Thursday, May 19, 2016
Augustine on Christianity and Superstition
A recent local story here made national news when a self-proclaimed psychic was indicted for bilking her “clients” out of over a million dollars, after promising to remove curses for them. I have often driven by her house, located off Rt. 29 North of Charlottesville, with its prominent sign advertising “psychic readings.”
That story brought to mind a section I recently read from Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (Book II, Section XX), in which the theologian describes early Christianity’s opposition to “superstitious things” instituted by men, including “prognostications,” “magical arts,” “books of haruspicy and augery,” the wearing of amulets, “enchantments,” “secret signs,” and other occult acts.
Augustine proceeds to list a number of superstitious practices common in his context (4-5th century Roman North Africa), including:
Wearing rings hung on the top of each ear and little ostrich bone rings on the fingers for good luck;
Telling a person with hiccups to cure his condition by holding his left thumb in his right hand;
It’s bad luck “if a limb trembles, or if a stone, dog, or child comes between friends, walking arm in arm [he notes that some on these occasions have been known to slug a small child with his fist and to strike dogs as well, though some dogs have bitten the attacker back!];
Kicking a stone can destroy a friendship;
It’s good luck to step on the threshold if you leave your house by the front door;
If you sneeze when putting on your shoes in the morning you should go back to bed;
If you stumble when leaving your house, you should go back home;
If mice gnaw on your clothes it is an omen of future ill [He cites an anecdote from Cato who when consulted by a man worried that mice has gnawed on his shoes replied there was nothing strange about that, “but that it would be strange indeed if the shoes had gnawed the mice”!].
Before we laugh at the ancients we should consider those today who carry a rabbit’s foot or who avoid stepping on cracks, having a black cat cross their path, or walking under ladders (though the latter has a practical dimension).
Augustine is describing how the rise of Christianity brought the rise of reasonable thinking and liberation from slavish superstition and occult practices. Of course, this was evident even in the time of the apostles when the converts at Ephesus got rid of their books of “curious arts” (Acts 19:18-19).
The formula is simple: more Christianity leads to less superstition; Less Christianity leads to more superstition. As we enter what some demographers are calling a “post-Christian” society, we must wonder if this will mean more superstition and less reason.