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Superstition In The Protestant And Catholic Reformations

The concept of superstition as a religious error was very influential during the Reformation, when Protestants defined many aspects of traditional Catholic worship, including pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, the cult of the saints, and the veneration of the consecrated host, as superstitious. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in his essay on superstition quoted Plutarch and followed him in believing atheism preferable to superstition, a position he particularly emphasized by placing the essay on superstition immediately after the one on atheism. Bacon listed as superstitions "pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; [and] overgreat reverence of traditions," recapitulating common Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric. The charge of superstition was also a polemical weapon in intra-Protestant battles. Bacon also hinted that there was a "superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received" a veiled thrust at the extreme Protestants of his day (Bacon, p. 40).

Catholic accusations of superstition against Protestants were less common, as the principal charge they made was heresy. Heresy differed from superstition in that it resulted from willful error rather than ignorance. In common usage, superstition also differed from heresy in that it was focused more on practices than beliefs. The early modern period also saw more secular analyses of superstition in Sir Thomas Browne's (1605–1682) Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) and the works of other collectors and denouncers of "vulgar errors" who preceded and followed him. These writers included superstitions among other false beliefs. Although in many places endorsing the theory that superstitions had been handed down from ancient pagans, Browne and his successors had more interest in cataloging and analyzing individual superstitions than did the theologians and religious polemicists. Their work contributed to the later development of the anthropological study of superstition.


In an issue of the Spectator dated 20 October 1711, Joseph Addison distinguished between superstition and enthusiasm, linking superstition with Catholicism, enthusiasm with Protestant Dissent, and "masculine piety" with the group he himself was a member of, the Church of England.

An Enthusiast in Religion is like an obstinate Clown, a Superstitious Man like an insipid Courtier. Enthusiasm has something in it of Madness, Superstition of Folly. Most of the Sects that fall short of the Church of England have in them strong Tinctures of Enthusiasm, as the Roman Catholick Religion is one huge overgrown Body of childish and idle Superstitions.

The Roman Catholick Church seems indeed irrecoverably lost in this Particular. If an absurd Dress or Behaviour be introduced in the World, it will soon be found out and discarded: On the contrary, a Habit or Ceremony, tho' never so ridiculous, which has taken Sanctuary in the Church, sticks in it for ever. A Gothic Bishop perhaps, thought it proper to repeat such a Form in such particular Shoes or Slippers. Another fancied it would be very decent if such a Part of publick Devotions were performed with a Mitre on his Head, and a Crosier in his Hand. To this a Brother Vandal, as wise as the others, adds an antick Dress, which he conceived would allude very aptly to such and such Mysteries, till by Degrees the whole Office has Degenerated Into an empty Show.

Their Successors see the Vanity and Inconvenience of these Ceremonies; but instead of reforming, perhaps add others, which they think more significant, and which take Possession in the same manner, and are never to be driven out after they have been once admitted. I have seen the Pope officiate at St. Peter's where, for two Hours together, he was busied in putting on or off his different Accoutrements, according to the different Parts he was to act in them.

Nothing is so glorious in the Eyes of Mankind, and ornamental to Human Nature, setting aside the infinite Advantages which arise from it, as a strong, steady masculine Piety; but Enthusiasm and Superstition are the Weaknesses of human Reason, that expose us to the Scorn and Derision of Infidels, and sink us even below the Beasts that perish.

SOURCE: Donald F. Bond, ed., Spectator, 2:289–290.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSuperstition - Superstition And The Medieval And Early Modern Catholic Church, Superstition And Its Foes In The Islamic World