What is the difference between faith and superstition? Question asked by Kate.

Faith is a movement of the heart towards God.  It is brought about by God’s presence in us and is a gift that fulfils our nature.  There are ways in which this capacity in us to trust in goodness can be distorted: we can believe lying politicians and place our hopes in what they offer, even to the point of not seeing the moral evil that impels them.  (Hitler and Stalin would be prime examples.)  The result is a kind of parody of religion that people sometimes call ‘political religion’, which mimics good religion by triggering the same kinds of movements within the person that grace does. 

Faith is not a violation of our reason: it is the flourishing of the orientation towards truth and love that is in us.  The Protestant tradition generally places faith and reason in opposition to each other, as though there is a tension between them that can only be solved by ditching reason and placing the emphasis on a non-rational movement of ‘faith’, understood as something ‘blind’ and ‘unseeing’.  The Catholic tradition refuses to oppose them.  I believe in God not on the basis of arguments about God’s existence but my belief in God is certainly compatible with rational inquiry and investigation, even if my faith is not founded on rational arguments. 

Superstition is a complex phenomenon: it is connected with rituals – wearing amulets to ward off evil spirits would be a common practice in many religions.  It is also connected with magic: if I do this, the following effect will happen. 

‘If I walk along the street without stepping on the lines between the paving stones, I will win the lottery’: that would be superstition in which credulous people (people inclined to believe all kinds of daft things, such as horoscopes) weave a kind of fantasy that pleases them.  In general, superstitions don’t trigger off deep movements of love and concern for serious living and doing good to others.  I suspect it’s usually a relic of a stage of childhood in which children, feeling that they are small people in a big world, fantasise about doing powerful and magical things.  It’s certainly not at the core of a mature human identity.  And I suppose in that way, although Christianity can have a superstitious side to it, simply because religion will act as a focus for the varied energies that are in human beings, superstition might look as though it’s got a lot in common with faith, but I suspect that it doesn’t really.  Faith is about deep humanity brought about in us by God; superstition, magic and ritual are quirks of our complex personalities.  

Best wishes.

John McDade SJ