It’s Not Magic, You Know – Never Believe It Is So

It is common among academics, particularly those whose discipline is anthropology, to think of religion and magic as closely related expressions of the human desire to control one’s environment. Indeed, not just closely related but inextricably bound.

There is certainly something to be said for that viewpoint. Many religious people display a significant degree of magical thinking, but it is at least possible that their magical thinking is not the result of religious belief but of confused thinking. That’s a danger for all of us, even anthropologists.

When anthropologists compare religion to magic, they find similarities that suggest (to their minds) equivalence. One area of comparison focuses on the goals of practitioners, which turn out to be strikingly similar. It turns out that both religious people and sorcerers desire healthy children, safety and prosperity. But couldn’t the same be said of almost everyone, including professors of anthropology?

Religion and magic are frequently compared in terms of the elements of their respective practices, including ritual and the recitation of formulas or creeds. But even the U.S. Senate has its rituals (daily prayer, a special gavel carried in a special box, and of course lunchtime bean soup in the Senate dining hall) and there is certainly no magic in the Senate these days – and not much religion either.

A contrast anthropologists have noted between religion and magic is that religionists serve a higher power while magicians try to force a higher power to serve them. Another is that religion involves corporate acts while magic involves private ones. But the tendency among academics is to minimize the differences and amplify the similarities, seeing magic as a subset of religion.

I understand why they see it that way. As a pastor, I have known religious people whose faith has been little more than magical thinking. For example, some people imagine that adding certain ritual words to a prayer will make it effective, quite apart from the meaning of the words. That is magic. It changes prayer from communication to incantation.

There is an aspect of magical thinking in the prosperity gospel movement, seen most clearly in the “name it / claim it” component of prosperity teaching. Leaders in the movement tell their followers that if they affirm what they want and claim it as their own, it will be theirs. Further, some of them teach (as do Wiccans and other practitioners of magic) that if people verbalize what they don’t want – “I’m so afraid it might be cancer!” – that too will be theirs.

It is superstition; it’s magic. It assumes that power resides in the words themselves or in the manner in which they are said rather than in the God who hears them. Such an approach is closely related to that of the magician. He tries to force unseen powers to do his bidding by the use of carefully spoken charms and spells, but he’d better not mispronounce them or he might turn himself into a toad!

Religious legalism also involves magical thinking. The idea that keeping certain rules in certain prescribed manners – irrespective of motive – will bring about blessing assumes some kind of magical influence. It ignores the real personal connections between people and between people and God. It substitutes ritual behavior for understanding, faith and love.

The Christian faith is not magic, and the Christian should never believe it is. Christian faith operates within an understanding that the universe exists in meaningful relationships: relationships within creation and relationships between creation and Creator. Prayers are not magical formulas but meaningful conversations and requests. Rituals are formative disciplines, not magical rites.

I don’t believe in magic. I believe in something even more powerful: in relationships; in communication; in God, as Jesus made him known.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/4/2016

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5 Responses to It’s Not Magic, You Know – Never Believe It Is So

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. There are many things in it that are helpful (the fact that we Christians often treat prayer as a kind of magic; that, as a society, we engage in secular activities that can be identified as magic; that Christian faith is not magic because it is about relationship with God rather than coercing God to do things for us), but I especially appreciate the fact that you talk about the subject from both sides. Your willingness to understand the sociological point of view makes me much more interested in knowing why you disagree. We need more of this kind of discourse these days, when everybody’s so quick to make their opponent an offender for a word. Thank you for modeling for us how to how to disagree with a dominant cultural belief in a calm and sane manner.

    Ron Johnson

    • salooper57 says:

      Thanks, Ron – appreciate the thoughtful feedback and the encouragement. As to the lack of courteous discourse, might it not have something to do with the fear under which our culture lives?. I have heard unkind outbursts from Christians and atheists alike, and it often seems to me that their anger arises from fear. Makes me think of Martin Niemoller, who, after meeting Hitler once, is said to have commented to his wife, “Herr Hitler is a frightened man.”

      • That’s an interesting thought, Shayne. I hadn’t considered the possibility that fear might be the cause of all the angry discourse. I do know, however, that it frightens me to see us ramping up the angry discourse on both sides. It reminds me of your earlier post about conservative Christians being the new out-group. As I read what my Christian friends are putting out on Facebook, some of them conservative and some liberal, it worries me that we’re just yelling at each other and not listening. Perhaps, as you say, both sides are frightened. But all of us who can see it happening must do what we can to bring back some measure of civility.

    • salooper57 says:

      Appreciate the thoughtful response, Ron. You make a great point, and have given me a new perspective: we exchange fears from generation to generation. It’s like taking the propane tank from the gas grill to the store for an exchange. New container, same contents. Thanks for taking the time to respond – Shayne

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