Theology vs. superstition
Theology is a speculative tradition of thought. Its intellectual starting point is a number of unprovable assumptions. Isn't this close to superstition -- accepting unprovable assumptions? Not necessarily. We actually have another speculative tradition (almost as old as theology), where people also start out with unprovable assumptions, and arrive at highly interesting conclusions. That tradition of thought is called mathematics, and it enjoys a great deal of prestige.
So by analogy, theology, in spite of its unprovable assumptions, may possibly also be regarded as a reasonably respectable undertaking.
What then is superstition? How does it differ from theology? As we have noted, theology emerges from unprovable assumptions and may thus get it into trouble, but not necessarily. Superstition on the other hand emerges from solidly disproved ideas, like believing that the future can be foretold by astrology or that misfortune can be prevented by knocking on wood. Superstition not only may get into trouble, it's already there.
Advances in theology
In early times, millennia ago, all religions were mainly superstitions, because they all made claims that were later disproved. That is of course equally true of science -- most early scientific claims have been thoroughly disproved. Nevertheless, the historical tendency of science as well as of old religions has been to move in less superstitious directions over the centuries. Theology is the intellectual discipline that has been attempting to shift religion toward the non-superstitious end of the belief axis.
In established religions (e.g. Catholicism and Lutheranism) their respective theologians have had ample time to sort out the various fine points of their religions. In most cases they have arrived at reasonably reasonable solutions. Among other things, theologians have drawn a clear line between matters of Faith and matters of logic and science. 'Proving the existence of God' -- a favourite pastime of medieval scholastics -- has for example been abandoned. Today's theologians maintain that the existence of God is not a matter to be resolved by logic or by science, but it is a matter for Faith alone. Hence there is no conflict between modern science (including evolution) and religion (as even the Catholic Church has recently declared).
Superstitions of literalism
How, then, can it be that American 'Bible Belt religion' is still superstitious and in constant conflict with science? The practice of literal reading of the 'word of God' (long since abandoned by mainstream theologians) is in itself a superstition. Because even if we assume that the original Scriptural text (in some Oriental language) really was the 'true word of God', then this is not at all what the Bible Belt literalists are actually reading.
What they are reading instead is a relatively modern English text, based on (and modified from) an older English text, which in turn was based on (and modified from) an even older English text, which was translated from (and modified from) a Latin text, which was translated from (and modified from) a Greek text, which was … etc, etc. The 'true literal word of God' is simply nowhere to be found in an English-language Bible.
The subject-matter of the Scriptures (creation of all creatures -- in their present form -- in 6 days, only some 6 000 years ago) doesn't fit the geological and biological evidence in the least. So believing in such myths as fact is clearly an example of gross superstition.
Too little religion
Superstition in itself is hardly remarkable -- there have always been superstitious people, particularly among the uneducated. The amazing thing is that this is not happening to unfortunate illiterates in some backward corner of the world, but to around one hundred million people in the middle of the United States, a country where almost everybody is extremely well educated (compared to the overall global level). What is so special about religiously oriented Americans that sets them so glaringly apart from correspondingly inclined Brits, Swedes, Germans or Frenchmen?
The explanation is surprisingly not that there is too much religion in America. On the contrary, there is actually too little of it. Or putting it in another way -- American Bible Belt religion sadly lacks theology.
One important protestant objection to 16th century Catholicism was that the Church was putting itself in the way of God. Instead of listening first hand to the word of God, you had to go through a go-between, a Latin-mumbling priest. Vernacular translations of the Bible, accessible to everybody, were seen to be the answer. This would liberate the parishioners, putting them in direct contact with the Divine by letting the people read the Bible for themselves.
As protestant theologians soon discovered, just reading the Bible didn't solve all divine problems -- you had to interpret the sometimes bewildering messages as well. Over the centuries the learned clerics in Europe discovered that only a metaphorical interpretation was reasonable. This remains as the present-day mainstream theological position.
Too poor for theology
In contrast, the persecuted protestant dissidents who arrived in America didn't have many analytically-minded theologians among them. But they all shared their original protestant obsession with the 'unadulterated word of God', i.e. reading the Bible without interference from priests or authorities. The congregations were generally small, too small to afford professional theologians. Soon they found themselves spread out all over the vast American landscape, in a multitude of splinter groups with even less opportunity for doing serious theology. Hence the idea that religion = literalist Bible reading became entrenched.
The antidote to brimstone: theology
American believers tend to quote the Old Testament much more frequently than the New Testament, using the quotes to buttress their various prejudices. On the surface this would seem puzzling, because at the same time they loudly profess being Christians, constantly crying 'Jesus saves'.
However, the Christian message in the New Testament is much less likely to be psychologically satisfying. The NT in effect only says that being kind to your fellow men is everybody's best strategy. This doesn't leave much room for acting out the various hateful emotions in the human soul, like craving for revenge and punishment and convincing yourself that your own way of looking at things is the only correct way.
So the 'fire-and-brimstone' tradition of American Bible Belt religion finds its fire by literally reading the sometimes quite nasty and bigoted passages in the Old Testament. This in turn leads to the Bible Belters holding amazingly obsolete and extremely cruel positions against their fellow men -- capital punishment, intolerance of any deviation from their self-defined norm.
Hence, what the Bible Belt preachers seem to need in order to become reasonably sane, is serious theology. This may very well be equally applicable to Muslim fundamentalists. As a religious non-believer, I'm not qualified to say whether Jesus saves or not. But I'm becoming more and more convinced that theology might be able to save the religiously meek.