Explanatory Value

The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.

As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.

Triskaidekaphobia

Friday the thirteenth. The very concept awakens images of horror movies and inauspicious happenings. An interview with a Psychology professor at Rutgers recently discussed this unusual phobia. Mike Petronko of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology had this to say: “Exactly how this got started is difficult to say, but the belief appears to date back to ancient times. Often, superstitions are rooted in religion. Some folklorists believe the fear may stem from the Last Supper, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus and his 12 disciples gathered for the final meal, which set the stage for his crucifixion, on Good Friday.” There is no doubt that the origin of the superstition is religious and that Fridays earned their notorious reputation because of Good Friday. Even today, as any Roman Catholic can tell you, Friday dietary requirements differ from those of other days.

But wasn't this a Thursday?

Thirteen is a little harder to pin down. It is a prime number after ten, but then, so are eleven and seventeen. It may have its unlucky associations back in the old Mesopotamian base-six numerical system. Once you reach past the first doubling of six you meet thirteen. Even today hotels are designed with no thirteenth floor, although pasting a fourteen over the actual thirteen is merely for psychological relief. Mathematics insists thirteen follows twelve. As Petronko notes, the fear is real. Airliners do not have row 13 and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are lost because so many people refuse to engage in regular practices (such as flying) on Friday the thirteenth.

Religion and fear are not strange bedfellows. In fact, religion, in its earliest origins, seems to have been a coping mechanism for fear. People are afraid of many things – that is the curse of consciousness. We can anticipate eventualities that will never materialize. We imagine them happening to us. Religion seeks to placate those forces that are beyond our control. We may lay claim to a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated society, but millions of people are anxiously awaiting the end of this day. Rutgers, like most universities, hardly sees the need to fund the study of religions. Nevertheless, our very culture belies that indifference. Many people are afraid today and we still don’t even know why.