Quaker Universalist Conversations

Religious Magic

Religion, Briefly Considered: Part 5

Winston Davis’ “Religion, Briefly Considered” series:
Part 1: Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion
Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?.
Part 4: Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory
Part 6: Religious Experience – An Open Letter.

When I was a child, the kids in my neighborhood used to walk to school chanting “step on a crack and break Hitler’s back.” Stepping on cracks in the sidewalk was our contribution to the war effort. It may not have helped, but we thought it did.

“When I became a man,” St. Paul says, “I put away childish things.”1 So did I. Like most adults, I no longer practice magic—except for compulsively picking up lucky pennies.

Unlike St. Paul, I now believe that religion is so close to magic that it too must go. As a child I was taught that I could change God’s mind just by praying. When I became philosophically an adult, I realized that there is a gross contradiction to say, on the one hand, that God is “the same yesterday, today and forever,” and, on the other, that He changes his mind when approached in the right way.

People Praying, Photo credit: Flickr user zuki (Creative Commons)

Let’s think about prayer. When the pastor of a rural church in a drought-stricken part of the country prays for rain, he typically ends his prayer with something humble, for example “Thy will be done.” Then comes a spell—“in Jesus’ name.” And finally “Amen.”

When a sorcerer or a magician casts a spell to make it rain, he uses words that suggest that he himself really is in control of the situation—something like “abracadabra.” He ends his spell not with “Amen,” but with “presto!”

People who pray for rain in church don’t expect a sudden downpour as soon as the Amen is spoken. They would be satisfied if it rained later in the week. But when a magician punctuates his spell with a “presto!” people expect immediate results. They expect the bunny to jump out of the hat, the girl who was sawed in half to reappear in one piece, or rain to fall on the spot. If not, they hiss, walk out and ask for a refund. We usually overlook the fact that both prayer and magic are ways to fulfill our wish for good luck. So closely related are they that religion often seems to be a practice of slow magic.2

Televangelist and tycoon Pat Robertson often turns to God to perform magical feats that will further Robertson’s political agenda. A few years ago, he urged his 700 Club audience to pray that liberal Supreme Court justices would retire early so that more conservative judges could take their place. Sometimes he warns that God will punish liberals and other sinners with very bad weather. Childish, wishful, partisan thinking, you say? Of course. It’s also slow magic.

By mynameisharsha [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Blessings are another example of magic. We first hear of them on the fifth day of Creation when God blessed the birds and animals with the words “be fruitful and multiply.” The next day, God blessed our human ancestors, saying the same thing to them. In other words, the first blessings in the Bible are grants of fertility. Throughout the Bible, whenever God blesses someone, he makes his wife, his fields and his cattle fertile.

He blesses the righteous with wealth, another kind of “fertility.” “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord…wealth and riches are in his house.” (Psalm 112).3 He blesses the people of Israel by making their army victorious and by giving them land that belonged to others. When there is a drought, He sends a prophet-magician like Elijah to make it rain and thus embarrass (and finally murder) religious rivals.4

In short, “to bless” someone is “God-talk” for making someone, or some select group of people, lucky. At least, that is what it comes down to in plain English.5

“But,” you may say, “this is Old Testament stuff. The New Testament is different.”

Is it? The Beatitudes in Mathew and Luke call the poor, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and the pure in heart “blessed.” They might be miserable in this world, but they will be lucky in the coming Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, there they will luck out once and for all.


Those who outgrow religion must abandon the world of miracles. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, they must abjure their “rough magic,” break their wonder-working wands and tear up their spells (Act V, Epilogue).

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint.

When it comes to “charm,” the “faint strength” of adulthood can’t hold a candle to the magic of childhood. But when my faint strength is joined to yours, together they become real strength and a realistic source of comfort.

Here’s Shakespeare again:

With the help of your good hands,
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.


Finally, here are some final questions for Friends in cyberspace. There is an obvious difference between wishful thinking and wishing others well. The former is childish, the latter a mark of moral maturity and good will.

  • When we hold people “in the Light,” what are we doing?
  • Are we “blessing” them?
  • Do we think we are casting or projecting our own shamanistic powers in their direction? (I actually know a Quaker who thinks he has healing powers).
  • Do we think we are casting or projecting our own shamanistic powers in their direction? (I actually know a Quaker who thinks he has healing powers).)
  • Do we think they will feel the Light if we don’t personally take It to them?
  • Are we trying to make God change His mind about them?
  • When all is said and done, are we simply engaging in what conventional theology calls “intercessory prayer”?

I don’t know the answers these questions, but as a friend of Friends, I’d really like to know what you think.


1 “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I Corinthians 13:11.

2 Some religions— Benny Hinn’s “Miracle Crusades,” for example—approximate the galloping tempos of magic itself. See “Benny Hinn: Let the bodies hit the floor” (and other videos) on Youtube.

3 Passages like this are grist for the mills of “prosperity preachers” like Joel Osteen, Reverend Ike and other preachers of the “Prosperity Gospel.”

4 1 Kings 18.

5 Curses simply reverse the logic of blessings. To curse someone is to make him or her unlucky.

Image Sources

Praying women,” Photo credit: Flickr user zuki (Creative Commons). From “Anxiety and amen: Prayer doesn’t ease symptoms of anxiety-related disorders for everyone,” published by Baylor University on the PysPost.org website (August 12, 2014).

Hindu priest giving blessing in Belur, Karnataka”. By mynameisharsha [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.


I think prayer, ‘miracles’ and ‘magic’ etc are a part of life. Many anecdotes are constantly shared about actual results from just kind thoughts and prayers. Yet we remain in a world with much suffering and cruelty inflicted by people. Prayers should be directed toward decreasing hurtful behaviors and increasing helpful behaviors. That is what ‘holding in the light’ is for me. It is a thought for the person/people to benefit from help and for hurt to be stopped. Light is special for us all and so is good imagery for a prayer. Also remember people want intimacy and closeness but also want to keep their distance. I think prayer also has something to do with this movement toward and away from. Thanks for the blog post :-)
Of course, religion has magic; magic is part of the universe; even what we expect from magic is rote, is entertainment. How can we appreciate magic? To clearly appreciate what is Without manipulate what it could be? Snow in Jerusalem in February, wow!!! Its not in the Bible, its true, giggle and not freeze. In Noah’s ark, all that animals and plants and not be destroyed and the humans ready for new kids?
In an article about the evolution of emotion (aeon.co/magazine/science/stephen-t-asma-evolution-of-emotion/) the author writes about the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio with patients who had communication damage between the cognitive and emotional brain. He said, “The subjects could compute all the informational aspects of a decision in detail, but they couldn’t actually commit to anything.” Without emotion we cannot even decide what to believe. He doesn’t restrict this to religious thinking. The author also wrote about the history of cognitive development pointing out that we have about 200,000 years of language-based cognitive life (meaning language and the corresponding development of conceptual understanding) compared with approximately 200 million years of emotional life. We are not that evolved from other animals in our ability to understand reality. This evolution has given us outstanding abilities to recognize patterns and create explanations. Our understanding of physics, for example, has reached very accurate yet complex mathematics of quantum physics. There is considerable agreement among scientists that the mathematics is unsurpassed, yet the explanations are quite divergent. Perhaps our pattern recognition has outpaced our ability to explain. Perhaps we are no closer to understanding the reality around us than a rat is close to being able to understand prime numbers regardless of how much time and how many rats (or humans) try. I say this to say that we should not assume there is no truth in religious experience even though the explanations seem preposterous. Our brain may be responding to reality in ways our cerebellum (or wherever reasoning and explaining resides in our brain) does not have access. Concepts, reason, and even mathematics may just be part of our pattern recognition abilities and reality is not bound by the these abilities.
I practice the Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditation, which is traditionally phrased as, “May ______ be happy, may they feel safe,” etc. The challenge of the practice is extending those wishes even to specific individuals that you don’t like. I think this practice has made me a far more compassionate and patient person, but the question is, “why?” I have never thought that these well-wishes extend anywhere outside of my own brain.
Charles: Wishing well to all sentient beings falls well within my comfort zone. In Buddhism, it is a practice aimed at expanding the compassion of the one who does the wishing and is not just “magic.” And so, with this in mind, I wish you well!! Thanks, Winston
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