Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
Q. Where does superstition end and religion begin? How are our “modern” religions different from primitive religions we see as being rife with superstition? I see the same ritualistic behaviors in both. I see that religions can and do have cultural functions. But how is the belief that throwing salt over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck (because once, when you didn’t, you had a bad day) different from believing that your god answers prayers (because you prayed for something once, and it happened)? Believers in each have a strong, almost pathological need to believe in this cause and effect, no matter how rational an argument is stated against it. Isn’t religion just institutionalized superstition?
A. Superstition is a form of magical thinking. Religion is a form of wisdom. Magic and magical thinking are the belief that our will can control nature. This is both false and demeaning to true human hope and profound wisdom. Just because we want something to happen and then perform some verbal or visual hocus-pocus obviously does not make anything happen. This is indeed a primitive cultural cancer, but not only that. Our frailty and fear make us vulnerable to anything that can bend fate to our will. Religion does have elements it absorbed from primitive superstitions. But at its heart, religion is the utter transformation of magical thinking into mature hope.
Prayer, properly understood, serves several functions that have nothing at all to do with petitions to God.
Prayer is, for example, a way to nurture gratitude. We receive so much that we do not deserve. The natural and mature response to our blessings is to give thanks through prayer to the source of all blessings. Of course the source of all, who is God, is also the source of death. As the prophet Isaiah taught in God’s name, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) So our blessings and some of our burdens come from God. Our blessings nurture gratitude and our burdens nurture courage and forbearance.
Prayer is also a way to ask forgiveness for our sins. Confession is also not a request for a gift. It is an admission of failure and a way to focus our moral resolve to do better next time and to try to fix what we have sundered by our moral lassitude. Confessional prayers are spiritual yardsticks on our journey to virtue.
Prayer is the way we express awe and wonder at the beauty of the world and its living inhabitants. Perhaps because I have recently moved to Los Angeles from New York and perhaps because I watch the predations of winter on the weather reports, I am in awe of the beautiful weather out here. Despite the drought and the threat of earthquakes and flying spiders (they say they have them here but I have not seen any), the weather is not just good, it is perfect. Every warm and sunny day with no humidity I say a prayer thanking God for this gift. I ask native Angelinos if they are aware of how great the weather is out here and most of them say, “Dude, it’s like this all the time. I hardly notice it anymore.”
Doxology prayers keep dudes from taking the earth’s beauty for granted. So does Psalm 19:1-6: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”
Tell me that these sentiments are primitive. Tell me that they are magical. I believe they are the poetic truth of prayer and the wisdom it sings into the world.