Have you ever thrown salt over your shoulder or carefully walked around a ladder set against a wall? Do you think you are having a good day when you see a black cat or if your horoscope in the newspaper offers you a great opportunity? Do you cross your fingers when wishing someone good luck, or do you ‘knock on wood’ or say ‘cancel, cancel’ if you want to prevent something bad happening, - just in case?
Do you cross your fingers when wishing someone good luck?
When people talk about superstition, it is often this kind of example that comes to mind. Yet superstition can be both more complicated and more worrying than this. Superstitions are found in every part of history and culture and have some common features (1). Numbers in particular can attract connotations of good or bad luck. In China, for example, the sound for the number four is similar to the sound for ‘death’ so that number is unlucky, but the number eight can be seen as particularly auspicious and connected with wealth (2). In Europe and America the number thirteen is often associated with bad luck, so much so that the word ‘triskaidekaphobia’ means a phobia about the number which can have a detrimental effect on people’s lives.
What does it mean to be superstitious?
We human beings are creatures who are able to think about our lives and look for value, meaning and purpose in them. At the same time, we know we cannot necessarily predict the future and we know we, and those we love, are going to die one day. We are also capable of wondering about the supernatural in relation to the natural world.
We may wonder if there is a divine love seeking the best for us, or whether there are evil forces which can hurt or limit us.
We may wonder if there is a divine love seeking the best for us, or whether there are evil forces which can hurt or limit us. It is not surprising then that many superstitions are thought to have arisen from religious belief. For example, one strand of the ill luck associated with the number thirteen can be related to the story of the Last Supper in the Gospels, where the number of Jesus and the disciples was 13, before Judas went out to betray Jesus to the authorities (3). A superstition relating to this, for example, was that at a dinner of 13 people, the first to rise would be the first to die.
Superstition relates both to belief and to behaviour. In general, superstition begins in an idea, or a feeling, that our destinies are somehow influenced by external, or supernatural forces, whether these forces be fates, the universe, or supernatural beings or ‘powers’ who determine what happens to us. This can be deeply rooted in our psychological feelings about how the world operates. The feeling that there are forces ‘out there’ which influence us, for good or ill, can set up the sense that there ought to be something we can do, which pushes the odds in our favour. Sometimes, apart from knocking on wood, we might look for divinatory rituals or practices, which give us a sense of what the future might hold. Many people, especially in the age of the internet, pay for horoscopes, palmistry, psychics, mediums and spirit guides, to give them glimpses of the future and hints about the paths they should take.
Staying on the side of the Good
Superstitious practice is often about maintaining a sense of control in one’s life and keeping ills at bay.
Research done by the Mission Theology Advisory Group in 1996 in The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church, showed that most people have a strong instinctive desire to stay on the side of the good and to ward off the bad (4). Superstitious practice is often about maintaining a sense of control in one’s life and keeping ills at bay. The desire to ward off the bad, presupposes that there are bad things out there, waiting to trap us or hurt us in some way, or which want to prevent us from flourishing. So there are many superstitions based on the idea that objects like iron horseshoes or ‘doing something’ like throwing salt over your shoulder, could keep evil spirits away from you.
Search for Faith also showed that superstitious practice can get out of hand. Looking at your horoscope in the newspaper as a piece of light-hearted entertainment is one thing, but refusing to go to work or leave the house because of perceived ill-omens is another. Sometimes, Christian clergy and other faith leaders are asked to help people who are so in the grip of superstitions that they live in a state of anxiety and fear and need help to break free from them. It’s important to know that anyone who is worried about what the future holds or what may be influencing their life, can always seek help and reassurance from the local priest or minister of a church local to them.
What does the Bible say about superstitions?
God who has created all things, knows what we need.
It is not surprising that the Bible, as a collection of books about the lives of ancient peoples and cultures, also tells us about superstitious practice. We also learn something important about divination. In the Old Testament we find use of the Urim and Thummim, objects which are consulted in order to give some idea of God’s will concerning how a battle may go or what should be done by the leaders of the people. In 1 Samuel 28. 1-25, Saul, King of the Israelites, afraid of what might be going to happen in a big battle with his enemies, finds the Urim and Thummim go silent on him and resorts to having a medium raise the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Samuel gives Saul some very bad news: he will lose the battle and everyone on his side will be killed. In the story of Jonah (Jonah 1.7-10), the prophet Jonah runs away from God on a ship. A huge storm arises, threatening to kill them all, so the sailors draw lots to see who the ‘evil luck’ is who has caused the storm. It is, of course, Jonah, who then is thrown overboard, to be swallowed by the great fish.
What we learn from this is that we tend to go into superstitious practices and behaviours hoping for more control over our lives and have good outcomes, but these stories show that doing this sort of thing can be catastrophic for our mental wellbeing. Samuel is not only furious at being called back from his sleep of death, but paralyses Saul with fear. Jonah, thinking he has got control of his life, finds he is viewed as the focus of evil for others and is sent to what should have been his death.
Instead of trusting to luck, we can bring our fears and concerns about life to God in prayer.
We can also see that a habit of superstition can result in scapegoating and suspicion of others. In the past, bad things happening have been blamed on individuals, especially those painted as witches and in league with the devil or plotting to use supernatural evil to their own ends. Such people have often been hounded, lied about, or persecuted as people projected their superstitious fears and problems onto particular people, who might seem different or unusual. Unfortunately, there is still a tendency for us to behave like this towards many people today, because of our background of superstition in our culture. Many dictionaries couple the word ‘superstition’ with ‘irrational’ and that is often a feature of suspicions, fears, distrust and wariness about people who are different from us. Today there are many conspiracy theories circulating and many of these are adopted by people who are attuned to superstitious thinking about the bad influences which are out there and trying to control us. Sometimes people become very frightened by conspiracy theories, even though there is often little evidence for what is being alleged and these fears can create extreme worry.
Jesus breaks down superstitious attitudes and behaviours and encourages people to find peace by trusting God.
In the Gospels though, Jesus tells his followers to think about their lives and what can happen to us in a different way. God who has created all things, knows what we need. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to call God Father, so God is not some great Fate or supernatural machine, but a parent who knows what we need and who wants nothing but good for us. A father does not give a child a snake instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg (Luke 11.1-13). So our deep psychological and spiritual needs about our lives and the future can be satisfied through a relationship with God, not divination. Instead of trusting to luck, we can bring our fears and concerns about life to God in prayer. Jesus goes up against some established superstitious beliefs, such as illness resulting from the sins of ancestors (John 9.1-3). When Jesus heals people, he is keen to tell those watching that those sorts of beliefs are wrong. Jesus breaks down superstitious attitudes and behaviours and encourages people to find peace by trusting God.
Jesus also tells his friends and followers that they don’t need to worry about the future all the time (Matthew 6.25-34). It is enough to know that God can be trusted and to have confidence in God. That doesn’t mean that nothing bad can ever happen, but Jesus changes the perspective: spiritual life is not about trying to control the future, but being confident that the future, whatever it holds, can be navigated with the help of a divine love that will never let us go and who waits to wipe away the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21.3).
3. John 13.21-30
4. The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church (Church House Publishing 1996) chapter 2 on ‘Implicit Religion’.