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Faith or superstition?

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I heard from colleagues of the following question allegedly posed to various religious leaders on the program "Looking into the Soul," "What is the difference between faith and superstition? Apparently - to some chagrin - no really clear or satisfactory answer was formulated. At least it led to a nice little conversation about it. I haven't seen the progamma myself (yet), but the question stuck with me.

'What is the difference between faith and superstition?'

I remember C.S. Lewis arguing that there are different forms of "faith," or interpretations/meanings that the word "faith" can take on.¹ The first thing to be answered, then, is the question of what "faith" is, or what it means to believe. After that, you could look at what superstition could then mean. In addition, I was reminded of what the mathematician and philosopher Emanuel Rutten writes about the reasonable assessment of worldviews: 'We assess a worldview by examining, first of all, the extent to which it structures and makes sense of our world plausibly and meaningfully.' To begin with, faith - Christianity - is a worldview. I think this is how most Christians speak of their faith: as a coherent worldview which is about origins, existence, meaning, in other words; the existential questions of who we are, where we came from and where we are going.

Some believe that "faith" is synonymous with "attaching belief to. 'Believing' as a mere assumption, we could perhaps think of it as superstition (I'll come back to that later). For 'attaching faith to' a story, a fairy tale, a dwarf, a prophet - regardless of a coherent worldview into which it fits - is no different than a fear-based need for some grip. However, I don't think there will be many Christians who claim to have heard a story and then started believing it. It is rather like Chesterton describes his conversion as "a key that turned out to fit the lock exactly. It is not merely a pleasant feeling or nice idea, as in the discovery of the idea machine of Mendacem, but the fact that there appears to be a very neighboring kingdom. That the world turns out to be perhaps incomprehensible, but coherent.

But in all of this, it must also be noted that Christian faith is not simply a philosophy of life or worldview with its accompanying argumentation, it is also a practical faith. It is faith in a Person, and believing in this sense is your connect with the Other (Buber). This is believing in - and trusting in - during everyday life. It is like your partner saying to you "I love you" and you believe it. Not because you go and check the facts first, because he/she brings up the right arguments with it or because it feels right. No, it is because you continue on your path together, because you have shared experiences and because your trust develops in the other person.

Superstition or folk belief, according to Wikipedia, is "a belief not based on religion or science. It usually implies that something could be caused by supernatural forces or powers. With that, the answer to the question is actually quite simple: superstition is something that exists alongside "a belief based on religion or science. But I think there is something more to be said about it. Superstition is the idea of being able to have or exert control over the world around us through put faith in something: knocking three times scares away spirits, walking under a ladder brings bad luck, seeing a black cat means it's best to stay inside that day to avoid bad luck (which often turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Superstition therefore seems to me to be based on low self-esteem and a fearful worldview. I also think this is why it is more common in certain worldviews than others. For example, when believing in an angry God who cannot be easily appeased, it is useful to be able to exert some influence yourself. By the way, not to be confused with symbols, images and rituals that may accompany a religious experience.

In this sense, superstition is universal and fits all philosophies of life, even an atheist can be superstitious. Although the idea of control by certain actions and thoughts must be a belief in being able to influence a spiritual world and create "karma. For this reason, for the atheist, knocking off misfortune, from his material worldview, can be nothing more than foolhardiness; for the Christian, it is a sin because it is to receive God with open hands. Not with hands clasped around (the idea of) control. Man as the center of control may seem logical to the atheist, and thus the idea of wielding control, to the believer God is the center toward which we move.

In short; there are different kinds of "faith," but a Christian's faith is not just a story, but a Person. And that Person fits like a key on the keyhole that creates a coherent worldview. But in everyday life, faith means above all knowing yourself connected to this Person. And that Person is Jesus Christ, beating heart of Christianity.

  1. I believe C.S. Lewis has written about this in "Unadulterated Christianity.


Erwin de Ruiter

"One man tries to express himself in books, another in boots; both are likely to fail." - G.K. Chesterton

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