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The Perils of Superstition

People of religious faith are often stereotyped as uncritical, gullible simpletons who will believe any idle tale. In contrast, non-religious people are the paradigm of rationality and skeptical thought who aren’t fooled by silly beliefs.

But a 2007 Baylor University study showed that nonreligious people were more likely to believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena than religious people. While only about 8 percent of regular churchgoers exhibited “high” levels of belief in phenomena like ghosts or psychics, the figure jumped to 31 percent of those respondents who never attend church (Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe, p. 113).

I’m not saying Christians are never duped by superstition and that nonreligious people always are. There are many atheistic skeptics who, though I disagree with them about religion, I enjoy reading because they mercilessly refute hoaxers. Skeptic James Randi calls paranormal claims “flim-flam” and has debunked them for decades. He has continually offered to pay $1 million to anyone who can prove paranormal abilities within the boundaries of a controlled scientific experiment. The money has gone unclaimed.

Likewise, I always cringe when a fellow Catholic forwards me an email with a story that could be disproven with a few mouse clicks. Religious people may be less likely to believe in the paranormal, but you can still find plenty of them willing to believe the truly unbelievable. St. Paul urged believers to “test everything and hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Believers can’t afford to be deceived by empty philosophy (cf. Colossians 2:8), false prophets (cf. Matthew 7:15), or any of the following beliefs that can potentially lead us away from Christ.

Horoscopes and astrology

Astrology is a pseudoscience that claims that the location of stars and planets can affect the personalities and futures of human beings. Most people come into contact with the claims of astrologers when they read horoscopes, which are astrological interpretations found in newspapers or on astrology websites. Horoscopes rely on interpreting the position of the zodiac, or a belt of twelve constellations, in relation to the location and date of a person’s birth. Free horoscopes are quite vague and say things like “a new relationship will be forged today!” To get accurate predictions about the future one has to consult a “professional” astrologer, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not free.

Although these more costly horoscopes are just as vague and as useless as free ones, they all rely on the Forer effect, or a bias toward believing positive descriptions about ourselves to be accurate that could apply to a wide variety of people. The name comes from psychologist Bertram Forer, who told his students he was giving each of them a unique personality profile. While the students were impressed with how accurate the profiles were, it turns out they all said the same thing. Here’s an excerpt:

You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. . . . You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

Of course, everyone thinks they could do better, and we all have moments of introversion and extroversion, so it’s no surprise people would find a resemblance to their own life. Some critics might reply that even if astrology is fake it is harmless fun and there’s no reason to criticize it. However, the Church has a far different attitude toward astrology and psychic phenomena. The Catechism states unequivocally that:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone (CCC 2116).

Besides the belief in or practice of astrology being a serious sin (which should be reason enough to avoid it), Catholics should not engage in astrology because it doesn’t work. The 2009 Proceedings of the International Astronomical Association state that “astrological practice is by no means scientific” (Astronomy and Astrology, vol. 5, symposium S260). St. Augustine noted this in the fourth century by pointing out that twins would grow up to have very different futures and personalities (Confessions 7:6). Augustine went so far as to say that heresy and astrology “both come from the serpent, and desire to corrupt the Church’s virginity of heart, which she holds in undefiled faith” (Homilies on John 8:10).

According to the Vatican newspaper, La Obsservatore Romano, Pope Francis said in an April 5 homily that “it is not by resorting to magicians or to tarot that salvation is found: it is ‘in the name of Jesus. And we should bear witness to this. He is the one Savior’” (

Mediums and contacting the dead

While astrologers claim they can give us secret knowledge by consulting the stars, mediums claim they can give us secret knowledge by consulting the spirits of human beings who have died. On their television shows these psychics seem impressive as they pick a random stranger from the audience and recite things about a dead loved one that seem impossible for the psychic to know.

How do they do it? Some use paid actors or have information about their targets delivered to them via tools like earbud receivers. Others can pull the trick off even without help by using a technique called cold reading. First, the medium will talk about a particular subject, such as the pain of losing a parent. Then, they scan the audience to see if anyone, even subtly, is emotionally reacting to what they are talking about. They then ask their target a series of questions that reveal exactly what they are trying to discover. An exchange might go like this:

Psychic: I’m sensing that there was a man in your life whom you were close to who is gone. There’s something around his chest or abdomen. It’s causing a problem.

Target: Yes! My father died of stomach cancer.

Psychic: Okay, now I’m getting that you and him had something special related to December. There’s an M. . . . He wants you to have peace about that. It’s time to let that go.

Target: We used to always visit my Aunt Mary over Christmas, and the last time they had a huge fight, and I took her side ,and I just wish I had told him that I—

Psychic: Don’t worry, your father loves you and wants you to let that go. He wants you to have peace.

In this example, the psychic has used vague descriptions that could apply to almost anyone. Who hasn’t lost a father, brother, uncle, grandfather, or even a close male friend? What fatal diseases don’t inevitably affect the chest cavity? What couldn’t be connected to the holidays in December or the letter “M”?

When the psychic gets an answer wrong he simply moves on to the next clue. He counts on his targets generally remembering his successes and forgetting his failures. This error in thinking is called confirmation bias, or the tendency to value facts that support our favorite beliefs and discard facts that disprove those beliefs. This bias also explains why people remember accurate horoscopes and fail to remember the many inaccurate ones that disprove astrology.

Not harmless fun

Some people may say that these mediums provide entertainment, and it’s nothing to worry about. Well, tell that to the relatives of missing persons who are tricked by mediums into spending thousands of dollars as a last-ditch effort to find the person they love. All that happens is that these relatives are given false hope that the person will be found (they never are, or at least they are never found based on the psychic’s help). The family may also be traumatized by fake descriptions of the person’s murder and a vague clue that the person’s body is “in a dark place near running water.”

Even regular psychics can dupe people into spending as much as hundreds of dollars per hour for their services, and so they are far from harmless. Finally, the possibility that psychics could be aided by demonic forces presents another grave reason to stay away from them.

One of the best ways to debunk these charlatans is by consulting faithful believers who know their tricks, especially professional magicians. My colleague and host of Catholic Answers Live, Patrick Coffin, is himself an able magician and knows the tricks behind making it seem like you can read someone’s mind. Patrick scoffs at so-called psychics and asks, “If they have psychic abilities, then why do they always have to ask you what your name is?”

The Church does not condemn stage magic such as the kind Patrick practices, because in those cases the audience knows that the source of the illusion is the magician’s ingenuity and not any supernatural force. However, the Church does condemn the act of summoning the dead in order to communicate with them, a practice called necromancy (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10). A vivid biblical example of necromancy is found in 1 Samuel 28, where Saul summons the ghost of the prophet Samuel with the assistance of the witch of Endor.

A contemporary form of necromancy involves the use of the Ouija board. Participants place their fingers on a pointer, and “spirits” allegedly move the pointer over letters and numbers on the board in a way that enables the spirits to transmit a message to the living. As a youth prior to his conversion, G. K. Chesterton and his brother would play with the Ouija board and receive strange and even evil messages through it. He writes in his autobiography, “I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even hellfire” (Autobiography, p. 88).

Some fundamentalist critics of Catholicism claim that praying to saints is a form of necromancy. The key difference between saintly intercession and necromancy is that intercession involves only asking the saints to present our petitions to God, which is an ability God has granted heavenly beings since they dwell with him in the beatific vision (Rev. 5:8-9). Necromancy, on the other hand, involves two-way communication that summons the dead through magic in order to extract information from them. This desire to circumvent God and exchange information with the dead makes necromancy a grave sin. Finally, as the 1973 movie The Exorcist terrifyingly portrayed, it’s possible the spirits who are summoned by the Ouija board may not be the friendly kind.

Catholic superstition

Some of you may be thinking, “I stay away from all that paranormal stuff. I only read and listen to Catholic things, so I’m safe from being duped.” Of course, even God’s own house is not safe from superstition and false beliefs that believers must guard against. One doesn’t need to look far to find online novenas that are “guaranteed” to grant any prayer intention, or Catholic prophets who claim to know the future based on a private revelation from God.

How can Catholics protect themselves from erroneous or dangerous beliefs that appear to be Catholic? By judging these beliefs in light of the public revelation God has provided his Church. According to the Catechism, superstition occurs when one attributes “the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand” (CCC 2111).

A novena that will grant any petition the person desires is a spiritual vending machine that is condemned by James 4:3: “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Belief that the act of saying a prayer, or leaving nine copies of it in the church vestibule, will guarantee a certain outcome defeats the entire purpose of prayer.

Similarly, the practice of burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in hopes that God will sell your home faster (because St. Joseph is irritated to be in such a position and would like it ended immediately) dishonors God. These superstitions put us in the position of trying to manipulate God to do our will instead of honestly praying to God and being willing to submit to his will, even if that involves God not granting our petitions.

What about prophets or people who claim to have a private relation from God about matters like heaven or the future? Can they be trusted? According to the Catechism, God may reveal sacred truths to people in a private way, and the Church has even authenticated some of these revelations (such as the revelation of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary). However, these private revelations neither add to nor correct public revelation, and no one is obligated to believe them. Any alleged revelation is false if it contradicts the public revelation entrusted to the magisterium in either Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition (CCC 67). If a claim to private revelation does not contradict Church teaching, then it may be truthful but not necessarily so. The faithful should approach alleged prophets with a healthy dose of skepticism, putting their ultimate faith not in prophets or seers of God but in the Spirit of God himself.

Catholic “urban legends”

According to the popular skeptic website, an urban legend is a tale that “circulates widely, is told and retold with differing details (or exists in multiple versions), and is said to be true.” I’ve noticed that Christians have their own “urban legends” that seem to get uncritically passed around without anyone checking to see if the story is true. Here are some examples that can be found at the website.

Einstein Beats the Atheist. In this story, a young Einstein debates an atheist professor and shows him that his main objection to God—that he created evil—is a bad one, because evil has no existence and is just an absence of being, like cold or darkness. Therefore, God never created it. However, Einstein did not believe in a personal God and made that clear several times in his life (see Kara Trippett’s 2010 book, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit). While this story never happened, the argument in it is still a good one, and it doesn’t take Einstein to answer the problem of evil.

The Well to Hell. This story has some origins in a 1989 Trinity Broadcast Network television show that claimed Russian scientists had drilled a hole so deep that they had reached hell itself. Some websites describing this story add cheesy sounds of “the damned” screaming in agony that the Russians allegedly recorded by lowering a microphone into the hole. While the Superdeep Borehole in Russia’s Kola Peninsula was at one time the deepest artificial hole in the world, the story is clearly false.

Joshua’s Lost Day. This is an amusing story about NASA scientists whose computers all malfunction while trying to calculate the past motion of the moon and other planets. A lone believing scientist reminds his coworkers that in Joshua 10:11-14 God miraculously stopped the sun and moon from moving for an entire day, and so their calculations are off by exactly one day. As a result the scientists fix their mistake, and God’s word is vindicated. However, NASA has officially said that not only is the story false, there is no way to calculate the past number of “days” in order for its computers to encounter such a malfunction in the first place. In addition, the passage in Joshua can be interpreted without recourse to the idea that the earth stopped rotating (which is something you think other civilizations at the time would have noticed). For example, God could have caused an optical illusion to make the sun appear to be shining for the Israelites when it actually wasn’t; or this could be a poetic way of saying that, with God’s help, the Israelites fought so well that their battle achieved in one day what would normally have taken two.

Contrast these urban legends with Paul’s report in Galatians 1:18-19. In this passage Paul describes how after his conversion he went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and the other apostles. The Greek word in the text for “meet” is histor?sai which means “to learn by investigation” and is the Greek root of the word “history.” Far from being a legend, our Faith is rooted in real people who followed the facts and came to know the risen Lord.

Spoiling fun or saving faith?

“C’mon, Trent. Why do you have to spoil things for everyone? Why can’t you just let people believe?” The answer is because I care too much about people to let them be deceived. Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). God didn’t create us for blissful ignorance; he made us for holiness and knowledge of him. Furthermore, how can nonbelievers take us seriously if they think Catholics will believe any idle tale or superstition that sounds interesting or plausible? Being a skeptic doesn’t mean rejecting everything; it means only rejecting those things that lack good evidence.

Catholics do not follow cleverly devised myths (cf. 2 Peter 1:16) but instead believe in wonderful things we know to be true. We don’t worry about the future and consult psychics, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and our futures are safe with him (cf. Hebrews 13:8). We appreciate private revelations, but we measure them against the trustworthy public revelation God has entrusted to the magisterium. We don’t need psychics, horoscopes, Ouija boards, magical statues, guaranteed novenas, or any other superstition because, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “God’s grace is enough.”

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