Atheists and skeptics often say Christians believe in magic. It’s a thoroughly confused accusation—that, or it’s dishonest—and yet they use it anyway. It’s a great example of sloganeering instead of thinking. I’ll come back to that at the end, under “the moral of the story.” First, though, we need to look at the truth about Christianity and magic.
I looked up several definitions in online dictionaries. Dictionary.com defines the noun form of “magic” as
1. the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; legerdemain; conjuring: to pull a rabbit out of a hat by magic.
2. the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature…..
3. the use of this art: Magic, it was believed, could drive illness from the body.
4. the effects produced: the magic of recovery.
5. power or influence exerted through this art: a wizard of great magic.
At Merriam-Webster we read “magic” as
1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
1b : magic rites or incantations
a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source
2b : something that seems to cast a spell : enchantment
3: the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand
The Oxford dictionaries define its adjectival form,
used in magic or working by magic; having or apparently having supernatural powers: a magic wand
[attributive] very effective in producing results, especially desired ones: confidence is the magic ingredient needed to spark recovery
“Magic” Applied to God, Prayer, Miracles
And that pretty much seems to cover the territory as far as dictionaries go. Other sources don’t say much different. Now the question is, which of these applies to Christian belief concerning God, prayer, or miracles?
Entertainment magic certainly doesn’t; everyone knows it’s pure illusion. My son is a street magician. He says magicians are the most honest people in the world: they let you know they’re going to fool you and then they go ahead and do it.
The word “magic” used metaphorically—the magic of her smile—has nothing to do with it either, obviously.
The answer to our question seems rather to lie in one or more of these, which I’m re-numbering here for convenience:
- the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.
- the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces
- an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source
- having or apparently having supernatural powers
If the question is whether God himself is magic (or a belief in God is a belief in magic), then number 1 and 2 are ruled out. No Christian believes God uses means, incantations, or techniques. No orthodox Christian believes that prayer is a matter of assuming (much less assuring) human control over God or the supernatural. (Some name-it-and-claim-it Christians brush dangerously close to that belief, but to the extent they do so they depart from belief in the God of the Bible.)
Similarly prayer is never thought, in Christianity, to contain or produce any sort of power over natural or supernatural forces. Rather it is a personal request to God that he would influence natural forces in a desired direction.
Yes, Christians often say there is power in prayer, but that’s shorthand, an abbreviated reminder that there is power in God himself, and that he has promised to answer prayer according to his own will and his grace. The power is not in the prayer but in God himself.
Making Crucial Distinctions
These distinctions are crucial. The brief definitions I’ve quoted here are echoed and expanded in more technical literature: magic is an attempt to take control of the supernatural by use of arcane techniques, or else it is some effect or power associated with such practices.
Some Christians may believe that there is such a thing as magic that genuinely meets that definition, but they ascribe its effect to the deceit of demons, and they reject it resoundingly. If this kind of magic exists, which I personally doubt, it’s only apparently the exercise of power over supernatural forces. Demons may play that game: they don’t mind it at all, as long as they can ensnare souls.
As I said, I doubt this is real. My friend André Kole is a master illusionist (stage magician) who has traveled the world looking for any real magic of this sort. He goes where scientists have been baffled and have left, saying “there’s no explanation for this.” He says the problem with scientists is that they’re trained to study what’s true. To track an illusion it takes an illusionist. In his book Miracles or Magic he exposes psychic surgeons in the Phillipines, levitating gurus in India, and so on: it’s all illusion, trickery of the same sort used by entertainers on stage.
So is God magic? Is prayer? No, not by definitions 1 and 2.
God: Perfection of Power, Not “Magic”
Definitions 3 and 4 deserve a closer look. If God does miracles, then perhaps the way he does them could fit under definition 3. Certainly God has supernatural powers (and not just “apparently”!), according to Christian belief.
Here’s the problem atheists or skeptics will have with that, however. God’s power is (again, according to Christian belief) wrapped up completely in the definition of God. God has power because of who and what God is: the eternal, sovereign (meaning he does what he wills), omniscient, omnipotent one. God’s power is an aspect of his perfection, an essential attribute that’s necessary to the very being that God is.
So suppose someone removes every connotation of manipulation, control, means, and techniques from “magic.” Suppose they exclude humanity from its scope. Suppose they strip away all these connotations and denotations, and they leave nothing left of it but what rightly fits in the Christian conception of God, and then they accuse us of believing in “magic.”
In response to that, first, I doubt that it’s psychologically possible to do as I just said: to eliminate all these other associations from our minds. But again, let’s suppose we could do that. What would that leave the skeptic with the accusation that we believe God is a God of perfect power.
I’m comfortable with that. Every believer is comfortable with that. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of there: it’s just true. That’s part of what we believe about God.
Misunderstanding, Irrationality, or Deceit?
So if some atheist or skeptic wants to call God “magic,” and if by that they mean something like God’s perfection of power, I could live with that. It’s fine: except for one very important thing. The purpose for using the word is to create discomfort, which is accomplished only by relying on associations attached to “magic” that belong neither to God, nor to prayer, nor or to miracles.
Thus it’s either an act of misunderstanding, illogic, or deceit on the atheist’s/skeptic’s part. If he misunderstands the Christian conception of God or prayer, he might think there’s something in them that’s related to definitions 1 or 2. We Christians can explain that this is not the case, and that Christianity has nothing to do with magic so understood.
If he continues to say something like, “you believe in the supernatural, which is part of the definition of magic, therefore you believe in magic,” then he’s being irrational. More specifically he’s committing the fallacy of the undistributed middle: “Supernatural” is part of the definition of “magic” and part of the definition of “God;” therefore God is magic. It’s parallel to “four-legged” is part of the definition of “cat” and part of the definition of “rhinoceros;” therefore our cat, Callie, who is waiting impatiently for me to feed her this morning, is a rhinoceros. Yikes!
(There are other fallacies there, but I think I’ve made my point.)
If an atheist or skeptic listens to us Christians explaining all that, and still presses the point that we believe in magic, he’s trading falsely on the psychology of negative associations, which he should know have nothing to do with Christian belief. In that case it’s deceit.
The Moral of the Story
But look at how effective it can be, in just four words: “Christians believe in magic.” It makes us look stupid, superstitious, unthinking. Contrast that with how long my answer here has run. It took a long time to get to this point!
Note, however, that “Christians believe in magic” trades on shadowy, vague, and emotionally-laden associations we have with the word “magic.” Notice also that what I’ve been doing in this blog post has been thinking it through carefully, one step at a time.
There’s a moral there:
Thinking is harder than sloganeering.
There are other lessons to be learned as well:
Sloganeering can be more persuasive than careful thinking. If you draw forth emotions you’re likely to have an impact, regardless of what’s rational.
And finally, once again the other day someone wrote, “Thinking Christian is an oxymoron.” I get that a lot. It’s another slogan. Slogans are easier than thinking, and what you see above is an example of what thinking looks like.