Is Religion Magic?

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The “new atheists,” as Chris Hedges calls them (When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists), label all religion as superstitious, outdated, magical thinking. They claim to be scientific and rational in their certainty about God and religion, but they are not. Instead, they are, Hedges argues, the preachers of a new religious fundamentalism without God that contrives an ideology of progress by idolizing science and reason as the ways to perfect humanity.

The certitude that God cannot be real and, therefore, cannot possibly love us is not scientific but ideological. It is a belief, not a verifiable fact or hypothesis. In this ideology, there is then no divinely given value to human or any life, leaving only whatever value we choose to assign it based upon our current notions of what is good and worthwhile. Such belief can make it seem expedient to determine that some human lives have no value worth preserving because they have become impediments to achieving progress toward the goal of a better, greater humanity. Such greater-good ideologies, therefore, lead to culture clashes, identity politics, ruthless preemptive strikes (wars of choice) upon peoples considered threats or impediments (evil doers or sub-humans), and even genocide.

In their scorn for religion, the new atheists and their fans who accept their ideology fail to distinguish between magic and religious faith. Indeed, they insist there is no valid distinction to be made. Are they correct? My reply has to be, “No, but.” But what?

The claim that science and reason disprove God is unscientific and unreasonable, as were the old claims that science and reason proved God. What the atheistic ideologues do is attack the obvious foibles and dangers of religious fundamentalism then claim thereby to have discredited all religion. To me, that ploy seems analogous to condemning abusive relationships, then claiming to have discredited love.

It’s easy to debunk creationism as pseudo-science and poor biblical interpretation, but so doing does not thereby discredit biblical faith in our Creator or faith’s view of humanity’s stewardship of the earth as God’s creation. Showing that Intelligent Design is fake science (as just a somewhat more sophisticated brand of creationism) does not offer any reasonable comment on biblical and theological discussions of creation and providence. Neither does discrediting biblical literalism say anything at all about a biblical understanding of the nature, value, and purpose of human life. Science is morally neutral, and reason depends much more upon culture, privilege, and (yes) emotion than many who adore it would care to admit.

But is there a valid distinction between magic and religious faith? Rejecting the pronouncements of the opponent does not by itself validate the belief the opponent has feebly attacked.

What is magic? I’m not talking about stage magic which is entertainment by skillful deception. Neither am I talking about fictional, fantasy magic which is for fun and escape but sometimes, as in the Harry Potter novels, also offers insights into human nature, relationships, social conditions, and even theology. I’m talking about “real” magic which seeks to conjure supernatural power (demonic or divine) and use it for human purposes of security or power. When infused into religion, this magic offers means for supposedly gaining control over the power of God. Therefore, religious rites, rituals, sacred writings, doctrines, mystic or charismatic experiences, mission efforts, ministries, and salvation formulas stand always in danger of being degraded into magic.

I cannot by any means make God do anything. I cannot guarantee God’s aid in my chosen undertakings or draft God into the service of my success.

When I am asked if I believe in the power of prayer, my frankest answer would be, “No, I trust in the love and compassion of God, and therefore I pray.” Prayer is not a means for making God do anything; it gives us neither power over God nor an effective way of appropriating God’s power in the service of our will or desires. Do I believe in praying, meaning believe prayer worthwhile and, for me, necessary? Yes. Do I believe further that God responds to our prayers? Yes, although I cannot program the response. Do I believe God works through prayer to enable me to meet life more in Christ’s way and to be healed, changed, and equipped for service? Yes. But there is no magic in prayer. I cannot by any means make God do anything. I cannot guarantee God’s aid in my chosen undertakings or draft God into the service of my success.

Moses’ burning bush encounter with God told in Exodus chapter 3 offers the paradigm. Moses may not approach God. He is not given a name for God that allows for conjuring. Out of regard for human weaknesses, God provides the man some aids or props – his staff and the company of his better-spoken brother Aaron – but neither is effectual in itself or necessary for God. The staff is no magic wand, and Aaron no genii or wizard. Moses’ trust and confidence depend upon God’s promise, “I will be with you,” and that promise comes within the context of the man’s doing what God is sending him to do for the enslaved people.

The rites and rituals of the church are forms of community prayer and signs of God’s promised and present grace. They are not magical means for conjuring God’s presence, guaranteeing God’s favor, or appropriating God’s power. The constant danger in any ritual is that it will, by its proper performance or mere habitual repetition, replace the inner openness to God it is meant to represent. Instead of an act of prayer for forgiveness that will heal and transform, the sacrifice becomes a supposedly effective means for expunging guilt without any necessary change of heart or conduct – in short, a magical whitewash. Instead of a communion with God, the community of faith, and the world God loves, the sacrament becomes a magical means to security and comfort without change, a ritual union that leaves us still alienated.

Restraint is needed however in trying to divide magic from faith. It is not for me or you to judge another’s case, and the distinction can too easily and neatly turn judgmental. I need to remember that God works in more ways than even the best theology can encompass or delineate. A loving parent will see the child’s need even if she tries some childish wheedling to persuade the parent who loves her and does not need persuading. It is not the correctness of my understanding of Communion that makes the sacrament effectively represent God’s grace to me, and a less correct understanding brought to the table in humility may be more open to God than the best theology offered in all its polished sophistication.

The danger in religious magic (religion misunderstood as though it were magic) comes not so much from the unsophisticated believer who humbly seeks healing, hope, guidance, or meaning in life as from the religious leader or demagogue who, for power or prestige, exploits people’s needs and desires with promises or theatrics that will supposedly work like magic. Faith requires obedience in trust (not fear or greed), hope that changes life’s course toward liberation and service, love that calls forth compassion and justice in response, and humility that does not seek to manipulate God or to dominate, exploit, or marginalize other people, not even for some imagined greater good.

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