The Illusion of Control

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

[Much of the content and practice of religion is based on regulating (arousing, maintaining, and inhibiting) the illusion of control.  This illusion is briefly described here.  The neural basis of this illusion is clearly exposed in Wiccan texts.  The illusion of control is said to be an adaptive illusion with personal and prosocial benefits.  The inability of atheism to induce illusions of control may entail that atheism faces significant social obstacles.]

Many Wiccan practices involve energy.   Here the term “energy” is used as a Wiccan term of art rather than as a scientific term: it is an alleged mysterious energy, rather than the energy studied in physics.  This energy does not exist in nature or elsewhere.  The Farrars use electro-magnetic metaphors to talk about  (mysterious) energy (1981: 107-110).  However, the Farrars do not seem to use the term “energy”.  The term does appear in Buckland (1986: 14-16).  Energy plays more prominent roles in later American Wiccan writers.  The main idea is that all energy originates from the Wiccan ultimate deity.  Cunningham writes that “All natural objects . . . are manifestations of divine energy” (2004: 92).  Hence Wiccans like Cunningham stress that the energy involved in Wiccan practices is physical and natural rather than super-natural.  He stresses that “[t]he energy and magical powers at work in Wicca are real.  They aren’t of some astral plane.  They’re within the earth and ourselves” (2004: 90).

For Cunningham, the energy used in Wiccan practices is immediately felt as the metabolic energy of the body: “We daily deplete our store of energy and replenish it through the air we breathe, the food we eat” (2004: 90).   This energy is closely related to the arousal and activation of the autonomic nervous system: “This energy is the same power we’re filled with when we’re angry, nervous, terrified, joyous, or even sexually aroused” (2004: 92).  For Buckland, the energy in Wiccan practices also comes from the body: “Witches have always believed in this power coming from the body” (1986: 14).

Cunningham presents a ritual intended to demonstrate the existence of this energy.  You rub your palms together for about twenty seconds and then hold them about two inches apart.  After you do this, he asks: “Feel them tingling?  That’s a manifestation of power . . .  It’s flowing out from your palms as you hold them apart” (2004: 90).  After you learn to sense this energy, Cunningham says that you can use visualization to manipulate it.  He says you should “visualize jolts of energy” passing from one palm to another (2009: 90).  He then recommends visualizing the energy as forming a sphere between your palms.   He says you can learn how to manipulate this “bit of energy that you’ve released from your body” (2004: 91).  You can then learn to direct this energy out of your body: “When you feel yourself bursting with power, hold out your right (projective) hand and direct energy from your body, through your arm, and out your fingers.  Use your visualization.  Really see and feel it streaming out” (2004: 93).  Obviously, our bodies do generate energy.  And equally obviously, everything Cunningham says about it is false.  The only way to externalize somatic or emotional energy is by activating your muscles.

Sabin offers an elaborate system of energy exercises (2011: chs. 3 & 4).  She describes the energy exercises involve rubbing hands and directing energy from the hands (2011: 43-45).  She describes exercises intended to enable the practicioner to feel the energy in non-human things like crystals and trees (2011: 45-46).  She develops detailed “grounding” exercises for sending excess energy into the earth (2011: 51-58) as well as detailed “shielding” exercises for protection from excess energy or negative energy (2011: 59-64).  She frequently discusses techniques for “raising” energy (e.g. 2011: 52, 208).  The result is a complex theory of energy that has no empirical basis – it is a pseudo-science.

It is intriguing to note that much of Sabin’s theory of energy is a fairly accurate theory of activation in the autonomic nervous system.  Her negative energy corresponds roughly to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, especially by social conflict or performance anxiety.  It is arousal of the fight-or-flight circuitry.  Her positive energy corresponds rougly to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, especially as it seeks to inhibit sympathetic fight-or-flight responses.  Perhaps more deeply, these energies correspond roughly to activations in the limbic system, especially the amygdala.  The distinction between positive and negative energies appears to be the result of projecting limbic-marking outside of the body (see Saver & Rabin, 1997).  And the belief in mysterious energies may be the result of the projection of autonomic activation outside of the body.

Just as real science is the basis for real technology, the pseudo-science of energy is the basis for the pseudo-technology of magic.  Buckland writes that Wiccans have “developed ways to increase [energy], collect it, and use it to do what we term magick” (1986: 14).  Sabin writes that Wiccans “believe that they can bend and use energy to bring about change, which is what magic is all about” (2011: 43).  These Wiccan energy exercises, and the magical procedures that make use of this energy, are designed to produce illusions of control (Langer, 1975).  These illusions can decrease anxiety and increase confidence.

It has been argued that these are adaptive illusions that can facilitate performance, especially in the face of situations over which the self has no control.  It is said that illusions of control can motivate the self to continue to act despite the fact that action almost certainly has no effect on the outcome.  These illusions are cognitive biases that amplify the probability of success high enough to make it appear rational for the self to continue to act.  They amplify the probability of success sufficiently far above the probability of failure that the self can continue to act instead of collapsing in despair.  One large function of religion may be to regulate (induce, maintain, inhibit) illusions of control personally and socially.

Since illusions of agency and control are illusions, they conflict with the imperative to avoid all deception (thou shalt not deceive, not even thyself!).  Since many atheists are motivated by this imperative, it is not likely that any atheistic religion could ever have any practices that produce illusions of control.  However, if these illusions are adaptive, then atheism may be maladaptive, and can hardly be expected to flourish.  The psychological demand for the illusion of control, and the inability of atheism to satisfy that demand, may be one of the most significant practical problems for atheism to solve.  The illusion of control will be discussed further in the forthcoming discussion of magic.


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.

Langer, E. (1975) The illusion of control.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32 (2), 311-328.

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

Saver, J. & Rabin, J. (1997) The neural substrates of religious experience.  Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 9 (3), 498-510.

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