‘You ought to stand for all the things these stupid people call superstitions. Come now, don’t you think there’s a lot in those old wives’ tales about luck and charms and so on, silver bullets included? What do you say about them as a Catholic?’
‘I say I’m an agnostic,’ replied Father Brown, smiling.
‘Nonsense,’ said Aylmer impatiently. ‘It’s your business to believe things.’
‘Well, I do believe some things, of course,’ conceded Father Brown; ‘and therefore, of course, I don’t believe other things.’ (The Dagger with Wings, G. K. Chesterton)
I used to work with a fellow who with absolute seriousness would not put a hat down on top of a table—and if someone else put his hat on top of a table, he would never wear that hat again. He really and truly believed that wearing a hat that had been set on a table would bring bad luck. I would drive him nuts, when I found out about this superstition of his, by purposely setting my hat on our work table and then promptly returning it to my head.
Midway through the first round of Stanley Cup playoffs, more and more fans are refusing to shave in solidarity with hockey players growing “playoff beards” not to be shaved until their team is either eliminated or emerges victorious. Even today in this age of hyper-secular rational materialism, one rarely finds an apartment building with a “13th” floor, though the more pretentious “badasses” might claim that Friday the 13th is their “lucky” day rather than being unlucky.
I am routinely asked whether I believe in this or that—be it ghosts or aliens or magic or whatnot, because since I believe in God, I must therefore be a gullible and credulous person. And yet, precisely because I am a religious person, I am not a superstitious one—or, as Fr. Brown states, “Well, I do believe some things, of course, and therefore, of course, I don’t believe other things.”
The atheist, in his rush to assert his own intellectual and rational superiority, equates religion and superstition, and dismisses both as irrational nonsense. The Catholic, on the other hand, acknowledges that superstition arises from the same psychological impulse from which comes religious sentiment, but that the former is a perversion of the latter in much the same way that masturbation is a perversion of sexuality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines superstition thus:
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition (#2111).
Dictionary sources specify that these superstitious beliefs and practices are irrational, and are believed independently of (and often in the face of) contradictory evidence about the way the world works. The atheist asserts that belief in religion is just as irrational as any faith in a rabbit’s foot or fear of a black cat, but as I’ve written argued in the past on this blog (here, here, here, here, and here), belief in God is eminently reasonable. However, the irony of the atheist and agnostic position goes beyond simply calling religious people superstitious, but actually reverses the correlation—and I would absolutely love it if sociologists would conduct a thorough study of this question (or else, that someone would point out such a study to me, if it has been done: Google was less than forthcoming). Instead, I shall rely on the admittedly anecdotal evidence of G.K. Chesterton (which perfectly coincides with my own experiences):
Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. I remember defending the religious tradition against a whole luncheon table of distinguished agnostics; and before the end of our conversation every one of them had procured from his pocket or exhibited on his watch chain some charm or talisman from which he admitted that he was never separated. I was the only person present who had neglected to provide himself with a fetish (The Everlasting Man).
Unlike the superstitious person who makes rituals out of coincidences to protect himself from a seemingly meaningless world, as an attempt to foist some meaning on it, because deep down in his soul, he knows there must be meaning, we as Catholics, through the sound use of our rational intellect, aided by faith, know that there actually is a meaning and an order to the universe, and a God who, despite the seeming darkness and chaos of our lives, remains firmly in control. Rather than merely trusting in His Providence on blind faith, we know that it’s the only logical conclusion.
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