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Religious Beliefs and Superstition in Taiwan

Die Wahrsagerin (“The Fortune Teller”). By an
unknown German painter (source: Wikipedia)
A few weeks ago I was watching an Italian news channel. I was not paying much attention to it, until the anchorman introduced a report: “Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the number of Italians resorting to fortune-telling has increased“. 

According to recent statistics, more and more Italian people take refuge to the occult as a means to overcome personal hardships. During the first six months of 2013 alone, the revenue of the fortune-telling and occult business has increased by 18,5%. Around 13 million Italians resort to fortune-telling, and the topics that interest them most are career, health, and love. These services can be very expensive, and while the crisis rages and impoverishes the population, fortune-tellers’ and magicians’ earnings grow: a consultation can cost around 50 euros, and a “job-finding lucky charm” up to 200 euros (note).

As I was watching this report, my mind travelled back to Taiwan, where fortune-telling is not only widespread, but it is also considered something normal. In fact, it is part of many temples’ religious practices (as I have shown in two posts, one about Xiahai Chenghuang Temple and another one about the God of Wealth), and it is resorted to by a large number of individuals. 

Fortune-telling sign inside a Metro station in Taipei
People go to fortune-tellers, astrologers, temples etc. for a number of reasons: they want to know a propitious date for marriage, for moving to a new house etc.; they want to find out if a partner is suitable; they have difficulties in life and want to know what might happen to them in the future, and so on. For the majority of Taiwanese, there seems to be nothing wrong in such practices. 

What struck me about the Italian TV report was that fortune-telling was regarded as a serious social problem, and as a superstition of ingenuous people who are ripped off by reckless exploiters of human weakness. A Taiwanese would not think this way when he or she goes to a private fortune-teller or to a temple. 

To my mind came a few books written by Western people who lived in China in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Many of them appeared to regard the Chinese as ‘superstitious’. Why is it – I wondered – that these Westerners contemptuously called the Chinese superstitious, while they themselves, as Christians, believed in the supernatural? Do Christians see themselves as ‘gullible’ victims of exploitation when they finance the wealth of their churches through their taxes and contributions? What is the difference between Christianity and forms of folk beliefs that include fortune-telling? Though I do not like fortune-telling and I would not encourage any of my beloved ones to resort to it, I asked myself if such disdainful condemnation of divination is justified, and what are its causes.  

As I shall try to show, one of the main reasons for this negative verdict on fortune-telling and other kinds of folk beliefs lies in two characteristics that Christian communities developed over time: 1) the thousand-year-long tradition of anti-paganism; 2) the claim that the Christian faith is the only true religion. 

In the next posts, I will briefly discuss three historical periods in which Christians were confronted with a non-Christian environment, and how they reacted to it:

1) anti-paganism of the late Roman Empire
2) persecutions of non-Christian in South America by Spanish conquistadores
3) Christians in Ming and Qing dynasty China
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Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies »

  1. Most Taiwanese are still superstitious in modern industrial society. Touch things, eat, act, move, marry, travelling.. without permissions by Farmer's Almanac/ Chinese Fortune Calendar will bring bad luck or curse, for example, people are unwilling to marry in lunar July, pregnant woman can't touch sweeper and wash hair is not allowed after procreation also.
    Atheists who don't believe God in Taiwan often believe ghosts, destiny and astrology. My friends are, at least. They are believers with any kind of objective. (My father-in-law said Money is everything, money can do anything. He is kind of superstitious of money, I think.)

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  2. I understand your aversion to dismissing things wholesale. And you are right, if you are dismissing them because an authority told you to do so, you are wrong for dismissing them. That being said, coming from a philosophical, skeptical, or otherwise empirical viewpoint some of the beliefs are in fact false. No Christian tradition required, skeptics in India being one good example. Again, you don't need to categorize them as superstitions or ignorance, but regardless of how you define them, they are still false. As James Randi put it, “no amount of belief makes a thing true.”

    Are there real concerns about things like fortune telling? Yes. For example, people have to go through years of training to become social workers, clinical psychologists, and psychiatrists because we acknowledge that a person's psyche is a delicate thing that can affect their health i.e. a psychotic break in males is one of the leading causes of male suicide. Why then, do we allow for anyone with a deck of tarot cards to play the same role as mental health professionals with little to no training or oversight? Furthermore, stories abound of fraudulent fortune tellers, both in and outside of Taiwan. Also of concern is fortune telling mediums who keep people obsessed with death, and replace the actual memories people have of their families with false ones.

    As to Christians calling the kettle black, chances are they have enough cognitive dissonance to keep them from realizing what they are saying applies to them as well, we all have some. I do think it is important to be culturally sensitive, but you should be wary of cultural relativism as it sometimes borders on intellectual dishonesty or even cowardice. It's okay to say the Christians' beliefs are wrong(or have never been shown to be true), and that the Christians' may be right in saying what they say, even if it makes them hypocrites. The reasons people believe something can be poor or false, but that doesn't automatically mean they have reached the wrong conclusion.

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