Rank Superstition

Did you enjoy the Times article about the study that found – o wonder – that churchgoers are superstitious? Were you dumbfounded, gobsmacked, astonished, staggered, amazed, knocked for a loop – in short, were you surprised? I can’t say I was. What surprises me is that anyone thinks there’s a tension between the two. I know people do think that (there was that hilarious item a few months ago about some cardinal at the Vat complaining about that very thing – about people believing all sorts of bizarro superstitious nonsense) but it still surprises me that they do. It seems to me that they’re not quite thinking things through if they think that. They’re not asking themselves why it’s sensible to believe one superstitious thing and absurd to believe another. (I know, I know, I know – that helpful nag who likes to tell me I’m secular religious or similar without ever explaining what he means by that is, if he bothers to read this, triumphantly telling himself that I am riddled with superstitions but just don’t know it. Let the court so stipulate.) What exactly is the criterion by which they know superstition from superstition-free religion? Just that they’re – you know – different?

According to a study, nearly all churchgoers admit to practising superstitious behaviour such as crossing their fingers for luck, touching wood for protection or throwing spilt salt over their left shoulder…The Christian Church has always been highly antagonistic towards superstition, believing it to be irrational and linked to paganism. Through the Dark and Middle Ages, anyone suspected of using traditional charms to secure good or bad luck for themselves or others would usually be burnt at the stake or drowned. The victims were nearly always women.

I don’t think that’s accurate. I’m pretty sure it’s not. Gledhill seems to be conflating the witch trials in the 15th-17th centuries with the sanctions on using charms from the 4th century onwards. I really don’t think everyone suspected of using a good luck charm in that period was killed – there’d have been no one left. But never mind that; the real question is what ‘the Christian Church’ (the what?) means by ‘irrational’ and at exactly what place on the map it draws the line between the rational and the irrational.

The research was carried out by a team at the University of Wales, Bangor, led by Leslie Francis, Professor of Practical Theology and the country’s leading exponent of the sociology of religion…In the paper, to be published in the Journal of Implicit Religion, the authors say that the findings contradict the hypothesis that Christian teaching precludes superstitious beliefs.

Well…how could it? Unless you simply take the resurrection as not a superstitious belief – by defining it that way. But that would be a rather glaring bit of special pleading. So…how else is it done?

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