Religion or Superstition?

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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posted March 22, 2009 at 9:08 pm

There isn’t, IMO, much difference in religion and superstition. All are beliefs taught by a “leader” in a religion and the teachings of what are called superstitions are passed on by word of mouth from their “leaders” folks. Both can be used for good or evil.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 23, 2009 at 1:58 am

Hi David,
“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.”
For us, the answer is 1 John 1: 1-5.
1 Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have watched and touched with our own hands, the Word of life — this is our theme.
2 That life was made visible; we saw it and are giving our testimony, declaring to you the eternal life, which was present to the Father and has been revealed to us.
3 We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may share our life. Our life is shared with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
4 We are writing this to you so that our joy may be complete.
5 This is what we have heard from him and are declaring to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.
Overwhelmingly, the Apostles tell us that theirs is eye and ear witness to what Jesus said and did. The ZZRoman historian Flavius Josephus tells us of Jesus and his cricifixion and the belief his followers had in his resurrection.
Pretty solid witness, no?

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posted March 23, 2009 at 9:09 am

After the demise of Colonialism, Africa has continued its spiral downward. This comes after its love affair with Marxism. No one is now left to blame but the Africans themselves, just witness the silence regarding Darfur & Zimbabwe. We are witnessing total cultural collapse of Africa, especially in its love of witchcraft, rampant superstition, genocide etc. . . Only a return to the Faith(s) that once built Africa is their hope for humanism that can allow the individual to flourish.

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posted March 24, 2009 at 8:34 am

How do religion and superstition differ? If we look at the effects, not much. We only have to think back to the ‘burning times’ when a lonely old widow could be burned at the stake for talking to her cat or a midwife be similarly condemned for assisting at the birth of a deformed child. Is this really any different than the ritual murder of albinos in Tanzania or the hate and homophobia spewed by Fred Phelps and his ilk? Do we need more religion? Whose religion? I think not. What is needed is better education and improved public understanding of science.

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posted March 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

Holy Father needn’t worry about superstition in Africa, instead we as Catholics should rejoice in the fact that our coreligionists are trying to outdo us in aggregating superstitious beliefs to our bedrock superstitions. My travels through Mexico put me at ease about this issue, superstition is the backbone of the non-European Church, the face and future of the new Church vitally depends upon these spirits (just ask David Gibson, I think he would agree.) In the great palaces, the pope and bishops have their God, and masses have their Gods. Lesser ones mind you, because they are lesser Catholics, lacking palaces, gold and the like. Now the bishops are even trying to take away my Santa Muerte, I hope she doesn’t get mad and take it out on me.

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