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