Theology vs. superstition

Theology is a speculative tradition of thought. Its intellectual starting point is a number of unprovable assumptions. Isn't this close to superstition -- accepting unprovable assumptions? Not necessarily. We actually have another speculative tradition (almost as old as theology), where people also start out with unprovable assumptions, and arrive at highly interesting conclusions. That tradition of thought is called mathematics, and it enjoys a great deal of prestige.

So by analogy, theology, in spite of its unprovable assumptions, may possibly also be regarded as a reasonably respectable undertaking.

What then is superstition? How does it differ from theology? As we have noted, theology emerges from unprovable assumptions and may thus get it into trouble, but not necessarily. Superstition on the other hand emerges from solidly disproved ideas, like believing that the future can be foretold by astrology or that misfortune can be prevented by knocking on wood. Superstition not only may get into trouble, it's already there.

Advances in theology

In early times, millennia ago, all religions were mainly superstitions, because they all made claims that were later disproved. That is of course equally true of science -- most early scientific claims have been thoroughly disproved. Nevertheless, the historical tendency of science as well as of old religions has been to move in less superstitious directions over the centuries. Theology is the intellectual discipline that has been attempting to shift religion toward the non-superstitious end of the belief axis.

In established religions (e.g. Catholicism and Lutheranism) their respective theologians have had ample time to sort out the various fine points of their religions. In most cases they have arrived at reasonably reasonable solutions. Among other things, theologians have drawn a clear line between matters of Faith and matters of logic and science. 'Proving the existence of God' -- a favourite pastime of medieval scholastics -- has for example been abandoned. Today's theologians maintain that the existence of God is not a matter to be resolved by logic or by science, but it is a matter for Faith alone. Hence there is no conflict between modern science (including evolution) and religion (as even the Catholic Church has recently declared).

Superstitions of literalism

How, then, can it be that American 'Bible Belt religion' is still superstitious and in constant conflict with science? The practice of literal reading of the 'word of God' (long since abandoned by mainstream theologians) is in itself a superstition. Because even if we assume that the original Scriptural text (in some Oriental language) really was the 'true word of God', then this is not at all what the Bible Belt literalists are actually reading.

What they are reading instead is a relatively modern English text, based on (and modified from) an older English text, which in turn was based on (and modified from) an even older English text, which was translated from (and modified from) a Latin text, which was translated from (and modified from) a Greek text, which was … etc, etc. The 'true literal word of God' is simply nowhere to be found in an English-language Bible.

The subject-matter of the Scriptures (creation of all creatures -- in their present form -- in 6 days, only some 6 000 years ago) doesn't fit the geological and biological evidence in the least. So believing in such myths as fact is clearly an example of gross superstition.

Too little religion

Superstition in itself is hardly remarkable -- there have always been superstitious people, particularly among the uneducated. The amazing thing is that this is not happening to unfortunate illiterates in some backward corner of the world, but to around one hundred million people in the middle of the United States, a country where almost everybody is extremely well educated (compared to the overall global level). What is so special about religiously oriented Americans that sets them so glaringly apart from correspondingly inclined Brits, Swedes, Germans or Frenchmen?

The explanation is surprisingly not that there is too much religion in America. On the contrary, there is actually too little of it. Or putting it in another way -- American Bible Belt religion sadly lacks theology.

Protestant objections

One important protestant objection to 16th century Catholicism was that the Church was putting itself in the way of God. Instead of listening first hand to the word of God, you had to go through a go-between, a Latin-mumbling priest. Vernacular translations of the Bible, accessible to everybody, were seen to be the answer. This would liberate the parishioners, putting them in direct contact with the Divine by letting the people read the Bible for themselves.

As protestant theologians soon discovered, just reading the Bible didn't solve all divine problems -- you had to interpret the sometimes bewildering messages as well. Over the centuries the learned clerics in Europe discovered that only a metaphorical interpretation was reasonable. This remains as the present-day mainstream theological position.

Too poor for theology

In contrast, the persecuted protestant dissidents who arrived in America didn't have many analytically-minded theologians among them. But they all shared their original protestant obsession with the 'unadulterated word of God', i.e. reading the Bible without interference from priests or authorities. The congregations were generally small, too small to afford professional theologians. Soon they found themselves spread out all over the vast American landscape, in a multitude of splinter groups with even less opportunity for doing serious theology. Hence the idea that religion = literalist Bible reading became entrenched.

The antidote to brimstone: theology

American believers tend to quote the Old Testament much more frequently than the New Testament, using the quotes to buttress their various prejudices. On the surface this would seem puzzling, because at the same time they loudly profess being Christians, constantly crying 'Jesus saves'.

However, the Christian message in the New Testament is much less likely to be psychologically satisfying. The NT in effect only says that being kind to your fellow men is everybody's best strategy. This doesn't leave much room for acting out the various hateful emotions in the human soul, like craving for revenge and punishment and convincing yourself that your own way of looking at things is the only correct way.

So the 'fire-and-brimstone' tradition of American Bible Belt religion finds its fire by literally reading the sometimes quite nasty and bigoted passages in the Old Testament. This in turn leads to the Bible Belters holding amazingly obsolete and extremely cruel positions against their fellow men -- capital punishment, intolerance of any deviation from their self-defined norm.

Hence, what the Bible Belt preachers seem to need in order to become reasonably sane, is serious theology. This may very well be equally applicable to Muslim fundamentalists. As a religious non-believer, I'm not qualified to say whether Jesus saves or not. But I'm becoming more and more convinced that theology might be able to save the religiously meek.

Theology is the study of gods. Because no reliable witnesses have ever met any gods, this study largely concerns itself with either philosophical ponderings based on the premise that they surely must exist, or with the interpretation of texts written by people who have heard tales about other people, who in turn claimed to have talked to one or more of these gods a while back.


When you're trying to work out how something works, you can change what you're doing with it, and observe how it changes its response in return. Sometimes your actions directly affect its own actions, such as when you perform surgery without washing your hands first and your patient dies. This is known as cause and effect. Sometimes, however, there is no correlation between the two, but it happens anyway, like when you walk under a ladder on your way to work and then your next patient dies because you still didn't wash your hands.

The tricky part is to remember to not jump to conclusions. Instead of assuming that two things happening one after the other are the cause and effect of each other, try changing what you do first and see how that affects what happens next, if it even changes the outcome at all. You didn't walk under any ladders when that first poor person died, so maybe those two actions aren't related after all.

When someone believes that something will cause something else to happen, or prevent it from happening, without thoroughly checking whether this is really the case or not, it's called superstition. If it catches on to the extent where thousands of people believe the same thing, it's called a cult.

If you hear voices in your head telling you to do things like kill your son, that's called schizophrenia. If other people take you seriously and you're particularly charismatic, it's again called a cult. If you get enough followers to hold political sway over a country, then it's called a religion.


It is perfectly natural to attribute human characteristics to things that aren't understood at the time, such as the sun, moon and even the universe as a whole. When there appears to be a large ball of fire spinning around above your head, it's a comforting thought to imagine that it's just another person, albeit a very powerful one, who will keep a safe distance just as long as you kill enough virgins to show appropriate respect. It's much easier to predict the actions of another person, even a frightfully insecure one, than of a strange object floating in the sky that you can't even look straight at. Certainly, there won't be too many doubting Thomases - except maybe the unfortunate virgins - just in case you're right. After all, that fireball does look pretty hot.

The centre of attention

It's also perfectly normal to enjoy the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing you're somewhere - and someone - special. Certainly, no one wants to think about whether they're running around on three tenths of the surface of the third tiny marble out from a fusion reactor located at the distant outer reaches of a galaxy that's not particularly important or eventful.

People will generally prefer to think of themselves as being loved by the gods, whether they take the form of a cheerful sun or even the universe as a whole. As long as the whole thing was made just for us, and we're the most important things in it, we really don't mind about the details too much. The only tricky bit, of course, is getting everyone to agree on the particular details that aren't too important, so we can make sure no one's deluding themselves by wasting time worshipping the wrong gods. Naturally, in these enlightened times, almost everyone knows that Zeus, Thor, and John Frum don't exist, that there's only one correct way to worship Yahweh, or Allah as he's sometimes known, and that the motions of the planets only rarely reveal any insights into your love life - barely often enough to even make horoscopes commercially feasible.

Too little reality

The universe is a fascinating place, and the more we learn about it, the more we devise cunning ways to learn more about it. For example, it's really cool to discover that a prism can split apart a beam of white light into all the different bright colours that make it up. It looks beautiful to see the colour spectrum laid out like that, but that's nothing compared to what you'd work out next. It doesn't take long to notice that if the light bounces off a surface first, that surface absorbs some of the colours but not others. Once you start pointing that prism at things that aren't even on the planet, things start to get really interesting, because you can find out what other planets and even stars are made of without having to even leave your village, let alone your planet.

Whether it's the beautiful patterns that flowers have in ultraviolet light, something that bees can see but we cannot, or the way bats can navigate in the dark using sonar, nature's constantly surprising us with elegant, innovative ways of doing things. There's so much out there yet to discover, that it amazes me that people still sit around discussing the merits of various fairy tales posing as authoritive guides, when instead they could get up and take a look around at what's really out there.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.