Every time that Friday the 13th rolls around, superstitions abound in the news. Black cats, ladders, and broken mirrors receive special attention, and many people avoid travel on this day for fear of accidents (though it was on Friday the 13th that I first drove here to Washington to visit the House of Studies).
Popular use of the term “superstition” suggests a belief in any sort of supernatural power that cannot be explained by natural reason. For this reason, a common trend among modern atheists is to classify all religion as superstition, asserting that no religious claim can be in tune with rational thought. Of course, it’s true that the articles of faith cannot be demonstrated directly from reason alone—for if they could, then belief in them would not be faith at all—but many Internet atheists vehemently object to the idea of faith being reasonable at all, as seen in their reactions to the recent conversion of one of their own bloggers. Contrariwise, others, such as Dr. Edward Feser, author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, make the opposite claim: that it is the other side whose belief is superstitious. Which assertion, if either, is accurate?
Most of the reasoning behind the former claim results from a conflation of the concepts of religion and superstition. To avoid this, it helps to have a clear understanding of what religion is. Cicero, for one, said that it “consists in offering service and ceremonial rites to a superior nature that men call divine.” Therefore, religion is a virtue, namely, the potential part of justice concerning human relationships toward God, and God alone. Superstition, on the other hand, is best defined as the corresponding vice of excess. In this sense, excess does not mean giving too much worship to God, but rather directing the worship to something else, or revering God in a false way. St. Thomas and St. Augustine enumerate three modes in which this excess can take place: by idolatry, or attributing divine power to created objects (such as the stars, or lucky charms); by consulting the demons, even inadvertently, rather than God (such as through a Ouija board); and by trusting human observances over God (such as believing that you will get what you want if and only if you pray a novena at the same time every day).
The excess in question, therefore, lies in ascribing to something other than God what belongs to God alone, thereby giving too much reverence to something created, and not enough to the Creator. Thus, we can meet the claims of many atheists by supplying a distinction between the terms in question: superstition, far from characterizing religion as such, is a specific kind of misdirected religious act.
What, then, of Dr. Feser’s claim? How can the assertion of many of the “new atheists,” that all religious acts are misdirected, be itself categorized as superstition?
The key lies in asking what it is that causes all that exists in the universe. In doing so, one may find, by means of an argument that begins in natural science and continues within the realm of reason alone, one First Cause that brings all else into being out of nothing, and whom Christians identify with the Triune God, revealed through the Bible and proclaimed by the Church.
Thus, the virtue of religion is simply the habit of justice—giving others what is their due—directed towards this creative First Cause (although we can never fully repay our Creator). On the other hand, to deny the reverence due to God as Creator would be to attribute creative power to something else. Some materialistic scientists claim that physical laws (which cannot exist without matter) can bring matter into being out of nothing, while others try to redefine the concept of “nothing” to circumvent the phenomenon of creation. Equally inconclusive are attempts to explain the origin of the natural moral law without an omnipotent and provident First Cause to guide people in their pursuit of happiness. By neglecting the First Cause, one therefore credits nature itself for making nature possible, rather than giving the credit where it is due, namely, to God. Therefore, Feser’s point is demonstrated; atheism is a prime example of superstition of the first kind: attributing divine power to some created reality.
While it may be argued, then, that religious belief, which cannot be proven, is unreasonable, and thus superstitious, the one who argues thus is more properly characterized as superstitious. By paying reverence to the First Cause who made us from nothing, and by accepting the divine gift of faith that perfects this aspect of justice, we can rise above all superstitions and offer to the one true God worship that is fitting, right, and eminently reasonable.