Religious superstition — Is that all religion is?

religious superstitionReligious superstition is associated with places like Sicily. This is the setting for the television series featuring Inspector Salvo Montabalno, played by Lucia Zingarent. The episodes are based on a series of novels by author Andrea Camilleri, one of Italy’s famous contemporary writers.

According to the Sunday Telegraph newspaper:

“The charm lies in the vivid portrayal of the small Sicilian town in which Montalbano works and lives and in the endearing personality of the detective.

Religious superstition amongst criminals

In Excursion to Tindari we see a glimpse of a most cruel and dangerous Mafiosi family, who amazingly have close ties with a Catholic priest and religious superstition and ritual. The grandson of the family has loads of murders on his shoulders yet has a small alter in his room.

“consisting of a low table covered with an embroidered white tablecloth. On the altar stood three statuettes: the Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Calogero. Each statue had a little light burning in front of it.”

The only problem was that the boy and the priest seem immersed in religious superstition. Vividly portrayed is sentimental hypocrisy of the worst kind. Someone who quite irrationally is trying to magically save his soul without any attempt whatsoever to change his evil ways.

Attitude of atheists towards religious superstition

It raises the question in the readers mind as to whether all religion is just religious superstition.

Materialist atheists answer yes. They tend to ridicule any supernatural belief that contradicts natural science (such as the spirit world, divine revelation, astrology, witchcraft, the occult) as mere superstition.

Others may be less certain. Probably all would say that all superstition including religious superstition is anything we see as daft. For me this includes the idea that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. In ancient Greece it was believed that one saw the will of the gods in the mirror. Thus, if a mirror was broken unintentionally, it indicated that the gods did not want the person to see the future as it held unpleasant things.

Neither do I bother throwing salt over my shoulder to guard against misfortune. Ancient Romans believed that to spill salt would be a great waste and bad luck would befall the person who did so. This could be counteracted though, by throwing a pinch of salt over the left shoulder into the face of the devil, who is supposedly poised there.

Irrational aspect of religious superstition

The very label “superstition” seems to include a negative judgment of irrationality, childishness, or primitiveness. But there are superstitions and there are superstitions. What is religious superstition to one person is an essential component of an other person’s world-view. The Protestant Christian may view the Roman Catholic veneration of saints and relics as superstitious nonsense. Take away the empty tomb, then Christ, for some people, is just another moral teacher. But for others, the historical resurrection is a crucial part of their faith.

Vulnerability to religious superstition

What some religious people regard as unimportant trappings of conventional religious culture, others see as an important part of their spiritual understanding. We might suspect that, for some people, religion is not a particularly rational thing. And that their religious attitudes derive from what Rabbi Fink calls “The God of Gaps” — which suggests that since not everything can be explained, the only explanation that remains is some mystery about immaterial forces. When things require an explanation but there is no explanation coming, historically people to turn to a deity. Primitive religion has been characterised as based on fear and placating the supernatural.

I would suggest that the literally-minded living within a traditionally religious culture are more vulnerable to taking on board, what others may regard as, religious superstition.

It is also probably true that there are many spiritually minded people today who are not religious believers, but who do have a sense of the transcendence in their unity with nature or in relationships with others.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

From a Swedenborgian view there is a danger — whilst regarding the religious superstitions of some people — of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: in rejecting what appears to be irrational beliefs to also reject religious awareness of a transcendent spiritual force in which it is sensible to put one’s trust. Swedenborg distinguishes between what these days psychologists call intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity: between an inner spiritual faith and an outer natural attitude to religion. Regarding the latter he describes a kind of non-spiritual religious anxiety formed for the sake of one’s social position, reputation, or gain.

Regarding the former he was writing about a sometimes “spurious conscience” formed from the mistaken religious ideas of the culture in which one is raised. If grounded in charity, and right living those with this kind of conscience are said to be people who are

“able to receive a true conscience in the next life and do indeed receive it.” (AC 1033)

He even tells of an extraordinary experience of hearing in the spirit world about people from the Catholic nations who whilst alive in the world had turned their thoughts more towards God than towards the pope and had done things with goodwill with a simple heart.

“When they realize that they are still alive after death, and are taught that in the spiritual world the Lord himself, the Saviour of the world, rules, they are all easily brought out of the superstitious aspects of their religion… There are, on the other hand, Catholics who over the course of their lives in the world had rarely if ever given thought to God and who had loved the worship rituals solely because they were spectacular. It is difficult to lead these people away from the superstitious aspects of their religion.” (TCR 821)

Perhaps we all have some element of the irrational in our ways of thinking.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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