|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