Magical Thinking, Part 1: Magic and Theism


There are three broad ways of thinking about the world. The first is the magical view that everything that happens, good or bad, is due to the actions of a conscious agent, who might be benign, capricious, or malevolent. This is why a village is destroyed by an earthquake, a baby dies, or there is a great harvest. The second way of seeing reality is that there is nothing at all behind any event, other than blind chance, and that it is just as likely and just as meaningless that the harvest is good or a failure. The third common view is that there are reasons not related to any consciousness, for everything that happens, and we can in fact learn a great deal about those reasons, and even use what we learn to predict future events. This is the beginning of the scientific world view, where laws of nature are deterministic, and in its extreme form holds that in principle, determinism rules all.

The magical worldview was probably the first and most common among humans for most of their existence, and it still exists in some forms today. Originally the unpredictable and wholly fortuitous events that impacted on human life were thought to be the result of actions of supernatural beings (or supernaturally endowed human beings) such as gods, demons, angels, witches, or wizards. There were no consistent laws governing anything; there were only the whims and very anthropomorphic motivations of these creatures from (or in touch with) another world  who had powers beyond those of ordinary people. And of course, sometimes whole groups of people  – “others” like strangers, Gypsies, Jews – could be held accountable for calamitous events.

We now know that this world view is wrong. Some things happen because of natural laws. Curses don’t make people sick, germs do. Angry gods don’t cause earthquakes, the movement of tectonic plates does. While there are still people who believe in some form of magic (in which I include the power of diet to transform for good or evil, astrology, some occultist New Age ideas, as well as conspiracy theories and some forms of racism), most people do understand that there are laws of nature that cannot be broken.

But science was not the force that broke the magical spell over the minds of humanity. By the time the magical worldview was seriously challenged by science, it had already been dealt a severe blow from an entirely different direction – religion.

Of course I am speaking of one very particular religion, which soon gave birth to two related offshoots, and that is Judaism. Most religions were magical in essence, systems in which the magical worldviews of people were codified and formalized with specific gods with various personalities serving various purposes. Greek and Roman religions were good examples, as were the indigenous beliefs of Northern Europeans, Asians, Americans and so on. Judaism differed from these in two important ways. The first is that there was only one God, and the second was that God was immaterial and transcendent.

These unusual beliefs probably evolved from simpler beginnings more in line with neighboring ideas of divinity. In the first part of the Torah, we still find God walking in the Garden of Eden, exhibiting human emotions – acting out of jealousy and wreaking vengeance, much like Thor or Jupiter. The evolution of this early understanding of God to the modern version shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims took time. These three monotheistic religions (sometimes called Abrahamic religions) began to reject the magic  inherent in polytheistic religions and accept the idea of a single powerful God, a maker and sustainer who was responsible not only for the creating out of nothing physical world but also for specifying how this world worked.

In other words, these religions believed in a God that created laws. Not just moral laws, or rules that tell us how to behave, but physical laws that tell nature how to behave. Jews and Muslims and Christians wanted to know what those laws of nature were. This was the thinking that eventually led to the breakthroughs we call the scientific revolution, all made by religious people in pursuit of the truth of how God rules His creation.

So the magical worldview was replaced by the religious world view, in which many  (though not all) things that happen can be understood, and even predicted, based on fixed laws of nature that can be discovered by ordinary mortal (though smart) human beings with no supernatural powers. When lightning was found to be electrical discharge from large clouds, Thor lost his thunderbolt. When plagues were found to be caused by viruses in the fleas of rats, the power of witches and evil eyes disappeared.

But there were still many things that could not be so easily understood. Even when it was well known that disease was caused by unseen microbes, and we knew how these bad things happened, we still didn’t know why a particular very good woman would contract a disease and die. Neither the knowledge of natural laws nor the belief in an all-powerful God could explain why a landslide of mud would kill thousands of innocent people in a matter of minutes, even if we did understand the answer to how this happened in scientific terms. Neither science nor religion held any good answer to the “why” questions.

The rapid and astonishing success of the use of the scientific method to answer the “how” questions about God’s creation of a working universe led to a sense on the part of some intellectuals that science by itself might be sufficient for understanding “why” questions without the need for a God at all. That was a rare view, and one of the main obstacles to general acceptance of that view was the living world. Science was not believed to be able to make much inroad into understanding the enormous complexity of biology.

But that all changed with Darwin. And since the advent of the theory of biological evolution also coincided with an explosion of technical prowess, where the applications of science were making incredible changes in the way people lived, the idea that science alone could provide an independent view of everything we would want to know about our world began to take hold. The concept that a creator God who used natural law to govern the world in a more or less rational way began to be rejected, especially among educated Christians and Jews.



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5 Responses to Magical Thinking, Part 1: Magic and Theism

  1. SheilaDeeth says:

    Now I’m eager for Part 2, and wondering if truth lies in between the ways.

  2. Not to give a spoiler, but I think that is indeed the answer.

  3. noahiswhite says:

    I’m super excited for part 2, Sy! One thing I would add to (or ask about, I guess) is your point about the nature of God in the Genesis account:

    There seems to be an idea that Genesis is a later writing, rather than an early one (though obviously an oral tradition probably predates the writing). But the line of thinking, which makes quite a bit of sense to me, is that the Genesis account is secondary to the Exodus account in that it makes most sense in light of Exodus (i.e., God’s creating activity is a saving activity, which we see in a couple Psalms that juxtapose creation and the Exodus). And I still think we see God exhibiting emotions throughout the entire Torah and OT. I don’t necessary disagree with your broader point (the definite weirdness of Judeo-Christian monotheism had to come out of something more basic), but I’m a bit wary (though I see your point!) to compare God in Genesis to Jupiter or Thor (namely that He doesn’t appear to me to be nearly as petulant as the other two–though I could be biased here). Jon Garvey’s thoughts on Adam & Eve’s historicity with regards to divine revelation (which I’ve found myself agreeing with) come into play here as well, though I don’t recall the exact article(s) where he lines them out (“The Lost World of N.T. Wright” is one I think).

    Anyway, just my $0.02–good stuff here, looking forward to the next installment!

  4. Hi Noah. Thanks for your comment, and you are probably right. I think you know much more about Biblical hermeneutics than I do. My point was simply that while God became a very distant figure or even disembodied concept in later Judaism, that was not how it started in the Torah. Of course God is still quite active, but we read less and less about Him as a figure as time passes. Until of course, the incarnation in the Gospels, but thats a whole different story. Take care

    • NoahWhite says:

      Ah, I see what you’re saying–that’s a good point. And one worth pondering! The Israelites’ conception (if that’s the right word) of God got more distant as we moved closer to Christ. Quite a bit to chew on there. Hope all is well.

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