21st Century Magic

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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About Magic

If there is one paramount contribution the Judaeo-Christian world-view has made to science it is this: throughout their history both Judaism and Christianity have been implacably opposed to magic. Magic is the ultimate ego-trip. Magic is fundamentally the notion that the individual can shape the universe to his desires; it is the ultimate narcissism. The instinct for magic is a direct offshoot of our inbuilt desire to be God. It includes the notion that individuals can manipulate or bargain with the supernatural world (after all, gods should be able to cut deals with their equals). In pre-technical and polytheistic societies this notion finds expression in well-known occult forms like rituals, sacrifices, magic charms, and so on. We still have plenty of people in our own society who engage in these practices, but even if these expressions disappeared, that wouldn't mean the instinct for magic had. Most nominal religion is fundamentally magic; the idea that perfunctory adherence to periodic rituals is sufficient to placate God. Even today, one of the most common criticisms of the scientific world view is that it robs life of its magic.

Science is the antithesis of narcissism. Alan Cromer in Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature Of Science (1993) views the conquest of egocentrism as the indispensable prerequisite of science:

From the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, we know that human beings have a fundamentally egocentric conception of the world. Growing up in modern society means learning to accept the existence of an external world separate from oneself. It is hard. Most of humankind, for most of its history, never learned to distinguish the internal world of thoughts and feelings with the external world of objects and events. ... Cutting this connection, which is necessary before science can develop, goes against the grain of human nature.

For all the harm it has sometimes caused, it seems clear that the Western world's bias in favor of black and white, right and wrong, was indispensable to the development of science. A culture that views things in terms of black and white can learn to see shades of gray; it is not at all clear that a culture that sees only shades of gray can learn to see black and white. A culture committed to right and wrong answers will eventually see that over-zealous application of that concept sometimes fails to agree with reality; it yields wrong results. But in a culture where differences are routinely explained away as a matter of individual perspective or thoughts influencing reality, how could anyone deduce the existence of invariable laws?

If you think magical thinking is a relic of bygone superstitious ages or yet-uncivilized remote corners of the world, I've got news for you. It's pervasive in American society. It's the oldest of old-time religions, and it may be the most widespread religion in the world. Indeed, probably none of us is entirely free of it because it's hard-wired into us.

Explicit Magic

Explicitly magical belief systems like Feng Shui, Shamanism, and Wicca are growing in popularity. At least adherents of these systems are open and honest about their belief in magic.

The Paranormal

Paranormalists actually assert that magical phenomena have a basis in reality, and that there is a mechanism for magical processes. The best known varieties include:

There's nothing inherently irrational about testing these ideas; the problem is that the tests routinely fail. Rather than accept the implications of the tests (the phenomena didn't show up, or after enough failures, that they don't exist), paranormalists resort to evasions: the phenomena are real but not susceptible to conventional experiments, excessive controls to guard against fraud dampen the phenomena, skepticism dampens the phenomena (only people who believe in them can test for them), rare spectacular hits mean something but long runs of random results don't, and so on.

More than any other city, Las Vegas is built on the laws of probability and thronged with people trying to beat them. If paranormal phenomena exist, the casinos would spot it.

It's significant that the list of paranormal phenomena above includes most of the supernatural special effects of more conventional religion: prophecy (clairvoyance), miracles (telekinesis), and visions (telepathy and ESP). the only thing lacking is a moral code. All the miraculous fringe benefits of a religion with none of the muss and fuss of not stealing, not committing adultery, and so on.

Personal Rituals and Avoiding Bad Luck

Athletes are notorious for having personal rituals to foster success: lucky bats, hats, socks, pre-game ceremonies, and so on, but non-athletes have them too. Valuing an object because it reminds you of a loved one or a happy experience is perfectly rational; fearing bad luck if you lose it is magic. Not stepping in front of a bus because you fear getting hurt is rational; not leaving home without some personal talisman because you fear getting hurt is magic. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff chronicles how jet pilots cultivate a magical mind-set to cope with the reality that a career as a jet fighter pilot involves about a 25 per cent probability of being killed, and that's not counting combat.

One of the most widespread forms of magic is the idea that not talking about something can prevent it from happening. People avoid talking about death, illness, tax audits, car failure and disasters in the belief that talking about them somehow invites them. People avoid looking at their checkbooks or going to the doctor because they fear what will turn up, as if the overdraft won't happen or the cancer will shrivel up if they don't.

Religious Magic

Consolatory Religion

Religion, we're told by many pop psychologists, is primarily a means of coping with death, believing in some cosmic justice system that will right wrongs, and providing a sense of orientation and purpose to life. In many cases it is.

If so, what is the point? If your religion is essentially make-believe, why bother? If there really is a God, a cosmic justice system and an afterlife, then the only sensible course of action is to try to learn as much as possible about what is actually out there. If there isn't, then learn to cope with the universe as it really is. Accept the fact that dead is dead, there is no purpose in life and injustices might ultimately go unpunished. Merely picking some set of beliefs because they make you feel good is magic of the purest sort. It's exactly on a par with Linus in Peanuts saying "You believe in Santa Claus, I believe in the Great Pumpkin - it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere."

Probably the most purely magical religious sentiment around is "I choose to believe in a God of Love." Maybe there is a God, maybe not. If there is no God, believing in one is of no consequence. If there is a God, then God has certain attributes and not others. Either way, what possible difference can it make what you choose to believe?

Even professed atheists practice this form of magic. After some prominent non-believer like Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov dies, we'll hear platitudes from other non-believers like "They continue to live in our memories." They don't "continue to live" - they're dead! We may respect their achievements and cherish their memory, but if you can't cope with the finality of death except by using banalities like "they continue to live" then stop pretending you don't believe in an afterlife.

In fact, there's precious little atheism that doesn't resort to some kind of consolatory religion, minus God. If there is absolutely no afterlife, then a second after you die, it won't matter to you whether you lived in luxury or grinding poverty, freedom or a concentration camp. When the last person who knew you dies and the last record of your existence disappears, it won't matter at all what your life was like. Most atheists, pressed on this point, will say that it "still matters," as if there's some kind of Cosmic Consciousness out there that keeps score even if you're not there to remember it. If there's no judgment or arbiter of values, then every value statement is, at bottom, merely an opinion. Ultimately, Elvis on black velvet is as valid a work of art as anything by Picasso or Rembrandt. It is perfectly possible to live a long and full life exploiting others and die happy. Few atheists have the courage to face this issue squarely; most fall back on the ethics of Voltaire or Bertrand Russell (in other words, arguments from authority), the common consensus of society, the greatest good for the greatest number, and so on. But really, why should I care about the greatest good for others if I can increase my own good at the expense of others? In fact the most coldly rational strategy is to encourage everyone else to act ethically while I ally myself with like-minded people to exploit them.

For a great case study, there's nothing to surpass the piece An Atheist at Virginia Tech posted on the Web site Daily Kos on April 19, 2007. In response to writer Dinesh D'Sousa, who wrote:

if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil. The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil simply do not exist

In response, the writer (who unlike D'Sousa uses a pseudonym) writes about how frantic his wife was, how choked up he was at the memorial service, how deeply he feels loss, how angry he is at the violation of a place of learning. In response to D'Sousa's logical point, this writer offers nothing but rhetoric and feelings. D'Sousa analyzes, this guy feels. There is not a shred of logical analysis or cogent counterargument in his entire piece. He talks about "decency" and "callousness" and says "we rail against injustice and tragedy," without offering any answer to why his feelings and opinions are any more valid than those of the mass killer, or what basis he has, other than personal sentiment and solipsism, for labeling something "injustice." And ultimately he says:

We insist there is no sense or meaning to be made of this massacre. ...We just believe they have died, brutally and without mercy.

So after wallowing in rhetoric, he ultimately agrees with D'Sousa. He has no basis for asserting that his values have any broader significance than personal sentiment.

If there really is no God and that's how the universe is, no amount of wishful thinking or sentimentality will change it. But if you really believe that's how the universe is, at least have the integrity to deal with the implications. They're dead, they're gone, pass me another helping of Soylent Green.

Nominal Religion

If you're not committed to living out the precepts of your religion, why bother at all? "Isn't it stupid to think the Ruler of the Universe will give you good fortune because you sit in a pew for an hour on Sunday?" ask atheists, and the surprising thing is, every theologian agrees with them. It is stupid to think the Ruler of the Universe will give you good fortune because you sit in a pew for an hour on Sunday.

Nominal religion is probably the most widespread form of magic in America today. Nominal religion is the belief that some ritual, of no value in itself, will cause God to forgive you, avert misfortune, or gain you some advantage. It basically is the search for some cheap, convenient and low-impact way of satisfying the demands of religion without actually making a real personal commitment. Common forms of nominal religion include:

Token participation
If you go to church twice a year at Easter or Christmas because you feel more religious those days, you feel a need to engage in some social ritual observance, or you enjoy the tradition and the memories associated with the occasion, it may not be of any great spiritual value but at least it's a rational (or semi-rational) reason. If you go because you're afraid God will infect your computer with spyware unless you do, or you feel that God will continue to bless you, or is somehow more honored by your presence on those days, whereas he doesn't notice your absence the rest of the year, you're a magician.
Selective Observance
People often substitute punctilious observance of minor rituals for the more rigorous demands of their religion (see the Old Testament quotes below).
Superficial Militancy
Many of the people who support attempts to incorporate creationism or Intelligent Design in the schools are not particularly religious otherwise. That's why support for these movements is so widespread. It's a convenient, painless, feel-good substitute for having a real religious commitment. In the same way, people will get angry over desecration of the American flag because it's a much easier way of expressing patriotism than actually serving in the military, and far cheaper than paying taxes without complaining. When California was considering liberalizing its abortion statutes (before Roe vs. Wade), my mother suggested to a group of other people opposed to the change that they all volunteer to adopt a baby that would otherwise be aborted. Stone. Cold. Silence.

Judaism and Christianity fight a constant rear-guard action against creeping magic. In parts of the world where magical belief systems are deeply ingrained, the local Christianity is heavily infused with magical practices and attitudes. The entire Old Testament is a chronicle of a losing battle with creeping magic. Leviticus and Deuteronomy laid out rules for ritual observances and sacrifices. A few centuries later Judaism had largely degenerated into nominal ritual observances indistinguishable from magic:

You can just see the later prophets, faces turning purple and the veins on their necks standing out, screaming at the top of their lungs: "Don't you get it, you morons? God doesn't need dead animals. The animals are just a symbol. He wants mercy and justice." Unfortunately, dead animals are a lot easier; you don't have to make any personal changes or give up exploiting other people. The same theme is carried over in the New Testament:

Man, that last one sounds way too much like total commitment. Coming to church once in a while and putting a dollar in the collection plate is a whole lot less work.

Propitiation and Indulgences

A good deal of nominal religion is about averting punishment for misdeeds, or buying favor from God by some ritual. All world religions acknowledge human imperfection and include some mechanism for forgiveness, but they all insist on some effort on the part of the individual to improve. In court you can pay a fine for speeding, clear the books, and leave with every intention of continuing to speed; thinking you can do the same with God is magic.

"Indulgences" here isn't meant in the technical theological sense, but in the idea that religion can somehow grant permission to violate some moral principle. Whatever the historical reality behind "selling indulgences" in the Middle Ages, the popular interpretation was that of buying permission to commit sins, which is magical thinking of the purest sort.


Religions try to explain some of the complex interactions between moral imperatives. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, we can expect this subject to be at least as complex as physics. So when the obligation to protect human life collides with the obligation to protect others from harm, the interactions can be complex. So religions seek to explain how, why and when it may, for example, be necessary to take a human life to protect others.

But if you think a fatwa, an indulgence, or a decree from some religious body can make it morally permissible to violate some moral precept, that's magic of the purest sort. You might as well say you can bring back the dead because you have a decree from the American Medical Association, or you can convert lead into gold because you have a permission slip from the American Chemical Society.

The magical belief that religion can grant exceptions to moral principles probably accounts for most of the historical horrors of religious warfare. Indeed, the idea that some higher authority can grant permission to violate moral principles doesn't require any religion at all, merely the promise of immunity. The Japanese in China in 1938, the Germans in Russia, and the Russians in Germany in 1945 all gave their troops freedom to commit atrocities on occupied civilians, and all three armies eagerly availed themselves of the opportunities. 

So What's Left?

If consolatory religion is magic, and nominal religion is magic, what's left? How about serious religion, where you try seriously to find out what the universe is actually like, whether there is a God or not, what ethical demands are binding on you, and then try to shape your belief and conduct accordingly? You might even call it a scientific approach.

Secular Magic

Internalized Aggression

One of the paradoxes of traumatic events is that victims commonly feel guilty about being victims, or even more strange, feel that they deserved to be victims. This paradox is easy to understand in terms of magical thinking. Accepting the fact of victimhood requires acceptance of the terrible fact that there are harmful forces absolutely beyond one's control, that there are people determined to rape or commit genocide and willing to overcome any obstacle to do so, and there is not a thing anyone can do about it. If you get in their way, you may very well end up a victim regardless of what you do. Far more comforting to accept the illusion that there might have been something that could have averted the tragedy. Accepting the tragedy as a lapse of one's own vigilance, or the result of some wrongdoing, at least confers the illusion that control was possible.

Evidence Manipulation

The rhetoric of the legal system provides abundant evidence that there are lawyers and clients in the first group, many in the second group, and a huge number in the third group. And they're not alone. Evidence of this sort of magical thinking is all around us.

Willful Self-Deception

Magical evidence manipulation is so pervasive in our society it appears that people have a need to convince themselves that something is true before they convince others. The very mechanism or rationalization wouldn't exist if people felt comfortable with outright, in-your-face deception and defiance of moral principles. People seem to have to make things true in their own imaginary universes before they try to convince others.

Perception determines reality

The idea that perception determines reality is magic of the purest, most explicit sort.

People who profess "perception determines reality" don't actually believe it or act on it. We never hear "George W. Bush has his reality about the Iraq War which is is valid in its own way as my own," we hear "George W. Bush lied about the Iraq War. If perception really determined reality, the easiest route to social justice would be to condition disadvantaged groups to perceive their realities differently.

"Perception determines reality" seems never to mean that the speaker has a need to change his perception of reality.  Most of the time "perception determines reality" is used to dismiss someone else's perception of reality, to nullify criticism and counterargument. It sounds a bit more erudite than sticking your fingers in your ears and going "lalalalala."

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Created 12 October, 2005;  Last Update 02 June, 2010

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