In his homily Saturday in Luanda, the pope confronted the delicate question of superstition in African culture:

Today it is up to you, brothers and sisters, following in the footsteps of those heroic and holy heralds of God, to offer the Risen Christ to your fellow citizens. So many of them are living in fear of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers. Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers (cf. Eph 1:19-23; 6:10-12)? Someone may object: “Why not leave them in peace? They have their truth, and we have ours. Let us all try to live in peace, leaving everyone as they are, so they can best be themselves.” But if we are convinced and have come to experience that without Christ life lacks something, that something real – indeed, the most real thing of all – is missing, we must also be convinced that we do no injustice to anyone if we present Christ to them and thus grant them the opportunity of finding their truest and most authentic selves, the joy of finding life.

As CNS’s John Thavis writes, “The pope’s words hit a nerve in Africa, where belief in witchcraft and sorcery has led to killings and discrimination, especially against children.”

There have been terrible stories of children held captive because there were believed to be possessed of evil spirits, and, as Thavis notes, older women and younger children are often identified as witches or wizards and “are often blamed for misfortune, illness, infertility and natural catastrophes” and brutally murdered. In Tanzania alone, at least 45 albinos have been murdered since 2007 because popular superstition holds that they are witches. “Witchcraft is tearing villages and urban societies apart,” says the working document for next October’s Synod of Bishops for Africa, which was released during the pope’s trip.

As I pull together some thoughts on this theme, I am wondering if there is an easy definition for the difference between religion and superstition? One that comes to mind in the African context is that beliefs that injure others are superstitions. (That would go for Christian beliefs, like those that would lead to witch hunts and the like in times past.)

What passes as superstition of course depends on where one falls on the spectrum of belief. The pope would view certain African traditions as superstitions, some Protestants view certain Catholic practices as superstitions, and non-believers will view any belief in things not seen as superstitions–even as they meditate on their daily horoscope.

Superstitions might also be, it seems to me, demonstrably wrong, whereas “true religion” cannot be disproved, because it makes (in its best manifestations) other, deeper claims to meaning rather than temporal consequence. Which reminds me, where did I put that darn rabbit’s foot keychain?

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