredible display of God's power have become superstitious today.
8. ROLE OF TRADITION
Why do people of some Christian denominations bow to images when the Bible says not to? They say it's not wrong and so they do it. I won't say it's superstitious, but it's definitely tradition. A long time ago, a practice was developed to make the images to help people focus on God, but with time, people started praying to the images themselves. Any attempt to remove the images from these places of worship now would be very difficult, if not impossible. It may not be superstition yet, but that is how superstitions start: tradition.
9. VIRTUALLY EVERYTHING CAN BE USED TO SUPPORT SUPERSTITIONS
As we saw from the illustrations of superstitions in America, we can use virtually anything to create superstition, and superstition is associated with virtually everything you can imagine. Some of the things that are associated with superstition are the heavenly bodies, a large variety of animals, such as the rabbit, household items, such as tables and mirrors, days of the week, special holidays such as Halloween, acts such as stepping on cracks, saying things at the same time, etc. There are endless things in our culture associated with superstition.
A rabbit foot key chain looks nice, but it is associated with superstition. The ancients liked the way the rabbit's feet worked when it ran, and so they gave it special meaning. It became superstition. And this is how most things become superstitious.
10. TO CONCLUDE
The fact that I want to point out is that all of us engage in superstition whether we try to or not. It is embedded in our culture, and is part of our tradition. We don't think about why we do a lot of the things that we do. Not all of it is bad in itself either. But superstition can make way for fear and uncertainty in any person's life, because that is essentially what it preaches. That is why it is important for the Christian to not lay too much at stake when it comes to superstition, because it breeds fear and uncertainty. We need to plant our feet on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. He is our rock and our fortress, and we need not fear. We practice superstition out of fear; we obey Christ out of love. And that is what life is all about: loving submission to Christ. Superstition is the devil's way of taking our focus away from the solid Rock.
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Ryan J. Haase
Bethany College of Missions
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