Tom Gilson

This has come up often enough now to merit its own discussion: the pejorative use of “magic” to describe what God does. The most recent was this morning:

Just my two cents, I consider the swoon theory among the least likely hypotheses concerning the events leading up to the emergence of Christianity as a religion.

But still a few thousand times more likely than a magical resurrection (and that’s even if we assume the supernatural exists—magical resurrections are still massively rarer than survival after grave injuries).

Let me ask: what is the definition of magic? Is there a distinction between “magic” and “work of God”? Is there a good reason for that distinction, for those who consider there is one, or for the lack of such for those who think there is none? Does “magic” do any fruitful work in the discussion beyond its emotive effect? What work is that?

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42 thoughts on “Magic or God?

  1. Magic (adj.)— Of, relating to, or invoking the supernatural.

    And yes, its a pejorative term in this context expressing my opinion of its implausibility and the unreasonableness of belief in it.

    If you’re of the opinion that we ought not to apply term with a negative emotive effect you might want to apply that standard a bit more consistently. They get applied to atheism and things related to it with great frequency in these discussions.

  2. Terms with negative emotive effect may be used if used appropriately; I think they have been overused lately. (I deleted a comment for that reason a few minutes ago.) The question is whether they do any work other than the emotive.

    We need to do some more work on this term “magic.” If you think a definition as broad and unspecified as that one is useful for reasoned discussion, then I suggest you think more carefully about how reasoned discussion is carried out. As for me, it’s almost time for church and I’ll have to come back to it later.

  3. Jesus turns water to wine. He walks on water. He rises from the dead.

    These are examples of him displaying supernatural powers. That fits a quite standard definition of the word “magical”. You may not like the word because you prefer to reserve it for things you don’t believe in. Well, so do I. And I see no cause to apologize for that.

  4. The difference between using the word “magic” to refer to a “miracle” (i.e., a magical theist phenomenon that the atheist does not believe in) and an “emergence” (i.e., a magical atheist phenomenon that a theist does not believe in) is that the theist has grounds to permit magical phenomena within his world-view. The atheist is just being self-deluding.

    Hypocrisy arises when the atheist uses the term “magic” as an “argument-capper” (as if, because his world-view does not permit magic, its identification in an opponent’s argument renders that argument erroneous) but doesn’t have the intellectual honesty to admit that his own position requires magic of its own.

  5. I consider a miracle to be an act of a supernatural agent that is performed freely. In other words, the supernatural agent is not manipulated into doing something. The Christian God cannot be manipulated.

    I consider magic to involve a human manipulating the supernatural in such a way as to guarantee the desired outcome. For example, finding a genie in a lamp means the genie has to grant you three wishes. The genie has no choice in the matter (at least that’s my understanding of it, but it’s just a hypothetical example).

    Just my quick two cents.

  6. Okay, then, David, let’s trace this from its origin. You referred to a “magical resurrection,” as quoted in the post that started this thread. Your understanding of “magic” is that it is “of, relating to, or invoking the supernatural;” and that it should be regarded pejoratively because it is unreasonable to believe in it.

    Now, apart from the weakness of the definition you gave (Jayman’s is much more useful for purposes of reasoned discussion), let’s consider what you said, on its own terms. By your definition of “magic,” if God exists and if Jesus really was raised from the dead, that was an act of of magic. But it is unreasonable to think that such a thing is possible, so the very concept is worthy of derision. It is worthy of scorn, I think you would say, to suppose that God could do anything that violates the normal processes of nature.

    But here is where I conclude that you’re using the term “magic” for purely emotive work. You only know that these concepts are ridiculous if you know they are not true. But you are using the term “magic” in the midst of a debate over whether they are true. You got there too soon. If the question over the existence of God is an open debate, then to treat one of the options under discussion so pejoratively is not only premature, it’s also unreasonable and unreasoning.

    You can get together with your atheist/skeptic friends and throw the word “magic” around all you want. You’re all convinced of it, you won’t get any pushback, no one will question you. But here we’re saying the question is on the table, and the word “magic” doesn’t fit here. Not unless you’re (a) assuming your conclusion, which is pretty poor argumentation technique, and (b) you’re willing to try to use emotive words instead of reasoning, which is also weak (to say the least), and (c) you’re also trying to goad people into an anger reaction, which is the kind of thing I’m trying to put a stop to here (and not only in your case) because it’s a poor way to treat each other, in addition to being a lousy way to conduct a reasoned discussion.

  7. Further on the weakness of the definition you give for magic, whether it is a “standard definition” or not. Philosophy quite often requires more care for words and meanings than just to grab a handy “standard definition,” especially if that “standard definition” prejudices the discussion the way this one does. You wrote,

    Jesus turns water to wine. He walks on water. He rises from the dead.

    These are examples of him displaying supernatural powers. That fits a quite standard definition of the word “magical”. You may not like the word because you prefer to reserve it for things you don’t believe in. Well, so do I. And I see no cause to apologize for that.

    Here’s why (other than the emotive aspect) it is inappropriate to use it in that way for reasoned discussion. It is simply too clumsy a tool. It is using a four-inch pipe wrench to hold a wire for soldering. It makes it impossible to make appropriate distinctions, such as those offered by Jayman. It requires one to consider acts of God as being in the same category as voodoo on the one hand, or stage illusions on the other hand. If (putative) acts of God are actually the topic under discussion, then it’s just silly to label them with a term that can’t make those distinctions. It arrests discussion. It arrests thinking.

    Is that your purpose?

  8. Hmm. For myself, “magic” is a technical term, not a broad pejorative. Magic is simply the subject of magical thinking. Here’s Wikipedia:

    In anthropology, psychology, and cognitive science, magical thinking is nonscientific causal reasoning that often includes such ideas as the ability of the mind to affect the physical world (see the philosophical problem of mental causation), and correlation mistaken for causation. Associative thinking may be brought into play, as well as the power of magical symbols, metaphor and metonym, and synchronicity. Since, in both theory and practice, magic does not conform to modern canons of causality, it is therefore appropriate to ask if it is rational to practice or believe in magic. For most theorists, these questions turn on the matter of the practitioner’s thought processes, intentions, and the efficacy of their practice.

    Since miracles certainly don’t conform to “modern canons of causality”, they clearly fall under the category of magic as used here.

  9. Fine. It’s an irrelevant usage for the purposes of discussion of God and his potential acts in the world. Why anyone would press an issue in dispute of that point is beyond me.

  10. David,
    Would you mind answering a question for me? I’m interested in how an honest naturalist thinks about things. Obviously, you’re a pretty fervent anti-apologist since I’ve read hundreds of your comments here and at CADRE, and that had to take hours upon hours of your life. Thus, I think you would therefore qualify as a pretty fervent and enthusiastic naturalist.

    Therefore, your “thousand times” comment made me wonder how far an honest naturalist would hold their naturalism. In light of the evidence, I find the swoon theory not merely implausible, but irrational since you have to stand against reason in order to make it work. I’m not sure you would disagree. Obviously though, you consider it less irrational than the belief “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

    So based on your “thousand times” comment, I suggest two scenarios:

    Scenario 1: The Naturalistic Explanation

    In a seemingly alternate world, Jesus was simply one of the hundreds of failed Jewish messiahs. He came, died and was buried. His followers, such as Peter and John, did what followers of failed messiahs always did and either started following another messiah-candidate or simply quit the game altogether. Jesus’ brother James, went on to be a powerful religious leader among the Pharisees and the historian Josephus mentioned (while chronicling James) that he had a brother named Jesus who was a failed messiah. Other than the one reference, Jesus was never mentioned in any text.

    Fast-forward 2100 years. Scientists discover how to warp space/time, and thus time travel becomes a possibility. Science discovers a way not only to warp space/time, but to monitor changes in the various space/time worlds by time travel.

    One scenario by a religious sociologist, was to go back in time, steal the body of this seemingly unknown Jesus, the failed messiah, bring him to the future, heal him completely (save a few scars), and then transport him to places in the past where he is shown to his followers. They use a fellow scientist to trick this failed messiah into thinking that they are God, and tell the failed messiah that they are raising him from the dead. Just to make things fun, they scientifically warp the space/time world to transport him to various locations and do things like make him appear to go through locked doors.

    To us in the 21st century of this space/time world, things would look pretty much like they do right now…but we are all simply part of an experiment by a 22nd century religious sociologist.

    Scenario 2: The Supernatural Explanation

    God exists and raised Jesus from the dead.

    Okay David, do you consider scenario 1 or 2 more plausible? I’m not really looking for any type of argument, but simply want to know if true naturalism would still consider such a scenario more plausible than the supernatural one.

    Thanks!

  11. I consider both your scenarios too implausible to take seriously unless very good evidence is provided in support of one of them.

    One thing though:


    He came, died and was buried. His followers, such as Peter and John, did what followers of failed messiahs always did and either started following another messiah-candidate or simply quit the game altogether.

    Failures in religion can have an effect which most would find counter-intuitive. Look at the origins of the First Day Adventists. Their leader predicted the end of the world. They excited gathered. Nothing happens. Some fall away. But, paradoxically, others become even more fervent and seek out new converts even more enthusiastically (maybe this missionary effort bolsters their own faith). The movement grows as a result.

    As to the swoon theory I don’t favor because all it does is account for an empty tomb (something I think we have little reason to be convinced of in the first place). It needs to be combined with something else (fraud, visions that grow in the telling, etc).

    In the end though, we simply don’t know what happened. We’ve far too little to go on to say, based on historical evidence, what happened. And, unless someone invents a time machine, we almost certainly never will know.

  12. If “magic” simply means “of or related to something supernatural” then “magical resurrection” is somewhat redundant.

    I think it’s pretty obviously being used pejoratively to mean “something I as a materialist consider impossible and unbelievable” in this case. But since the plausibility is the very thing at issue, that’s a case of assuming the conclusion.

    And, of course, if you consider something outright impossible, regardless of the historical evidence for it, then what’s even the point of debating it?


  13. If “magic” simply means “of or related to something supernatural” then “magical resurrection” is somewhat redundant.

    You must not read much science fiction.

  14. I’ll take that in the good humor with which I think (hope) it was intended.

    Speaking for myself, I’ve read quite a bit of science fiction. I just don’t think it’s a good way to identify precision terminology for discussions of this sort 🙂 .


  15. I think it’s pretty obviously being used pejoratively to mean “something I as a materialist consider impossible and unbelievable” in this case.

    I do not share the common Christian belief that there is a fundamental difference in regard to reasonableness between their supernatural beliefs (faith healings, miracles and the like) and the beliefs of “primitive” cultures that they tend to think of as superstitious. I consider this distinction, common as it is in the way most speak, to merely reflect a cultural bias—in this case, a bias I don’t share. For example, I find belief in faith healers as silly as belief in witchdoctors and use a word, quite unapologetically, that conveys that view.


  16. I’ll take that in the good humor with which I think (hope) it was intended.

    You take it correctly.

  17. Tom,

    I think of the term magic relative to what magicians purport to do. They manipulate reality using their will, with no intervening mechanism.

    When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, we’re supposed to believe (though few adults do) that the magician has the power to transmute a pack of playing cards into a rabbit using nothing but his will. In reality, of course, there is a mechanism – a trick. Magicians today don’t have any magical powers.

    However, God is someone who actually has magical powers. He can transmute stuff or break the laws of physics just by willing it so.

    In principle, there’s nothing superstitious about magical powers. Harry Potter has magical powers, and all such wizards at Hogwarts gladly submit to scientific testing during the school year. No scientist would dispute the magical powers of the folk at Hogwarts.

    However, Christians are superstitious because their beliefs are founded upon and reinforced by counting the hits and ignoring the misses. There’s no obvious reason for God to hide in the noise. If he wants to give us free will, he should hide the consequences of our not following his example. Hiding his existence is just silly.

    CAPCHA: deities industry 😛

  18. Hi DL!

    He can transmute stuff or break the laws of physics just by willing it so.

    Considering God created everything, including the physical laws to begin with, I must say this is hardly controversial. Naturalists think that nature, without a will, transmuted stuff about 14 billion years ago and continues to do so via the evolutionary process, so what is the problem here? Do you object to this being done willingly?

    However, Christians are superstitious because their beliefs are founded upon and reinforced by counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

    Counting hits as hits is entirely appropriate. I only need one hit to justify my so-called superstition anyway, so again, what is the problem?

  19. As I understand it, “magic” has historically been used to refer to “them”, to events, practices, etc. that one does not agree with, and thus it does not really have a set meaning that can usefully distinguish this from that. This has led Jonathan Z. Smith to argue:

    I see little merit in continuing the use of the substantive term “magic” in second-order, theoretical, academic discourse. We have better and more precise scholarly taxa for each of the phenomena commonly denoted by “magic” which, among other benefits, create more useful categories for comparison. For any culture I am familiar with, we can trade places between the corpus of materials conventionally labeled “magical” and corpora designated by other generic terms (e.g., healing, divining, execrative) with no cognitive loss. Indeed, there would be a gain.
    “Trading Places,” in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 16.

    I would echo him (among others) in wishing that the term would simply be abolished (especially in so-called “counter-cult” works).

  20. Hiding his existence is just silly.

    A man who is repeately reminded that everyone around him can perceive color, though he himself cannot, is a fool to think that color is hiding from him. He ought to look to himself as the reason for not perceiving what everyone else can in order to correct the problem.

  21. SteveK,

    But yours “fall[s] short” quite extensively: we probably can’t even claim that 10% of the world population have had the experience your analogy is supposedly analogous to. In statistical terms, that is quite abnormal while the perception of color is incredibly normal. Now, if you used the ability to perceive red13 as opposed to red12, then you might be closer, as most of us couldn’t tell the difference if our life depended on it, while a good number of interior designers or artists can do it pretty effortlessly.

  22. The perception that logic, reason, justice and morality transcend any opinion (group or individual) is pretty high. It wasn’t my intention to chase this rabbit here but maybe we can do it elsewhere.

  23. It gets you to the conclusion that they are objective aspects of reality that opinion cannot alter. And if you don’t perceive them as such then it would be wise to look at yourself as the reason why you don’t perceive them that way. That’s a good start.

  24. Steve,

    Do you object to this being done willingly?

    Was I objecting?

    However, Christians are superstitious because their beliefs are founded upon and reinforced by counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

    Counting hits as hits is entirely appropriate. I only need one hit to justify my so-called superstition anyway, so again, what is the problem?

    No problem at all. The prosecution rests.

    (See selection bias, base rate fallacy, clustering illusion, bias blind spot and many more.)

    A man who is repeately reminded that everyone around him can perceive color, though he himself cannot, is a fool to think that color is hiding from him. He ought to look to himself as the reason for not perceiving what everyone else can in order to correct the problem.

    There is no one in the world who meets this condition. I can provide a color-blind person with a set of filters that makes color a predictive factor in their world. I can provide a totally blind person with a device that translates color into sound, and makes color a predictive factor in their world.

    Yet there’s nothing that makes God a predictive factor in the world. There could be (if God were not hiding), but there isn’t. Even you can’t see God. You’re just seeing your own cognitive biases. How do I know? Well, the way to defeat cognitive biases is called science, but you deny science can see God, because when science is applied to God you come up empty.

  25. To go with good ol’ Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    I think this maxim becomes very interesting when applied to questions of miracles. In other words, it involves asking some pretty deep questions about the nature of miracles.

    And be careful with how “supernatural” is defined. It either reduces to something uninteresting (supernatural simply meaning ‘anything that involves God’) or something more interesting than anyone wants (Such that multiverse theories, certain otherwise tame descriptions of quantum physics, or cosmology in general all involve “the supernatural” – and quite possibly “magic” – by definition. In fact, I’d argue that by most definitions, all of those things *are* supernatural.)

    To answer Tom’s original post: No, magic does no fruitful work. You could just as easily regard the miracles of the bible as displays of technology. In fact, regarding biblical miracles as ‘technology’ leads Christianity down what I think is a very interesting and supportive path.

  26. DL,

    No problem at all.

    I take that to mean that my comments were in accordance with reasonable thought.

    Yet there’s nothing that makes God a predictive factor in the world.

    Predictive in what sense? Predictable results, predictable means, predictable timeframe or some other? Predictive qualitatively, quantitatively or some other?

    I think Tom blogged on this subject a while ago.

  27. SteveK,

    No, I don’t quite perceive them all as such. For example, I see ethics as being essentially tied to our relationships with others, such that without the self-other relationship there is no ethics. Therefore, to claim that they are “objective” in the traditional sense is not quite right (but neither are they “subjective”; see Levinas). Similarly with reason: there would be no “reason” if we did not have to justify or make an accounting of ourselves to others, but, again, this is neither “objective” nor “subjective” (again, see Levinas). In fact, our concrete relation with the Other is non-theoretically/non-rationally/non-conceptually prior to everything you mention, and is the ground for their being possibilities for us.

    But this really is secondary to the issue in this thread, so I’ll drop it for now. “Magic” is a practically useless term and should be rejected. 🙂

  28. DL

    The way to defeat cognitive biases is called science paying attention to the reality around you.

  29. The way to defeat cognitive biases is called science paying attention to the reality around you.

    Wow.

    Precisely how does one “pay attention to reality,” Steve? Cos I bet everyone who takes tests of cognitive bias is trying to pay attention to reality.

    What specific methods will you use to overcome your cognitive biases?

  30. Wow.

    Don’t be troubled by my comment, DL. I was merely expanding your narrow epistemological view beyond the realm of science. Doing formal science is included in this thing I call ‘paying attention’. Certainly you don’t think that peoples and cultures prior to ‘doing science’ were unable to escape their cognitive biases, do you?

  31. The difference between miracles and magic lies in that between submission and propitiation on the one hand, and manipulation on the other. Those who appeal to and engage in magic attempt to manipulate and dominate spiritual forces to achieve a desired outcome. Christ, in performing miracles, acted in perfect submission to His Father, making His will and His Father’s one and the same. Being God, Christ had every right to act unilaterally, but He perfectly humbled Himself to the Father’s will in everything He did — even to the point of taking the cup and degrading Himself to the most lowly of executions by crucifixion before miraculously conquering death itself. Those who ascribe the Resurrection to ‘magic’ are in commission of blasphemy.

  32. Victor,

    Those who appeal to and engage in magic attempt to manipulate and dominate spiritual forces to achieve a desired outcome.

    And this is significantly different from praying for healing, praying for faith so that one can be saved, praying for the safety of one’s own life or the life of one’s loved ones? Related to this, “manipulate” is an iffy term: in Wicca it is not seen as an issue of manipulation, but of utilizing natural laws to bring about the desired outcome, as magic is a part of the natural order. So your definition doesn’t apply in what is typically given as an example of magic par excellence. So your very use of that term is not only a misrepresentation, but also the explicit use of a derogatory term, akin to coercion, which doesn’t apply.

    This, among other reasons, is why Smith et al. argue that dropping the term is methodologically and terminologically better than retaining it.

  33. Kevin:

    (1) “Manipulate” is only an “iffy” term if (per Pinker) “dignity” is an “iffy” term: it betrays a certain level of intellectual laziness and avoidance (perhaps intentional to serve a particular end?) of seeking fine but important distinctions.

    (2) Prayer (say, for healing) can, indeed, be insincere and hence manipulative of God… but it can also be genuine. I’m interested in how you are able to peer into the soul of a prayerful person to generally conclude (as you imply) that intercessory or direct prayers are either all manipulative… or at best “iffy.” (By the way, isn’t “iffy” as you use it itself an “iffy” term?) Children, after all, can be manipulative or they can be sincere in requests made of their parents.

    (3) Wiccan “magic” is indeed manipulative because it centers on the will of the individual to bring about physical changes… and appeals to (using your sloppy term) “natural laws.” In stark contract, a Christian praying must align their requests with the Will of God: no appeal is made to “natural laws.” Magic is therefore an evil manipulation of “natural laws” for personal profit, i.e., the very nature of the act itself is evil, and no “good” intention will change that. How did you miss that?

    So, Victor’s presentation was correct: it is you who misrepresented his point… and neither “Smith” (perhaps from the Matrix?) nor Heidegger will help you.

  34. Holopupenko,

    (1) If you understand “manipulate” in the same way as one manipulates metal to make an instrument, then, yes, it is an apt term, per the claim made by Wiccans that magic is a natural force. This understanding, at least, is what fits with their self-understanding. If, howeever, you take the derogatory sense of “manipulate”, as you seem to do (and Victor would probably agree), then, no, that is not what Wiccans believe. It is indeed this forcing of foreign categories onto various belief systems that makes the academic use of the term magic “iffy”.

    (2) I never claimed that prayer couldn’t also be genuine, so I have no issue with this claim.

    (3) First, Jonathan Z. Smith (whom I had mentioned before, hence my not giving his full name; thanks for reading things closely, as always…) is a respected and very well-known figure in religious studies. You can see the quote above. But I could give other references, if you wish: Stanley Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality which highlights the ‘manipulative’ use of the term “magic” in the extant literature to mean little more than “something with which I don’t agree”; Robert K. Ritner
    s The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice where he argues extensively for the self-understanding of Egyptian so-called “magic”, showing how the term’s application to Egyptian beliefs and practices often are buttressed by foreign categories (i.e. categories that the Egyptians themselves would reject); or Edmund Meltzer’s indicative comment:

    [T]he loaded, evaluative connotation of “magic” as false, deceptive, discredited, or morally tainted… “magic” is relegated to the “they” side of a “we/they” dichotomy. This is simultaneously unfair to the materials and practices studied under the heading of “magic,” and self-serving for the materials (mainly those we identify as “our own”) that are exempted from that label. It perpetuates a complacent double standard.
    Edmund Meltzer, introduction to Ancient Christian Magic, 13

    Or that the volumes of the American Ethnologist (1985-1989), publication of the American Ethnological Society, does not have a single reference to “magic” in its pages.

    And there are more, many more within academic circles who see the purely polemical use of the term “magic” and thus see it as a largely impotent term. I’m not asking you to take my word for it; read the non-Evangelical literature and see the critiques for yourself.

    As for the second part of (3), your analysis is also “iffy” as one can certainly use Wicca for the good of others, in healing or giving bounty or etc. to others with no desire for personal gain or attention. If magic is indeed a natural law, then there is nothing inherently “evil” in it just as there is nothing inherently evil in the law of gravity, even though some use it to do damage or kill others; in short, as a natural law, it is neutral in relation to “good” or “evil”. At least there is nothing within Wiccan beliefs themselves that would deny this understanding. This, however, need not stop you from projecting other categories onto Wicca that it would not accept…but that’s exactly the thing Tom is saying others are doing to Christianity, so that would be a big and incredibly apparent double standard. Pots and kettles, ducks and such…

  35. In further response to Kevin, I think he is right to say that we ought to pay close attention to other religions’ (and their adherents’) self-understanding. If we have criticisms of those beliefs, we ought to take that into account. We can still evaluate their beliefs, of course, on the basis of their internal consistency (or lack thereof) and their conformity to external reality. Since I am thoroughly convinced that Jesus Christ is the central person of history, the Resurrected One, that will always remain a reality against which other beliefs must be tested.

    Anyway, this information from Kevin is new and interesting to me. I had previously thought the same as Victor and others here.

    I’m certainly not persuaded there is no such thing as manipulative intent in any use of spiritual (or “natural” in the Wiccan sense) forces. It’s all over the popular literature and I see it even in some Christian prayer, as I noted a short time ago. Still, maybe “magic” is too careless and weighted a word to use in any serious discussion of religious belief and practice. I have no problem accepting that. This discussion started with my saying it doesn’t fit in Christian theistic descriptions of what God does.

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