Criticizing Wicca: Magic is Unreliable

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

[This is part of a long series looking at atheism and Wicca.]

Any procedure for changing an initial situation (the start) into a desired situation (the goal) can be tested for its effectiveness.   As used here, effectiveness is a matter of degree, so that procedures can be more or less effective.  The simplest way to measure the effectiveness of a procedure is to divide the number of successful trials by the total number of trials.

To help keep things clear when analyzing magic, it will be useful to introduce the following precise terms of art:  A procedure is tested in a group of people if its effectiveness has been measured within that group and it is untested otherwise.  A procedure has some reliability if its known effectiveness is better than chance and has no reliablity otherwise.  A procedure is sound in a group of people if it is among the most reliable procedures known within that group and it is less than sound or unsound otherwise.   Obviously, every sound procedure has been tested.   Although every sound procedure has some reliability, the best we can do in many cases may not be much better than chance.  Although sound procedures must have some reliability, they need not have much reliability.  The technical expertise of any group is the collection of all sound procedures known within that group.

The term spell is used here for any procedure that is presented as magical in any Wiccan text.  Wiccan texts offer elaborate catalogs of spells.  The set of surveyed spells includes the spells presented in Farrar & Farrar (1981); Bucklands (1986); Cunningham (2004); Sabin (2011).  The texts that present the surveyed spells do not present any data to measure their effectiveness; all the surveyed spells are presented as untested.  And I am not aware of any tests of any surveyed spells.

For those spells that are untested, if Wiccans or others cannot provide evidence for reliability that meets the same epistemic standards as the evidence for the reliability of our technologies (which Wiccans use too), then it is cognitively wrong for Wiccans or others to assert that the spells have any positive reliability.  And if they cannot provide evidence that meets the same standards as the evidence for the reliability of our best technologies, then it is cognitively wrong for Wiccans or others to assert that the spells are sound.

All surveyed spells compete with (or are offered as alternatives to) procedures which have known positive reliabilities or which are sound.  All surveyed spells make use of operations and objects whose technical properties and relations are already well-understood.   Since the well-understood technical properties and relations of those operations and objects do not reliably produce any of the effects listed in the surveyed spells, it is reasonable to conclude that all surveyed spells have zero reliability.  Of course, the fact that this conclusion is reasonable does not entail that it is true – it must be tested.

But the fact that it is reasonable to say that the surveyed spells have no reliability does entail that nobody has any reason to test those spells.  Of course, Wiccans may test them if they like; but they cannot complain that others are obligated to test them in order to deny their reliability or to deny their soundness.  Skeptics are under no obligation to test the spells in order to make the entirely rational claim that they have no reliability and no soundness.  Even without testing them, it is rational to deny that they have those features.  If Wiccans want others to test the spells,then it is up to the Wiccans to give reasons.

If you use a car, a cell phone, a computer, or any product of advanced technical expertise, then you have every reason to say that the surveyed spells have no reliability.  And you contradict your own behavior if you insist otherwise without providing evidence which meets the same epistemic standards as the evidence used to make the technologies you use.  Here actions speak louder than words: if you use a cell phone, then you don’t really believe that spells work.  On the contrary, you place your faith in science and technology.  The purpose of magic is purely psychological: to induce the illusion of control.


Buckland, R. (1986) Complete Book of Witch Craft.  Second Edition Revised and Expanded.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.

Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches Bible.  Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Sabin, T. (2011) Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy and Practice.  Woodbury, MI: Llewellyn Publications.


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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Beth

    Do you consider the ‘illusion of control’ to be similar to or different from the claims that free will and/or the self are illusions? Are these similar to or different from illusions like rainbows and mirages?

    • Eric Steinhart

      Excellent questions! The illusion of control is certainly close to the notion that free will is an illusion; it might be close to the illusion of the self. But these are all deep conceptual illusions, not perceptual illusions like rainbows and mirages.

    • Beth

      Thank you for the quick response. Also, let me mention that I have enjoyed what I have read of your series on Wicca. I haven’t read all of it, but I appreciate your efforts here.

      I am saddened to see some of the more prominent members of ftb railing against the diversity of opinion you have added to the place during your sojourn here.

    • Ben Finney

      I am happy to hear diverse opinions.

      Eric’s opinions are fine for him to express, but they are expressed poorly. I’ve read enough that I really don’t want them clogging up Daniel’s usually-interesting blog.

      It’s also irksome that Eric is deaf to appeals that he stop calling atheism something that it’s not. Much nonsense follows from that misunderstanding, and it shows no sign of being corrected soon.

      Eric, please put your stuff on *your own* blog. Daniel, please show Eric how to do that.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Sorry Ben, atheism means denial of the theistic deity. And that’s all it means.

  • Dunc

    The purpose of magic is purely psychological

    Well, I would certainly agree with you there, but not that it’s solely about the illusion of control. In my experience and understanding, the purpose of magic is to modify the perceptions or cognitive behaviour of the practitioner. Anyone who claims that their magic can produce direct effects in the external world is simply deluding themselves in my opinion, but the changes in can generate in the mind of the practitioner can have far-reaching effects.

    For a fairly trivial example, I would argue that putting on a suit to go to work can be an act of magic. Many people say they feel more business-like and confident when dressed in particular ways, and that confidence then affects their behaviour in ways that they are not necessarily concious of. The suit itself does not make you more likely to succeed, but the added confidence it brings, and the change in how others perceive you, does.

    I have to admit that I’m not familiar with any of the works or authors you refer to here. There has always been a large market for comforting bullshit though… To quote Crowley:

    “Teach us Your secret, Master! yap my Yahoos.

    Then for the hardness of their hearts, and for the softness of their heads, I taught them Magick.

    But… alas!

    Teach us Your real secret, Master! how to become invisible, how to acquire love, and oh! beyond all, how to make gold.

    But how much gold will you give me for the Secret of Infinite Riches?

    Then said the foremost and most foolish: Master, it is nothing; but here is an hundred thousand pounds.

    This did I deign to accept, and whispered in his ear this secret:


    [The Book of Lies, section 88]