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. Saint John Henry Newman
Newman’s point in this startling statement is that superstition and religion have something in common, viz., a belief in a spiritual realm that is accessible to human beings. We know that our prayers and rites are pleasing to God and open our hearts to the influence of his grace. The error of superstition, therefore, is not in its recognition of a transcendent reality. Rather is it mistaken in the conviction that by certain formulae and practices it can control these supernatural powers. Many of its practices have become harmless over time, such as knocking on wood to cancel the dangers occasioned by an act of hubris, but some remain harmful, even evil, such as a belief the evil eye or voodoo.
Newman noted that when religion goes wrong it degenerates into superstition. It follows, then, that the purification of superstition will lead back to authentic religion in which prayers and ceremonies will be offered to God in humble submission to his providential care. In other words, superstition lends itself to correction when the element of magic is eliminated. The opposite of superstition is religious scepticism, and it too is the corruption of something good, namely, man’s power of reasoning. Just as, when religion goes wrong, it moves into superstition, so reason degenerates into scepticism when it claims that reality is limited to what human intelligence can discover about the physical world. And as the superstitious person is too gullible, so is the sceptic too dismissive of anything he cannot prove by experiment and in the hard court of logic.