China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Mar

Read my palm: the lines between religion and superstition

In 1986 a foreign priest visited a tourist destination in China and checked into a newly opened hotel. The two young women behind the service desk were working in their first job after graduation from high school. They said, “You speak Chinese so well.” He politely replied, “No, I just speak a little Chinese.” “Where did your learn Chinese?” “In Taiwan.” The women looked at each other, but did not dare say anything. At that time there was no contact between Taiwan and the mainland.

One of them changed the subject, “You must be a businessman.” He answered, “No, I’m a Catholic priest.” They looked at each other in surprise. They had been born shortly after the start of the Culture Revolution (1966-1976) and they had never seen a priest before. One of them held out her right hand. She asked the priest excitedly: “Can you read my palm?” But he had not studied fortune telling, so both women were disappointed.

How were they supposed to know that palmistry, dreams, horoscopes, lucky and unlucky numbers, Chinese characters and facial features, as well as fung shui (風水), are not included in the curriculum of a Catholic seminary? No teacher had told them anything about any spiritual tradition. The only thing they had read in textbooks and newspapers was a blanket condemnation of “feudal superstition” (封建迷信) and “the opium of the people.” Some elders must have told them bits and pieces about this or that religion and the supernatural, but nothing systematic. Yet at the beginning of adulthood they wondered what the future had in store for them, and they believed, in spite of everything the authorities had tried to teach them, that somebody, somewhere, knew how to foretell the future.

The Chinese Constitution is silent on superstition

After a disastrous decade of trying to smash everything that was old, China needed to reaffirm its past, at least in part. The preamble to the current (1982) constitution begins “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world. The people…created a splendid culture…But [before 1949 they] had yet to fulfill their historical task of overthrowing imperialism and feudalism.” Old China produced a splendid culture, but one tainted with feudalism. No one ever mentions “capitalist superstition” or (God forbid) “socialist superstition,” only “feudal superstition.” Yet it has revived and is flourishing in the 21st Century.

The state develops socialist educational undertakings and works to raise the scientific and cultural level of the whole nation (Art. 19). There is nothing praiseworthy or romantic about illiteracy and ignorance and China has made great strides in promoting universal education.

Good! Yet even people with advance degrees can be tempted by superstition. They say, “No, I don’t believe in God, but there may be something to ESP and flying saucers that science cannot yet explain.” “I’m not superstitious, but it doesn’t hurt to play it safe and check the lunar calendar for lucky and unlucky days.”

Debunking such concepts through science textbooks and media ridicule has not succeeded. On the contrary, young adults in China are more willing than their parents to patronize fortune tellers. Astrologers in the United States of America pioneered the use of computers to take the drudgery out of figuring out horoscopes. Now some mobile phones in Hong Kong give tips on fung shui. Hi-tech coexists with ancient world views.

The state strengthens the building of socialist spiritual civilization through spreading education in high ideals and morality (Art. 24). Everywhere in the world, in every generation, the problem with spreading high ideals has been that actions speak louder than words. The poet, John Milton, made a passing reference to “when the priest turns atheist,” so it must have happened at least once or twice in 17th Century England.

Newspapers in China a decade ago reported a “negative example,” meaning something that should never be done: an official saw people in front of a small shop. Learning that they were waiting to see a fortune teller, he ran to the front of the queue, pushed the door open, and yelled, “What do you think you are doing?” The customer fled in panic. The official sat down, stared across the table at the relic of feudalism, and demanded, “Read my palm.” This was wrong for two reasons, possibly three: cadres should not jump the queue, they should not consult palm readers, nor should they expect free service.

Parents, clergy and government officials, all need to practice what they preach otherwise those who once looked up to them will become cynical and start to break the rules themselves. This leads to a downward spiral and finally the code of ethics becomes simplified to: “Don’t get caught.” This is no way to build a harmonious society.

The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state (Art. 36). Who defines normal and abnormal religious activity? The state, which means in practice, atheists. For example, if people who lack money for a doctor’s prescription seek prayer for healing instead, does the one who prays for them “impair the health of citizens”?

The anointing of the sick is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. Anointing with oil is not modern, hi-tech medicine, but does that make it superstition? Apparently not, since we have not heard any reports of local officials trying to suppress this particular sacrament. Does Sunday school for children “interfere with the educational system of the State”?

Someone must still think so, because in a few places, cadres discourage those under age 18 from attending religious services. Here as elsewhere, the constitution leaves much room for local officials to interpret it as they see fit.

After 1982, the government often issued detailed administrative decrees, which shrank the space to exercise the rights listed in the constitution. Religion has some rights. The word “superstition” does not appear in the constitution; therefore it has no right to exist.

The Catholic Church has something to say

“Superstition” comes from Latin. It originally meant, “standing beyond,” or “outliving,” such as someone who had had an encounter with the divine and lived to talk about it. Catholic theology has always discussed it under the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Church views superstition as an excess of religion, too much of a good thing.

Superstitious people are over eager to see God, or at least supernatural powers, at work everywhere. They believe every report uncritically. Next, they try to harness or manipulate this religious power for their own ends. The word “religion” leaves a bad taste in many mouths today. It is too institutional and structured for many people. So when reading The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2110-2128, it may help to substitute “faith” or “spirituality” instead.

Superstition can even corrupt the worship of the true God, when people think that prayers and sacraments are magical, able to bring results from mere external performance, without the proper interior disposition (n. 2111).

Idolatry is not limited to worshipping statues of silver and gold, but includes putting pleasure, power, race, the nation or money in first place, ahead of God (nn. 2112-2114).

Future events are sometimes revealed by God to prophets and saints, but Christians are to trust that God will provide for tomorrow, without however neglecting their human responsibility to plan ahead (n. 2115).

Divination is forbidden. Recourse to Satan, contacting the dead, horoscopes, palm reading, omens, spirit channelers, are all off limits since these “contradict the honour, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (n. 2116).

Magic and sorcery, the use of special powers to achieve our own ends, are “gravely contrary to the virtue of religion,” doubly so if the intent is to inflict harm. Traditional cures need to be separated from invoking spirits (n. 2117).

Atheism is the lack of religion, a lack of faith. Atheists are lacking something good: they are unable or unwilling to see God at work in their own lives or even anywhere in the universe. Yet sometimes the misconduct of believers drives people to atheism (nn. 2123-2126).

Agnostics may be simply unwilling to comment one way or another on the existence of God, but in practice agnosticism is close to atheism (nn. 2127-2128).

Unlike the Chinese constitution, the Catholic catechism has much to say about superstition, all of it bad. But at least it includes a long analysis of human fear and insecurity.

What do people need to feel secure?

Sigmund Freud said that both work and love are needed to make a person fully human. China is not the only country which now has ruthless competition in the job market. The “iron rice bowls” have been smashed, and job security is a thing of the past. People are worried about being dismissed or downsized. As to love, there are many temptations in the big cities and the divorce rate climbs each year. Is it any wonder that people have resumed wearing good luck charms, or that taxi drivers hang a photo of Chairman Mao from their rear view mirror for safety?

Humans jump back and forth, or from left to right, from one extreme to the other. They flee from “the Sahara of atheism” (Gandhi) to the jungle of eclectic practices and uncritical beliefs. We Catholics claim that right belief and practice, true religion, lies in the middle. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself alone, O God, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in you.”