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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Believing in God is not Believing in Magic

"You believe in magic!" Such is the charge that has been leveled against me and all religious believers by atheists who see the very concept of the supernatural as out of bounds. However, Christians do not hold believe in magic at all. In fact, the very idea of magic is antithetical to Christian theology.

The error that these atheists make is one of equivocation. They mis-define magic to mean anything that is outside of a purely naturalist worldview. Of course, this is very wrong. As Dr. Ewin Yamauchi notes in his article "Magic in the Biblical World," even in Old Testament times when cultures existed that believed in magic and tried to practice it, there was a marked difference in understanding religion and magic. He explains:
There can be no doubt that both the Old Testament and the New Testament were born in environments permeated with magical beliefs and practices. It should come as no surprise to find Moses contesting with magicians in Egypt, later identified as Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim. 3:6-8), as magic was a dominant factor in Egyptian culture. For Egyptians to attain to an afterlife they had to provide themselves with magical incantations such, as the Pyramid Texts in the Old Kingdom, the Coffin Texts in the Middle Kingdom, and the Book of the dead in the New Kingdom. Magic was also a potent force in other contemporary cultures, such as that of the Hittites.

Though magic and religion are not mutually exclusive categories, they have generally been understood to represent two different attitudes. Put simply, in religion one prays to the gods; in magic one commands the gods. In this sense Egyptian religion was, as often as not, magical. The Egyptian magician threatened the gods by gods by virtue of his magical power.

This prime distinction between magic and religion, which is usually traced back to the pioneer anthropologists, E. B. Tylor and James Frazer, was originally noted by the Protestant Reformers. The element of 'coercion', 'control', or 'manipulation' has been regarded as an essential element of magic in many definitions. For example, H. H. Rowley notes:
The line between magic and religion is not always easy to define, but broadly we may say that wherever there is the belief that by a technique man can control God, or control events, or discover the future, we have magic.
According to William Howells, an anthropologist, 'magic can compel things to happen, whereas prayer to a gad can only attempt to persuade. The psychologist Walter Houston Clark declares, 'Typical of the magical attitude is the idea that man may coerce or strongly influence God by adherence to proper rituals or imprecations'.

The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski further argues that religion deals with ultimate issues, whereas magic focuses on the immediate concerns: 'While the underlying idea and aim is always clear, straightforward, and definite, in the religious ceremony there is no purpose directed toward a subsequent event.1


1. Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Magic in the Biblical World," Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983): 169, 175-176.
Image courtesy Sean McGrath [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Good post. I actually see the prosperity gospel as having much in common with magic. What do you think?

  2. Believing that God did supernatural miracles is the same as magic. From the online definition of magic:

    mag·ic ╦łmajik
    1. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

    1. So, its this how it works? You completely ignore the argument and distinction offered by a scholar in the article and go with whatever the first listing of a random online dictionary suggests? How is that advancing knowledge?

    2. I think what Bernie means is that when atheists claim Christians believe in magic they are not mis-defining magic, they simply using the dictionary definition rather than the commanding-God definition you are using. So it's not a mis-definition, it's just a different definition. Typically they are referring to things like the miracles performed by Jesus, rather than anything to do with praying. For example, they call it magic when he turned water into wine and fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and fish. This fits the dictionary definition of magic rather than the ancient Egyptian magic.

      I think you've made some very good points about the distinction between religious beliefs and magical beliefs, but you haven't addressed the atheist's arguments at all because you are using a different definition of magic than they are. What you need to answer is, how is Jesus turning water into wine any different from an alchemist turning lead into gold?

    3. Yes, I know what he means. However, the point of the article is to say that such a meaning is too superficial a view. I could just as easily claim that atheists believe multiverses are produced by magic. Is that either accurate or fair?

  3. So, although a god has a plan, is all-knowing, powerful and good, he's wrong? Prayer can persuade him to change the plan?

    1. A parent can desire to give his or her child a gift, purchase the gift, but not provide the gift until the child respectfully asks. The parent had always intended on giving the child the gift, but wishes the child to learn respect and the necessity of asking or recognizing the gift is mot something they were immediately entitled to. Similarly, prayer shapes us and helps us to recognize that we rely upon God and his good gifts.

  4. I like that idea, Stephen. It fits the definition of magic offered above.

    1. Thanks for your work in apologetics. You are doing a great job.

  5. The Catholic faith is the largest Christian denomination by far. And here's a perfect example of God's magic: The Priest says an incantation and the wafer turns into the body of Jesus, LITERALLY. Or so they say. It looks the same, but they say it is now Jesus even though it doesn't look like it. It takes magical thinking to believe this.

  6. Lenny wrote in the article: "In fact, the very idea of magic is antithetical to Christian theology."

    Yet you believe God created humans by magic rather than common descent (evolution).


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