Fear and Superstition

Are you ever afraid of unseen forces? Do you feel that something out there is ready to do you harm? Do you ever think you might be able to persuade them to leave you alone—or perhaps even to help you?

Are these unseen forces good or evil?

Fear and Superstition

image credit: Ben Earwicker

The Origins of Superstition

It seems that from the earliest times, humanity has been consumed with fear and superstition. This is not difficult to understand. Imagine our distant generations when we were hunters and gatherers and just becoming aware of ourselves.

We were also becoming aware of our environment; we noticed things around us and began to ask questions. What causes destructive weather? Why does fire burn our shelters and our people? Why do we sometimes find food and sometimes we do not? Why do we become sick and die? Today, we understand why these things happen, but in earlier days we did not.

The forces of nature often seemed random and arbitrary to our ancestors, but they thought there must be something behind them. It is understandable that they would believe that uncontrollable and random events were caused by unknown entities with intelligence and power. To them, nature was alive with unseen entities; they filled the forests, lakes, and skies.

It seemed to our ancestors that these entities could help humans or harm them, so it became important to try to guess what they wanted. Many came to believe they could appease them or gain their favor with sacrifices of food, gifts, or even the blood of humans.

In ancient times, certain unseen entities were thought to have more power than others. Sometimes a god of one clan was called upon to bring victory over another clan. The winning clan was the one with the strongest god. Gods even battled with each other, and these battles often had ramifications among humans. In Mesopotamia, it was believed that the heavens and earth were created by a victorious god with the body of the vanquished god.

Something like this is what most anthropologists believe was the origin of belief in gods and spirits. It also produced fear and superstition.

Superstition and Science

The simple belief that we are surrounded by invisible entities is not necessarily harmful, but when we try to appease them or gain their favor we begin to fear them and their power. We begin to try either to obey them or to manipulate them until they have a massive influence over our lives and behavior even though they do not exist at all.

In some ways superstition and science are similar; their roots are the same—we begin with a hypothesis and then we test it. However there is a difference in that science repeats the test until the hypothesis is deemed valid or invalid, whereas the superstitious often hold to a superstition if it seems to work once in a while. Even an occasional tenuous positive result is seen as proof of the superstition.

Superstitious Fear

Constructing a world of spirits and gods to explain the unknown aspects of nature might have been a reasonable attempt by our ancestors to understand the environment, but it also created the harmful effects of superstition and fear. Perhaps we should combine the two terms and call it superstitious fear.

Superstitious fear of the gods can make us do anything, and some of the things we think the gods require are horrible. Fear of the gods also brings a sense of alienation. Very few believe they have a secure relationship with their god, and those who feel secure do so only because they think they follow all the strict requirements of their god.

Superstitious fear is bad for people. It is a terrible burden on a person’s spirit, freedom, and happiness. And it prevents us from progressing as individuals and as a group. Is superstitious fear an issue only for non-Christians or do Christians have superstitious fear as well? We will discuss this question next time.

Your observations and comments are welcome below.
If you enjoyed this or found it helpful, please sign up for updates in the column to the right (email, RSS, Facebook, or Twitter) so that you don’t miss future posts. Also consider sharing this post using the buttons below. Have a great day! ~Tim
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8 Responses to Fear and Superstition

  1. Makes me think a bit of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Bad faith” that he attributed to Abraham. If I followed you right, superstitious leads to fear (leads to …the dark side ;)) and there are many people who suffer this, but those with faith who don’t have this fear only don’t have it because they feel confident that they are justified by their actions. Then you ask us to abandon our fear, so does that mean we should seek to justify ourselves by our actions?

    Personally I’ve suffered from doubt and fear but I keep coming back to God’s love, and it is that which gives me security and helps me to overcome all kinds of fear.

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    • You said “Then you ask us to abandon our fear, so does that mean we should seek to justify ourselves by our actions?”

      You are correct in pointing out that this is unclear and confusing; I really appreciate the question and the challenge. I have edited the last paragraph to remove some of the confusion, but the more complete answer comes in my next post, as this article now states.

      The short answer is, ‘No, we should not seek to justify our actions.’ In fact, I see the attempt to justify our actions as a serious problem among some believers as they respond to the Father out of fear. I hope you will read my post on Thursday; I would love to learn whether it answers your question adequately.

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  2. I don’t intend this to sound snide, so please take this as a genuine question. What, for you, separates faith in God from superstitions? I realise that your faith in God does not produce fear, which is one obvious difference. But what gives you confidence that your concept of God is not produced by similar mental mechanisms to the ones which produce fear?

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  3. Jonny, this is a very good question! In fact, as soon as I read it I knew I needed to write a post on the topic, which I will probably do next week (I will credit you with the question.) I begin, though, by saying that I do not HAVE faith in God, meaning that I do not look around at nature and say, ‘Hey, there must be something behind all this!’; I suspect there is a God only because Jesus talks so much of the Father.

    This, of course, changes the question to one of faith in Jesus, and I do not have ‘faith’ in Jesus the way many believers and unbelievers think of faith; I trust Jesus based on the portrait of him that I find from the memories of his earliest followers. I do not have faith in their authoritative memories, but I believe they are reasonably accurate based on the evidence I have. If that evidence is wrong, then I have nothing else, but after much searching I have found no reason to believe they are wrong.

    We hold many important opinions based on evidence we have that is reasonable but not absolutely verifiable–economic theory and political theory are examples. This is different from superstition, blind faith, or an appeal to authority. I will try to develop my thoughts more presentably and post them soon. Thanks for your important question!

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  4. Robin says:

    This post is thought provoking for me. The feeling of fear for me is about both good and evil, I fear ‘God’ may not be pleased with me and may attempt to ‘teach or discipline’ me. I fear evil for its seemingly random, rampant nature. I hope to come to an understanding that leads away from being afraid of ‘God’, but how that could ever be possible when scripture says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Hell, judgement, discipline, testing…how do Christians manage to not be afraid??

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    • Hi Robin, I certainly empathize with your concern.

      You said, “I hope to come to an understanding that leads away from being afraid of ‘God’, but how that could ever be possible when scripture says ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.'” This is understandable; the Old Testament often portrays God as fearsome and judgmental, but we learn from Jesus that this is not so.

      The passage you quoted is from Proverbs chapter 9, but Proverb is not a description of God’s commands or demands; it is a collection of good sense advice taken from everyday observation. I have not done a word study here, but likely the word ‘respect’, instead of ‘fear’, would give us a better sense of the thought. There is no reason to fear God.

      Many believers suggest as you do that perhaps God is teaching or disciplining us like an earthly father would do. This might be true, but it should not induce fear. While earthly fathers sometimes use punishment with children, it should not cause children to be afraid of their fathers. And, once a child develops mature thinking, the father no longer needs to punish his kids at all. We need not be afraid of hell either. The idea of a burning torture is not taught in the Bible. You may wish to read my next blog post, ‘Christian Fear and Superstition’ which addresses this.

      If you have other specific concerns, I am happy to discuss them with you. I think you can come to a place where you no longer are afraid of God. Regarding random acts of nature, I agree that they can catch us unaware, but I suggest that we need not spend our time worrying about it.

      I look forward to speaking with you again. ~Tim Chastain

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  5. Pingback: Christian Fear and Superstition | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Pingback: How is Faith in God Different from Superstition? | Jesus Without Baggage

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