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Superstition — can it seep in?

19 October 2012

"I DON'T believe in star signs," a friend once told me, "but that may be because I am a Sagittarius and therefore naturally sceptical." Good joke, I thought. But I know there are Christians who get terribly anxious about horoscopes and that sort of thing. They see them as a portal to wickedness, and not a laughing matter.

I shrug at all this, and walk away. I have no interest in those who defend it or those who attack it - both sides seem silly to me. Here, my daughter's favourite line - "Whatever" - seems apposite.

Yet there are serious issues here. My part of south London is terribly superstitious. Down in the market, you can buy from a Rastafarian chap incense pots that you are supposed to burn for various problems. They have names such as "Break up", "Court case", "Money drawing", and "Fast luck".

What I think about when I see these pots is not primarily superstition created by foolishness, but superstition created by desperation. Opposite my church is a woman who has a shop for tarot readings, or some such. I can't say I see many people going in. But the very fact that she is there is indicative of a market for the supernatural imagination.

In a fascinating book, The Magical Imagination: Magic and modernity in urban England 1780-1914 (CUP, 2012), Karl Bell argues that superstitious beliefs were not mere hangovers of a previous age, and not simply ways of escaping from reality, but also ways of negotiating reality. Magic, he says, is a practice that can help ordinary people navigate the problems of urbanisation.

The dark alleys and narrow streets of 19th-century cities were often frightening and dangerous. The magical imagination, with its tales of ghosts and ghoulies, named that fear. And naming and discussing is the start of how we manage it.

None of this can be said without recognition of the real shadow side of the magical imagination. There are undoubtedly people in my parish who share beliefs in demon possession and forms of witchcraft which do an enormous amount of harm, often to children. Remember eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, whose guardians repeatedly tortured her and eventually beat her to death in an attempt to remove the devil.

The question for me is the extent to which the woman reading palms across the road from the church is doing something that is continuous with child-beating wickedness. Are they quite different things? And to what extent does all this superstition bleed into our churches, even Anglican ones? I cannot prove it. But I worry that it does.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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