Three Cheers for Superstition

In the ancient, world it was common for philosophical men to make a distinction between religion (a good thing) and superstition (a bad thing).  They thought of the latter as a vicious excess of the former, just as cowardice is a vicious excess of caution.

Among Protestants, one of the great objections to Catholicism has always been that Catholics (also known as papists or Romanists or mackerel-snappers) are prone to “superstition.”

This objection was particularly strong among those situated at the Puritan end of the Protestant spectrum.  Puritanism, which Edmund Burke described as “the Protestantism of the Protestant religion,” made a great attempt to purge all “superstition” from Christianity.  For the Puritans, only two things were holy: God and the Bible (which was the literal word of God).

And thus Puritans made sure that their Christianity would be quite free of many things that ordinary Catholics felt to be holy—things like statues and paintings of saints, stained-glass windows, priestly vestments, rosary beads, religious medals, so-called “holy days” (including Christmas), shrines, pilgrimages to Canterbury, and so on.  By making these and a thousand other trivial things holy – said the Puritanical among Protestants – Catholics were subtracting something from the holiness of God.

The Puritans even demoted the mother of Jesus from the high rank Catholics had given her and did this despite the very high rank that the New Testament, especially the Gospel of Luke, had given her.  The Catholic veneration of Mary seemed to Puritans to be a kind of adoration, something due to God alone.  Catholics had turned Mary into a goddess, they believed, thereby undermining the unique divinity of God.

Half, or more than half, of the great Catholic cathedrals of the Middle Ages had been dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  These cathedrals, to the Puritan mind, had little to do with true religion.  They were monuments of art – monuments of architecture, painting, sculpture, and stained-glass window-making – and they were monuments of superstition, but they were not true monuments of true Christianity.

And therefore, when the Puritans – after they had finished demolishing much of the idolatrous art of the old church buildings of the Catholic religion, and after they had trashed the shrine of the “holy blissful martyr” at Canterbury – built their own church buildings, they took care to make sure that these new and improved buildings would be free of the idols that would excite the superstitious feelings of semi-Christians.

Next to the fall foliage and probably surpassing it in loveliness, the most charming features of the New England countryside are the many old Congregational churches still standing.  The New England Congregationalists were precisely the people Burke had in mind when he spoke of “the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.”


On the outside, their church buildings are simple and pure white: no color, no ornamentation.  Inside there are no statues, no paintings or stained-glass windows.  If there is a cross, it is a cross without a corpus.  It is a cross, not a crucifix.  The Virgin Mary is nowhere to be seen.  Everything is pure and clean.  Here superstition dare not show its ugly head.

While Puritans were building church buildings of stark simplicity, Catholics in Europe were adopting the baroque style of church architecture.  It is as if Catholicism were saying to Protestantism: “Down with simplicity!  Long live ornateness!”

It’s worth noting, both for theological and for historical purposes, that New England Puritanism (a magnificent thing in many ways, for it is hard to imagine that the United States of America could have been founded without the powerful impulse provided by New England Congregationalism) led to Unitarianism, which was the beginning of liberal Protestantism in America.  And that liberal Protestantism (as St. John Henry Newman had predicted) opened the downhill road to infidelity and eventually downright atheism.

If Catholicism is less likely than Protestantism to lead down the road to infidelity and atheism, this is largely due to the Catholic proneness to “superstition.”  What lies behind the Catholic proneness to superstition if not a feeling that there are two realms of being, a natural realm and a supernatural realm?

Ordinary Catholics have always had the conviction that there is a higher, invisible order of being, and that this higher order could at any moment break through to our lower world.  Almost every day it breaks through with miracles and answered prayers and warnings, and punishment for sin, and apparitions, and feelings that God is in the room.

Some of these breakthroughs have been more momentous than others; for instance, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.  The greatest breakthrough of all had happened during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, when God became man (as conceived by a virgin, no less), and lived among us for a few decades, and suffered and died for our sins, and rose from the dead.  And this God-man remains among us in the Eucharist.

Persons who have a generalized belief in the existence of higher, supernatural powers that can intervene in our world, in big ways and small, a generalized belief that will sometimes slip over into superstition – such persons find it relatively easy to believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and all the other articles of the Catholic Creed.

In their admirable desire to rid the world of superstition and idolatry, Puritans probably went too far in the opposite direction.  Except for The One Big Thing – the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – they de-sacralized the world.  De-sacralization was good for commerce and science, but not so good for Christian belief.

Writing in mid-Victorian England, John Henry Newman (now a Catholic saint) observed: “I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.

Wise words from a wise man.


*Image: Portrait of a Puritan Lady by an unknown English School painter, 1658 [Berwick Museum & Art Gallery, Berwick-upon-Tweed, England]

You may also enjoy:

Anthony Esolen’s Dogged-Catholic Realism

G.K. Chesterton’s Puritans were rationalists


David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.