Forget them! What about us?
I intend returning to this short piece one day to expand the 'Church' section with more up to date examples. However, in my work 'Winners and Losers', I have paralleled extensively the similarities between the Betting and Gambling fraternity and the present day Church and shown how, although the former are frowned upon by the latter, there's not much difference between the two in a frighteningly large and disturbing number of ways.
That work will suffice to supplement the present short discussion.
At the outset, it’s best to try and define what we might mean by the word ‘superstition’ and how we're intending to employ the word in this article. I must admit, at the outset, to having found it difficult to stay within the strictures of the definition throughout this piece as one matter seems to lead on to another.
However, to make an attempt at a definition...
The origins of the English word are stated to have come from the 15th Century from the conjunction of two words meaning 'to stand over' although it also seems to have borne this meaning in Latin. It may give the implication that a superstition is something that stood over or controlled a person but the reason for the literal meaning is far from clear.
The Encarta World English Dictionary (that appears as an integral part of the software program I use) defines it in two main ways. Either, an
‘…irrational, but usually deep-seated belief in the magical effects of a specific action or ritual, especially in the likelihood that good or bad luck will result from performing it’
‘…irrational and often quasi-religious belief in and reverence for the magical effects of some actions and rituals or the magical powers of some objects’
Wikipedia opens its article 'Superstition' with not just a definition but also a short explanation and it's worthy of consideration. It comments that
'Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any physical process linking the two events, such as astrology, omens, witchcraft, etc., that contradicts natural science.
'Opposition to superstition was a central concern of the intellectuals during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. The philosophes at that time ridiculed any belief in miracles, revelation, magic or the supernatural, as "superstition" and typically included as well much of Christian doctrine.'
That is, if God does not exist and an acceptance that the world and all around us has come about through natural, random forces, then superstition is superfluous to mankind and, even, could be said to be hindering man from living out the reality of his existence in the full 'revelation' of scientific principle and fact.
If God does exist, however, superstition is still superfluous to the believer, as we'll see, because it attributes a predictability to God where 'x' will bring about 'y' and so on, disregarding God's Sovereignty. It also, at its extreme, produces a terror that perfection must be achieved through the outworking of rites and procedures that win acceptance before God
If history has taught us anything, it's that God is unpredictable even though there are certain facts that are worthy of full acceptance. Religious Superstition doesn't generally uphold that truth but replaces it with a simplistic cause and effect that tarnishes and denies God's character and makes him like a slot machine where, figuratively speaking, a dime can make Him work and three cherries reaps riches and rewards.
Superstition cannot be accepted by the fundamentally scientific, humanistic or atheistic - or, for that matter, anyone professing a confidence and belief in Evolution, because it must necessarily add the concept of an indefinable and unquantifiable force that's responsible for events seen.
That superstition is accepted and plays a significant part in the lives of those who should know better (or, perhaps more accurately, whose world view is undermined by adherence to its existence) is probably the more shocking than that people who believe in 'mysterious' supernatural forces (by that I mean the section of society who profess faith in the existence of a god of some form) have an acceptance of the superstitious.
Wikipedia goes on to comment that
'The word [superstition] is often used pejoratively to refer to religious practices (e.g., Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g., Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many supernatural beliefs. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events'
Interestingly - and fairly accurately - they imply that superstition is often what 'the other person' practices! In that sense, it's a word that can be used negatively to ridicule other people, although a great many today would describe themselves as 'superstitious' or, at least, admit to being mildly so and not think that they're denigrating their own character in any way.
The use of 'unrelated prior events' (or, better, the concept shouldn't be limited to the past but also include 'unrelated current events') being used to predict future occurrences is widespread, especially in the form of 'coincidence' and where a course of action is assumed to be unavoidable in a future scenario.
Or, more simply, if it happened that way last time, it will happen again the next.
Superstition can be defined in many ways, have many applications and be used as a label placed upon those we look down on or as an apologetic to explain away our actions.
Wikipedia also contrasts two different states of being, based on the use of two different words in Latin from the first century BC. The first, the word from which we get superstition, means
'...an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief...'
in contrast to the other that's defined as
'...the proper, reasonable awe of the gods'
Where one ends and the other begins is difficult to determine when it comes to religious belief and, more especially, the Church. But we shall, at least, attempt to give some pointers later on in the article. The problem will be that one man's religion will be defined by another as their superstition!
This contrast, however, more rightly refers to the acquisition of salvation rather than to those events that we attribute to a higher power that we neither 'fear' nor think would bestow on us some redemptive act.
Punters have the most incredible beliefs in superstition that range between wide extremes. Having been a Betting Office Manager for over five years before becoming a believer - and having been a compulsive gambler for all that time and even for a number of years before - I can testify first hand to it.
It may be something as simple as believing that a win is guaranteed because a certain article of clothing is worn or that a horse will get its nose in front because it bears the same name as their Auntie Flo. The former directs the punter to be confident in whichever bet they place while the latter channels their money towards one particular selection.
But there’s also the statistical superstition where, for example, because three year olds have won each of the last four annual runnings of a race, it follows that the fifth in the sequence will also be won by a three year old. If, on the other hand, there’s a good reason why such an occurrence has taken place, if that reason is duplicated in the current year, such a statistic might continue to occur - but simply grabbing observational sequential occurrences and extrapolating them into the present and future is nothing more than superstition when reason is lacking.
Similarly, the form figures that indicate a horse has been fourth, then third and second in subsequent races indicates to some that, in today’s race, it will finish first - or, perhaps, the horse that has strung together a sequence of second places will be considered a good bet for second once more.
If there’s a reason for such a conclusion based on clear logic and factual observation (something akin to our present day concept of 'science') then there’s no straying into the realms of superstition.
For example, a horse may successively finish second because, although it appears to be a world beater, it doesn’t like leading but always stops when asked to quicken passed another. That sort of horse will rarely win a race but, so long as it’s relatively better on the day than the others in the race, will be happy to finish second. Again. Yet not because some unseen force is causing it to do so.
But a string of second places does not portend logically that its next run will be a second without a reasonable explanation of why that form stands as it is.
I’ve also known punters believe that their horse can’t win if they perform certain actions prior to the race - actions such as looking at the betting shows relayed from the track to the off course shops or being in the wrong place that jinxes their chances. Or even if they show another person their betting slip.
And the price of the horse is famous for putting punters off having a bet on a selection that they're confident will win based on form because, it’s argued, the shorter the price of the horse, the better the chance it has and yet, if the horse drifts in the market, the odds growing longer and longer, it really has no chance at all and ‘someone knows something’. Sometimes it’s even alleged that the bookies know something and they’re trying to tempt punters in to put money on a selection that the bookies know will lose.
Superstition plays a large part in the gambler’s life but, as gambling is an integral part of everyday life (see my notes here), it’s no wonder that superstition lies at the heart of civilisation.
Although Stephen Fry (a person that my wife described recently as ‘a pompous atheist’ before going on to observe 'but I do like him‘) abhors the dependency that men and women have on superstitious mumbo jumbo, it’s so intertwined with our lives that we confidently believe that there are certain causes and effects in society that are there to be observed, forces and powers that have been set up (not scientific principles, it has to be said) to bring actions to bear on random situations.
And this belief from a people who have decided that Evolution is the conclusion that explains why everything they see around themselves has come in to existence and why they themselves live and move and have their being.
That is, total randomness that has no organised purpose or power behind it, conspires against men and women to bring about chaos, failure and loss - and this, sometimes, personally.
If a person or group of people believe in Evolution then they need also to disavow superstition and to categorically deny the existence of forces that impinge upon their lives that have no scientific basis.
I’d certainly be more favourable towards Evolutionists if they did - and it’s probably why I’m more likely to accept that at least Stephen Fry is trying to live out the belief of the true ‘everything is random’ believer.
It’s the pompous believers that I particularly have problems with - not the pompous atheists.
But, seeing as I’ve pointed a finger at the superstitious evolutionists above, I should at least give some brief examples before I move on to the real purpose of this article.
Why, I ask, does the queue in which you stand at the bank always get dealt with slower than the one you’re not stood in? And, even when you change the line you’re in, the one you’ve just left then begins to move faster?
Of course, banks have, in the last few years, introduced a single line with multiple cashiers so this can’t happen but the new superstition is that, once you join the line, the tellers’ windows will be jammed with business accounts that are paying in tens of thousands in pounds in small denominations that have to be counted not weighed and, after what seems like an eternity, will be wanting vast amounts of change that the tellers are having to put together by scrounging around all the tills to fulfil.
If it’s the Post Office, the windows are filled with Road Tax applications and Passport Application Form checks or the like.
In a universe where Random Chance holds sway, such acts of capricious gods who conspire to generally piss you off simply can’t take place.
And there’s the ‘bad things always happen in threes’ belief which sometimes gets turned around to describe the way good things happen in threes, too. If Auntie Mabel died last Tuesday and the neighbour’s cat was put down two days ago well, you’d better just be very careful because someone, somewhere that you know is about to die because they always happen in threes.
Even when they don’t.
Instead of coincidence, it becomes evidence that there’s a force in the universe that deigns it to be so.
A few years ago, a visiting friend of ours assured us that our football team would score a goal in the game we were watching on television if she went outside and smoked a cigarette. Believe it or not, they did score which brought about the unfortunate consequence that, when the other side drew level, she felt she had to disappear outside again to smoke so we’d take the lead!
I can’t remember the final result of the match but needless to say I was spitting feathers that a friend could think that smoking a cigarette could cause the team to score and that it wasn't down to their skill and ability.
There were probably thousands of similar fans on both sides who were doing ‘their own superstitious bit’ to get their team to score, some cursing that it hadn’t worked while others were rejoicing it had.
Perhaps the worst superstitious belief of all in the world is that of an afterlife.
It may suit the world's fear of death to believe that, after we breathe our last, we shuffle off to some great place reserved for us (but not for the really bad people), but neither evolution nor science can accept such a possibility.
In fact, it's the most deceptive of superstitions because, while we continue to live we can always change our view when long held superstitions fail to materialise or fulfil our expectations - belief in an afterlife does no such thing, for the fact will hit home once it's no longer possible to alter one's position.
An afterlife can only exist if one is observable by science. If one is accepted because some concept of a Divine Being is adhered to, that afterlife must only exist on the Being's terms and not upon our own understanding. But, sadly, as science can neither prove the existence of God nor the substance of some form of heaven, all such acceptance must, in effect, be a superstitious delusion.
And, worse, the rites associated with securing a good quality of life after death (whether by lifestyle, religious rite or other) must be the biggest claptrap of mumbo-jumbo (not to put too fine a point on it) that's deluding billions of people on this planet.
That's the real superstition - any action performed for a cause or belief that doesn't exist is at best a superstition that helps us cope with the everyday pressures of life.
Fact is, if science and evolution are right, death is final. There's nothing more.
Be content now that, upon death, you enter oblivion - welcome (as Hawkwind announced) to
'...reality, however grim. Our journey's end'
I don't want to drone on with example upon example - that isn't the point of this article. If anything, all I've wanted to say in this section is that the belief in superstition and adherence to superstitious practices is not in keeping with a belief in evolution.
That's the world and the way of it.
I have to say - probably condescendingly - that they can't help it.
People like Stephen Fry may be trying to rid themselves of the crass beliefs that deny other more fundamental beliefs but, generally speaking, the world doesn't see any problem with having a worldview that's self-denying.
But that's not my worry.
My concern is why we do the very same things in the Church.
Forget them! What about us?
All I will say about the world's practice of superstition is what I've written above. The conclusion is that the world doesn't live by its own beliefs - which is hardly a surprise. If the world wants to accept the tenets of evolution, it must renounce the supernatural and superstitious except where science can explain it logically and consistently in line with the laws of the universe.
No evolutionist can believe in superstition - therefore, there aren't very many real evolutionists, in my opinion!
But, similarly, creationists can't believe in it either - and yet many of those who profess faith in the one, true God, have substituted service of the Creator with a superstitious service of a Divine Force that has become a tenet of deceitful and misleading practices that's reflecting an image in to the world that's false.
I'm not talking about the superstitions that have impinged themselves upon society as bleed overs from Church practice - things such as being scared to walk under a ladder in case 'bad luck' is brought upon you as a result of breaking the Trinity (the three straight sides of the triangle being taken to represent one of the three. Personally, I will walk under a ladder except when there's someone on it holding a paint pot, for obvious reasons) or the occurrence of the number 13 (which has various origins but, for the believer, seems to have originated with there having been 13 at the Last Supper before Judas betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities).
These are all beliefs that I would hope are more prevalent in the world than the Church (although I have my doubts).
Rather, I'm here referring to those actions we perform and beliefs we cling on to that we think are foundational to our relationship with God Himself. So necessary do we consider them that to challenge them is to suggest that we're challenging the true nature of God, that the person who does such a thing is on the side of the devil and that anyone who doesn't have the true enlightenment and revelation to continue in the accepted superstition is fighting against God and needs to be shunned away from the local fellowships in case they should easily lead astray those who are, er, easily led astray. And we know who the easily led astray are, of course, because - you guessed it - they're the ones who are easily led astray.
The bottom line - or the underlying principle at work - is legalism.
We have so conformed God to our own concept - even conformed Him to the strictures of a Scriptural concept - that we cannot conceive of Him breaking free from our shackles and doing something inherently Divine.
I've been in numerous fellowships where, whenever we had sick in our midst, we'd drag out James 5:14-15a for public execution. James asked the question
'Is any among you sick?'
and answered himself by observing that those people should
'...call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up'
That this is an incredibly rare occurrence in the Bible hasn't woken us up to the fact that, perhaps, we should be using it only on a rare occasion. But we really have come to think that we need do nothing more than follow the procedure and the healing will come.
It rarely does.
It could be levelled that the condition of the verse is that literal, physical oil poured over a believer's head would only heal if a prayer of faith accompanies it and, as the elders rarely ever possess faith, the believer rarely ever is healed.
But we wouldn't say that, of course - well, not publicly. The elders, God's appointed leaders, not having faith? How could we even think such a thing?
The sad fact of the matter is that we think that a procedure will bring about a result - that God will align Himself with a methodology, that a superstitious cause will bring about a supernatural effect. It's no better than the punter who thinks that if he performs a superstitious rite, his bet will come up - we think if we stick to a procedure, God will work for us.
But our gambling nearly always doesn't pay. Our gambling in the Church, I mean, not the gambling of the worldly punter (although it's sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between the two, as I've previously observed).
We think that, when God anoints a particular song in a meeting, we can sing that song again in subsequent meetings to recapture the anointing. That's the same mentality as the punter who sees a string of wins beside a horse's name and thinks that its next run must produce another - where an event will take place because it's a predictable inevitability.
When there is no anointing or when, after a few weeks, there's no longer any anointing on what once seemed light and alive, the Church has been very good at fossilising the experience and asserting that the methodology has become as good as the presence of God Himself, that because God once anointed, it follows that it must be the way, the truth and the life for all time.
Old doctrines, hymns, church structures and even, to some extent, types of meeting, all fall under this category. And we're frightened to change because our superstition won't let us. Just like crossing our fingers when we lie to protect us from some evil about to befall us, we can't stop our methods in case some evil is sent by the devil when God withdraws His presence from us because we've failed to continue in 'The Way'.
Truth is, God left a very long time ago and the best thing we could do is to move out of our comfort zone and start to rely upon God wholly instead of our procedure.
People who miss church meetings are believed to be under a curse from God - there are various Scriptures that can be pointed to as justification of the belief so I shan't detail them here, but very often it's the legalism and deadness that have been the cause of those who've had the life to flee the morgue experience.
The Scriptures concerning Church attendance were written to live fellowships concerning those who were erring away from the life - not to dead churches who were trying to kill those believers who had some measure of God's life moving in them.
If Paul was writing to many of our present day fellowships, he'd be telling the ones in the meeting to follow the people who were staying away or else they'd spiritually die in the place they were!
Some fellowships elect the rich to positions of leadership because they're obviously 'blessed by God' and in special favour with Him, their righteousness and calling believed to be greater because of their wealth. After all, God wants you rich.
And yet, other fellowships, applying James 2:5 that asks the rhetorical question
'Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to those who love Him?'
have shunned the rich and appointed the poor. Both fall, of course, from not having the wisdom to appoint those that God has chosen, regardless of wealth or poverty. As if the material state of a person is able to determine the state of a person's relationship with God!
And even when the leaders we appoint turn out morally bankrupt and degenerate, how we love to justify their continuation in the post to which we've raised them up by claiming that it's wrong to put one's hand against the Lord's anointed.
Fearing the wrath of God upon us, we stand aside and let evil multiply amongst the ranks of those who should know better. We fear an invisible force that springs from our understanding of God - but which is not reflective of the character or Person of God - and which causes us to deny the One we confess to serve.
In these cases, we believe that by doing one thing, we bring about another that will affect our own lives - that we will either be favoured or opposed by God. And yet, our beliefs are often not very much more than ill-perceived concepts that are against God's character.
We cannot deny our methods, beliefs and procedures because, if we did, we would confess to denying God Himself. If we were doing that, we would be turning our back on God - and, if we did that, we'd be throwing away our salvation.
Possibly the worst superstition of all is that which ties up salvation solely with the performance of religious acts and rites that have a semblance of wisdom in promoting devotion and service of the Divine.
YHWH made salvation so simple that it was too unbelievable for many that such a complex God would do such a thing. So we insist on rites and methodology that become the continuance of salvation and, on occasions, the way to salvation itself.
But, whenever a procedure becomes the means of justification before God and not solely a relationship with God based upon the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross and through the resurrection and ascension, then we've belittled the work and held Christ up to contempt that what He did wasn't sufficient for the salvation of men and women throughout time.
We pretend that the supernatural person of God moves and works through procedure to bring about the salvation of men and women who have faith in Him - but procedure doesn't save and never will. Salvation comes by faith, and faith by hearing.
We become terrified that by doing something, we will reap the disfavour of God. While there's a very real need to understand that doing those things that are unrighteous are antagonistic to Him and cut the cords of our union with Him, most of our fears are based upon our superstitious beliefs in a legalistic lifestyle that, if traversed, we believe will cause us to fall out of favour.
So terrified do we become that we equate this fear with reverence and the transgression of our man-made rules for sin. And, once we find ourselves in that state, we've not only locked ourselves in to a place where even God finds it difficult to reach us in case we equate His move with satan, but we have converted our salvation into a legalistic observance that denies the work of Christ, the One who came not to give us a new set of rules but to make us His friends.
It's time that we started to realise within the Church that cause and effect is not a fixed and automatic law. As the writer of Ecclesiastes 9:11 (my italics) realised
'...the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all'
We need to realise that people are the way they are very often because 'time and chance' happened to them. As believers, however, we need to learn to react correctly in each circumstance - whether we face abundance or suffer want - and in so doing serve God in truth and righteousness.
Thinking that performing ritualistic services will pour out a blessing from above or gain Divine favour is superstition, pure and simple. Thinking that God will move in a situation when we fulfil the conditions of Scripture is tantamount to cajoling God to work on our behalf even if He'd rather not.
God will move as He chooses to do - it's up to us to conform our lives to His choice and not, by our choices, attempt to conform God to work our way.
The latter will fail and will elevate our lives to a place where we think we're serving God when all we are doing is serving our own superstition, a self-perpetuating belief structure that opposes the move of God in our generation.