With the “Messiah,” “God-man,” “Prince of Peace,” “Son of God,” “God Incarnate” etc., the entire concept and means of approaching the divine was qualitatively different than the institutions of Judaism and different than classic pagan superstition. The Kingdom of God came to earth through truly extraordinary means: an ordinary Jewish peasant from Galilee, performing miracles and preaching outside of the official channels of the religious establishment. The whole thing was too scandalous to bear—as Jesus’ own death ultimately testified.
“They proclaim our madness to consist in this,” wrote Justin Martyr in the 160s, “that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein.” Indeed, Christianity was weird and different—but not superstitious. It’s vision, world-and-life view didn’t consist of raw fabrication or far-fetched tales about dozens of inferential deities giving birth to dozens more. There was (and is) something particularly concrete and definitive about its story, claims, and historical existence.
In fact, Justin was one of several in the next few generations that would convert to Christianity because of this very distinction. Tertullian, Augustine, and other great minds of the age also found Christianity intellectually satisfying when compared to the alternatives. Sometime in the early 200s, Clement of Alexandria lamented others’ entrapment in religious nonsense:
This wicked tyrant and serpent, accordingly, binding fast with the miserable chain of superstition whomsoever he can draw to his side from their birth, to stones, and stocks, and images, and such like idols, may with truth be said to have taken and buried living men with those dead idols, till both suffer corruption together. (Exhortation to the Heathen)
The distinction is again clear. There are the superstitious gods of human imagination—as Marx alluded to (see Part 1) and that Clement speaks of here. But then there is Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and creation’s God, who Marx accidentally defenestrated and the Jews and Romans accidentally crucified. Yes, Justin Martyr confessed in his First Apology, Christians really are atheists—“so far as gods of this sort are concerned.”
The teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus opened a window to the reality that other brilliant minds were pointing to all along. “That which the chiefs of philosophy only guessed at” says Clement, “the disciples of Christ have both apprehended and proclaimed.” What then of these imposters and projections? What of this religious superstition? Clement was once again very clear:
“Zeus is dead.” – Clement of Alexandria
Strange, indeed, that many today have heard the quote of Nietzsche in his criticism of Christianity (“God is dead”), but virtually no one has heard early Christian thinkers say the same in their criticism of religious superstition.
Could it be that a misleading narrative permeates our age, telling us that YHWH, Jesus, and the Roman pantheon are all one and the same when in fact it is impossible to even make this assertion without trivializing Christianity’s own distinctive and historical meaning? If Christianity can’t even be allowed to exist on paper in its own cultural, historical, and theological context, why bother demanding its eradication at all? For what would one be eradicating but a projection of one’s own imaginative, stereotypical opponent? We’re back to Dostoevsky.
The most popular Creed in church history (Nicene) made it clear enough. It plainly summarized the Christ-story and did so as if it was rationally compelling, because it was. It was a creed not of mythological gods and genealogies (“business as usual”), but of a real “Mary,” “Pontius Pilate,” and other “in our space-time continuum” characters. This concern is there precisely because the claims of the Christ-story are inescapably historical. It was the Apostle Paul himself who said, for instance, “if Christ has not been raised our faith is worthless” (1 Cor 15). (And no, he did not mean “resurrection” in some “spiritual” or “metaphysical” sense—nor did anyone else who used that term during the first century.)
But let’s go earlier than Nicene orthodoxy. Consider Ignatius in the early 100s CE, who said on his way to being torn up by beasts in the theatre:
“Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died; in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead…”
Why the stress on everything being so real? Again, because (a) Christianity is viewed as authentic, not superstitious and spurious, and (b) second-generation Christians who didn’t see with their own eyes the risen Lord would obviously be tempted to doubt the whole story. If the second generation weren’t convinced of all that had happened, what then?
Well, perhaps superstition would come back to fill the vacuum and haunt the cathedral.
As it turned out, that’s precisely what happened.
Christianity’s Needless Shift to the Incredulous
Like so much of early Christianity (e.g., its views on the state, outcasts/minorities, non-violence, generosity, etc.), this primitive contrast with superstitious practice was compromised and forgotten. Time rolled on and the radicality of the kerygma faded. Similar to Israel’s wondering and apostasy in the Hebrew scriptures, the church’s identity and worship degraded into nothing less than the religious nonsense of old.
Many of the faithful retreated to the desert and formed monasteries to escape the madness while others tried to reform “from the inside.” But by the time Martin Luther (a monk) came on the scene, the spiritual, social, and ecclesiastical perversion was now commonplace:
- People were praying to the dead.
- People were praying to pictures of the dead.
- Body parts (relics) of dead martyrs were publicly revered and venerated.
- Pastoral positions were bought with cash (“simony”).
- Pastors had mistresses, concubines, and engaged in prostitution (using money collected from their congregations!).
- The Lord’s Table and baptism morphed from communal sacramentum to rites of rank superstition, only valid with the right Latin words, gestures, and performer.
- The priest of Rome evolved into the Vicar of Christ himself—infallible and the singular authority of all churches everywhere in the world.
- The church (even with its own armies—yes, armies) became paranoid, threatening everyone with the fires of both this world and the next for mere noncompliance.
- The church funded building projects—even funded wars—with promises to forgive sins (indulgences).
- All of the above was legitimated by radical claims of divine authority, biblical origination, and being taught by “the early church fathers.”
There is no escaping the historical reality: medieval Catholicism was religious superstition par excellence. It represented(s) everything that Christianity was originally contrasted with. It is no irony that these traditional (“Roman Catholic”) beliefs emerged in Rome—the ancient and renown seedbed of religious superstition. A thousand years after the first century, the city’s cultural and ideological milieu had come full-circle.
It goes without saying that millions in the world believe the above list comprises distinctive or even “traditional” Christian beliefs. This is a horrifying mistake if not simply a popular tragedy. Should there be any doubt, one only has to read the Nicene Creed’s own statement about the church to know what the church is about: Christians believe in “one, holy, catholic apostolic church.” This is much different than “a disconnected, corrupt and immoral, locally restricted and monopolized, non-apostolic church,” or some other variant. The difference here is plain.
But it wasn’t so plain for the average Christian prior to 1517 and Martin Luther’s famous performance. Only those privileged enough to be able to “zoom out” of society through intellectual, historical, and social exposure could see what was really happening. Luther’s contemporary, the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, serves as one example. He had a hey-day mocking the whole ordeal. In sharp rhetoric, his Praise of Folly summarizes the kind of absurdities found above and then concludes with the poignant words: “The life of Christians everywhere runs over with such nonsense.”
Those theologians in the later era of the Reformation went as far as to codify such observations in creeds and confessions. The Second Helvetic Confession, for example, explicitly condemns several religious superstitions in chapters 24 and 26, and attributes the job of magistrates to “root out lies and all superstition” (cf. WCF ch 22). The literature of the time is filled with such complaints—and rightly so. The Christian faith lost credibility; its rituals, beliefs, and institutions evolved into some kind of sick religious joke.
This brings us up to the modern period, which the last two segments already addressed. Should time allow, one could dig a bit deeper into Hume, Feuerbach, and contemporaries of Marx to see the charge of religious superstition develop into its many forms. But, as an essay for a more popular audience, this discussion is excised, as have many things included been simplified.
But hopefully it is clear that thinkers like Marx and his present-day successors should at least pause before condemning all religion as “superstition,” and condemning adherents to “the guillotine.” It is one thing to refute claims on an academic level and know the limitations of human knowledge in this process. It is quite another to dismiss thousands of years of human experience, literature, and some of the brightest minds the world has ever seen because, having arrived, we now know with absolute certainty that all forms of religion are essentially incredulous. In a day when neurologists are viewed as experts on theology, journalists as experts on ethics, and biologists as experts in history, perhaps this observation may serve as a much-needed call to humility.