Would you board Flight 666 to HEL on Friday the 13th? Finnair flight AY666 to Helsinki (HEL) will operate today, and the flight is almost full.1 It is estimated that $800–$900 million is lost in business on Friday the 13th because people will not fly or do business they normally would do.2
The fear of Friday the 13th is known as paraskevidekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia. Though there is no written evidence for a Friday the 13th superstition prior to the nineteenth century, it is well enough known today. Several theories have been put forth as to the reasons for this.
One theory2 is that the root of the superstition can be traced back to the Bible, with particular reference to the Last Supper. Jesus, it has been traditionally held, was crucified on a Friday, and the presence of thirteen people at the Last Supper spelled doom for him. This combination of Friday and the number thirteen has spawned over time into the contemporary Friday the 13th superstition.
It is far from clear that this is the actual source of the superstition, but it does show that many consider Christianity to be nothing more than superstition. Richard Dawkins, for example, speaks of Christianity as “taught superstitions drawn from ancient scriptures.”4 Thomas Jefferson once spoke of Christianity as “our particular superstition”5.
Superstition can be defined as “an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.” Wikipedia defines the word as “belief in supernatural causality.” These definitions are important because they help us determine, not only whether Christianity can legitimately be referred to as a superstition, but also how Christians should think about the matter of superstition.
Superstitions abound. With specific reference to paraskevidekatriaphobia, it is thought by the superstitious that the random occurrence of the thirteenth day of a given month happening to fall on a Friday may determine one’s fortunes on that particular day. Others believe that walking under a ladder or being unfortunate enough to have a black cat cross one’s path will produce bad luck. And woe to the person who accidentally shatters a mirror!
It is easy enough to see how these beliefs are “irrational.” And it is simple enough to see how a rational person would dismiss such beliefs as nonsense.
The question is whether or not it is fair to define Christianity in these terms. Lon Hetrick has helpfully noted at least two reasons why this is not fair.6
First, Christianity is based on historical events that have been reliably recorded in the Bible. Superstition, on the other hand, is apparent and arbitrary. It is irrational and illogical. But Christianity is rooted in historical events—things that actually happened.
Second, Christianity is primarily a set of beliefs. Superstition is a fear of personal ill being determined by arbitrary events. Christianity itself is a set of truth claims taught by Jesus Christ, and is far more than simply a personal thing. The truths of Christianity, embraced, lead to a relationship with Christ, but Christianity cannot be divorced from absolute truth. Jesus made absolute claims, and to deny those absolute claims is to deny the Christian faith.
To these two criteria, I would add a third: Unlike superstition, Christianity is not about causality. That is, Christianity does not teach that certain rituals and practices in some way offer protection against ill fortune. We do not somehow manipulate God to do our bidding by being good, or praying, or reading our Bible, or going to church. The practice or neglect of these things does not affect our circumstances. It is the sovereign God who controls our circumstances, not rituals or practices.
The word “superstition” is not found in modern translations of the Bible. The KJV uses the word in Acts 17:22, when Paul accused the Athenians of being “too superstitious,” but this is generally replaced in modern translations with “religious.” The older translation may be onto something though, because the Athenian religion was little more than superstition. They believed that certain acts of worship would secure the favour of the gods.
The God of the Bible, however, cannot be manipulated. He places certain demands on his people, but obedience to those commands does not in some way force his hand of favour. God is gracious, and often chooses to shower his favour on those who obey him, but that is a matter of grace, and not coercion.
Superstition flies in the face of biblical Christianity precisely because God is sovereign. As the psalmist wrote, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). To attribute control of circumstances to anything other than God is to be guilty of idolatry.
God controls our every fortune or misfortune. Walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, crossing paths with a black cat, or getting out of bed on Friday the 13th have nothing to do with your circumstances. Misfortune, like fortune, arises by the kind providence of God. And those providences occur, not by our observance of rituals and practices, but by his sovereign determination.
What does this mean for us? One (inactive) blogger has coined the term “religistition” to describe “the not-so-commonly-referred-to-as infectious disease that is religion.” While Christianity can hardly be fairly defined as superstition, it can be fairly stated that many Christians and professing Christians are indeed guilty of superstition.
It is almost disturbing the number of Christians who ascribe personality traits to a star sign or temperament to red hair. Let’s be quite clear: Hair colour does not determine temperament. Your personality is not controlled by the star sign under which you were born.
Christians can also unwittingly and even jokingly lend credence to superstitious beliefs. How frequently do we hear Christians qualify their statements with phrases like “touch wood”? Or consider some misguided religious superstitions. Some lend far more weight to the number 666 than is biblically warranted. There is not a shred of biblical warrant for irrationally fearing the number.
Or consider the folly of Christian karma. This is sometimes guised by an appeal to the biblical sowing-and-reaping principle but in reality is nothing more than Christianised Hinduism. It goes something like this: “Don’t lie that you’re sick, or you will actually get sick!”7 Or it may look like this: “Don’t say that winter is over or a cold front will hit next weekend.” The thinking is that an unwise course of action or choice of words will jinx you. Certainly there are a lot of Christians who don’t actually believe this but say things like this jokingly, but there are a good many who lend such theories far more credence than they deserve.
And then there are those who are nothing more than Christian fatalists. They often hide their superstition behind the veneer of “God willing.” We ought to live with the deliberate mindset of Deo volente (James 4:13–17), but the words are not a magical formula that secures favourable circumstances. We do not do nothing and make no plans “because God’s will is going to be done anyway.” Be deliberate in your planning and your obedience even as you live with the mindset of Deo volente.
Of course, while Christian disciplines—Bible reading, prayer, faithful church attendance—are not designed to be superstitious acts, it is possible for them to become just that. It is possible for Christians to superstitiously believe that they will secure God’s favour by doing these things, or by avoiding other things, just as avoiding black cats will secure good fortune.
The cure for superstition is firm, biblical conviction of the sovereignty of God. Even rational unbelievers can see the folly in superstition, and as believers in Christ we ought to see this in an even clearer way. As one blogger has put it, “as a Christian, I have even more reasons to dismiss superstition outright—among other things, I have a loving God who is not arbitrary, a Bible that tells us of a specific plan for our lives, and a blessed hope that is the exact opposite of superstition.”8