On Magic(k)

Throughout history, groups such as the Puritans have railed against what they see as the overly elaborate and ostentatious ceremony and ritual surrounding religious events. But despite the fulminations of religious reformers, ceremony and ritual are not superfluous add-ons to faith, but very much at the core of it. Belief in the supernatural is usually intended to give the believer a sense of control over events, and a highly elaborate, ritualized ceremony is often more effective at this than a simple, unadorned prayer. The ritual gives the practitioner a sense that they are doing something to bring their will to fruition, rather than leaving it all up to the whims of an inscrutable deity.

This tendency perpetually recurs in Christianity, but it can be seen most clearly in modern New Age religions such as Wicca. As opposed to prayer, Wiccans believe that performing certain rituals can give them direct influence over the workings of the universe. Practitioners of these rituals often call them “magick”, rather than “magic”, presumably to differentiate themselves from Harry Potter or the professional conjurers on TV. This is a frivolous and ridiculous coinage, and I will not go along with it. Magic is magic, and this post will refer to it as such.

Many so-called magical practices lend themselves to mockery even more easily than most religious practices, especially when the intent behind them is so obviously to fleece the gullible. Consider this apparently serious site, whose creators soberly inform us that they are “an Elfin tribe” and “nature spirits in human form”. Among the pieces of magical paraphernalia they’re hawking is the following:

The Merlin Flipper : An Instant Decision Maker
When you are having trouble with a Yes-No answer, this very special spell disc from Merlin’s Cave can help you find the answer that is right for you. All you have to do is to voice the question whilst flipping the disc into the air like a coin. As this disc has been impregnated with a special spell, you will find that ‘Fate’ will take a hand and cause it to fall with the answer is ‘Right For You’, uppermost.

“Like” a coin – because, take note, this is most emphatically not an ordinary coin. If it was, there would be no way to justify selling it for twenty-five American dollars. I hear this site’s next product will be that miracle of divination, the “Gandalf Octo-Sphere“, which is guided by the invisible hand of Fate to show the humble seeker the true answer to his entreaties, but only after being vigorously shaken.

Or take this “Negative Energy Shield“:

At a mere £65.(each) it will render you, invincible to all forms of Psychic Attack: giving you full defence without you feeling a thing. By reflecting the energy back at the sender, your assailant soon begins to realise that they are hurting nobody but themselves and so they desist leaving you to enjoy your freedom. It will ward off the stress and strain of modern life and help you to cope with all of the frustrations and irritations that can build up into up – tight situations which result in a high level of Anxiety and Nervous Tension.

As my girlfriend said upon reading this description: “I already have one of those. It’s called a tinfoil hat.”

Or, consider the much-touted “magic pebble”:

If this very special pebble is placed in a container of clear spring water it will after ten minutes or so, have a profound effect on the energy level of the water, turning it into a very powerful Healing Elixir.

…This, is because it raises the Angstrom Energy Level of the water and thereby increases its potency by an amount that has a very beneficial effect on all living things. For the good of your health, we unreservedly recommend that you drink this water, every day. According to Prof. Angstrom, the average healthy person has an energy level of 6.5Å to 7.0Å. In order to stay healthy, we should eat food and drink that has an energy level of seven of more Angstroms.

(Combine this product with some homeopathically prepared water for twice the pseudoscience in every glass!)

Apparently, the creators of this marvel are banking on their customers not knowing that an angstrom is a unit of length, equal to one ten-billionth of a meter. Claiming to raise the “angstrom energy level” of a glass of water makes about as much sense as promising to increase a person’s intelligence by ten miles per hour. As far as the illustrious “Prof. Angstrom”, he was a real person (his full name was Anders Jonas Angstrom), but he also died in 1874, so I find it highly unlikely that he first took the time to endorse a crackpot New Age website selling pebbles its proprietors picked up off the sidewalk.

And, of course, no magic vendor would be complete without some good old-fashioned love spells:

This formless flint with a highly erotic shape, has been impregnated with a very potent magic spell or thought form and for many centuries has been known affectionately as ‘Old Nick’s Finger’. This very powerful virility charm for men has the effect of making your body more sensitive and your mind more relaxed, whilst also increasing your libido and fecundity. For best results, keep beside your bed.

Seriously, why on earth would anyone buy this? If it’s sexual potency you want, there are plenty of spammers who will be only too happy to sell you the latest pharmaceutical innovation – which, however much it says about the misguided priorities of drug companies, at least has the advantage of scientifically verified efficacy.

But so I’m not accused of picking on easy targets, let’s consider a slightly more serious perspective on magic. The following is a love spell excerpted from The Wicca Bible, by Ann-Marie Gallagher, which discusses magic without quite so many irresponsible claims:

Cast this spell on a waxing moon, preferably on a Friday, ruled by lovely Venus.

…Leave the water for this spell out in the moonlight prior to closing the circle. In magic the Moon is a patron of the tides and this spell asks that a lover comes to the supplicant at the right time.

…1. Light the red candle, saying: “Passion burn bright like the Moon above me that I will meet with one who will love me.”
2. Hold the rose quartz in one hand and the clear quartz in the other and visualize yourself walking on a seashore. A new love walks out of the waves toward you. As you walk toward each other, bring your hands together and transfer the clear stone to the hand holding the rose quartz.
3. Place the stones in the chalice and pour in the water, saying: “May the light of the Moon bring the gift I desire. Washed in by the tide and blessed by the fire.”
4. This fire is the candle flame which should be allowed to burn down completely.
5. Leave the stones in the chalice for three days, remove them and place together in the red cloth which should be tied tightly into a pouch with the cord and worn about your neck for one moon cycle.

One wonders, how were the methods and ingredients of this spell and others determined? Are there records of past Wiccan researchers who tried different colors of candles or cast the spell on different days of the week? Or do these practitioners simply claim to have acquired their knowledge through oracles?

Unlike the site discussed before, The Wicca Bible does not make extravagant claims about the efficacy of magic to control the external world. In fact, it offers so many provisos and disclaimers that it is sometimes difficult to tell if it is claiming magic rituals have any supernatural effect at all. Its discussion of healing spells, for example, says that “healing magic is not about curing terminal diseases…” (indeed not – you need science for that) – but rather, “if those suffering with terminal or chronic illnesses feel that they will benefit from having strength, calm and tranquillity sent to them, then this is the healing that we can send.” (Then again, it does say that “Sometimes spells do have remarkable results”).

These elaborate disclaimers are the theological equivalent of the fine print at the bottom of used-car ads. They inform overeager believers that their supernatural ritual usually will not have dramatic effects, lest the practitioner become disillusioned – but on the other hand, they hold out an implicit, wink-and-nudge “But hey, you never know…” In this respect it’s similar to Christian apologetics which counsel the believer not to expect blatant answers to prayer, but coyly mention the amazing miracles which they claim happened in the past. The goal is to get believers to live in a state of constant expectation and excitement, but never to expect anything actually verifiable, so they do not lose hope and deconvert.

As part of this, magic practitioners invariably apply their powers to large, complex problems not susceptible to controlled conditions – finding love, getting a promotion, telling the future – where failure can always be blamed on unpredictable factors. Can magic prove its worth in a situation where success is clearly distinguishable from failure? Is there a magic spell that will, for example, make a dice roll turn up a particular number more often than chance would dictate? Can magic practitioners use their deep and intimate connection to the intricate web of the universe to discern which of the five Zener cards an experimenter has selected, at a rate greater than the 20% average of random guessing? Have healing spells ever been compared to placebos in a double-blind scientific study? Such tests have never been done, because they would prove that claims of magical ability are nothing but futile wishful thinking.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thestoneoftear.blogspot.com Callandor

    “Can magic prove its worth in a situation where success is clearly distinguishable from failure?”

    Well, I always thought of chi as a magic force, so, I’d say the answer is yes. Chi vs. Fist — who will win?!

    This just brings to mind Peter Popoff’s relatively recent trick of selling magical water. When it’s just water.

  • Ric

    Are you sure this site isn’t a parody?

  • andrea

    I doubt the site is a parody. After leaving Christianity, I was still thinking that there could be ‘something’ that I could worship and be protected by. I tried Wicca. It is less harmful than most religions, but it still is full of silly beliefs and claims, all with the same efficacy as “prayer”. I still have my altar set-up, just because the stuff looks kinda neat.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    You know, I danced under the lunar eclipse that we had a few months back. Difference is, I didn’t expect it to do anything but make me smile for a while.

    This stuff reminds me of the games my sister and I used to play when we were kids. We’d pretend all sorts of stuff about (real and imaginary) objects and places, and my sister always hated it when I felt the need to make reality intrude and point out that things weren’t real. “Yes they are,” she’d say. “Shut up. You’re spoiling it.” And so we’d continue in our merry way through deeply-layered fantasy. But she always knew how to wake up for dinnertime, my sister. She likes imagination at least as much as she likes reality, but she couldn’t really grow up in our house without learning some critical thinking.

    Still, whenever I read about this sort of thing, I always think that it’s actually not so unbelievable that people fall in with it. All you need is an imagination that can supersede critical thinking, and you’re there.

  • http://atheisthussy.blogspot.com/ Intergalactic Hussy

    If you think you’re cursed, you are. If you think you’re blessed, you will have a good day. At least Wiccans, Pagans, and other people who practice magic (for the most-part) were conscious about their religion. They thought about it unlike many who just go with the flow and consider themselves, for example, Christian just because their parents are. I almost became Wiccan when I was younger before I realized that there is still gods and goddesses and silly rituals.

    As silly as it can be, Xians who criticize magic are the silliest of all!

  • Alex Weaver

    Never trust supposed practitioners of magic who can’t spell “Elven” and don’t warn you about saving throws. Now, of course, they’d probably claim we’re suffering from rigid thinking, but I know I’d be willing to change my mind if, say, one of them were to cast a Fireball as a demonstration… ^.^

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Never trust supposed practitioners of magic who can’t spell “Elven” and don’t warn you about saving throws.

    Well, the story behind the “Elfin” spelling is that in one of the reprints of The Lord of the Rings, the editor made a ton of changes to it that Tolkien hated, including that one. That spelling stuck around with people who read those versions of the books.

    Sadly, I wish I could say it was something new for someone to take their religion from a piece of explicit fiction…

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    but on the other hand, they hold out an implicit, wink-and-nudge “But hey, you never know…”

    I’ve felt this way about disclaimers for all supernatural practices for a long time. It’s clearly there as a formality, and almost implies a greater confidence in their claims.

  • Alex, FCD

    If this very special pebble is placed in a container of clear spring water it will after ten minutes or so, have a profound effect on the energy level of the water, turning it into a very powerful Healing Elixir.

    …This, is because it raises the Angstrom Energy Level of the water and thereby increases its potency by an amount that has a very beneficial effect on all living things. For the good of your health, we unreservedly recommend that you drink this water, every day. According to Prof. Angstrom, the average healthy person has an energy level of 6.5Å to 7.0Å. In order to stay healthy, we should eat food and drink that has an energy level of seven of more Angstroms.

    And for $500, I’ll sell you a device that will raise the kinetic energy level of clear spring water by more than 335 megajoules per litre in only a few minutes. This process makes the water much more succeptible to dissociation with the leaves of certain ancient Indian plants, a ritual which I personally perform every morning, leaving me energized and ready to face the day.

    Ok, it’s a tea kettle. But at least mine works.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Ric – I did consider the possibility that this site was a parody, as out there as it is. But I’m pretty sure it’s real. For one thing, clicking on the links to buy any of the items they’re selling takes you to a shopping cart page on PayPal. I don’t think a spoof site would go so far as to actually take people’s money.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Fecundity? It will increase your fecundity? I hope the guys who buy it realize what that means… child support!

  • Mrnaglfar

    So magic can’t stop a fist, can’t cure a terminal ill patient, and probably can’t cure a gun shot wound either. It doesn’t seem prayer can. So what comfort(or energy) does it offer that just being there for a friend and putting a hand on their should, and telling them how much they matter wouldn’t?

  • Entomologista

    The poetry! It’s so bad! It burns us!

    The “Instant Decision Maker” is interesting because one of the things Daniel Dennett claims religion was invented for was to help with very difficult decisions.

    You know, I think that there is a D&D spell called Energy Shield. I know there is Negative Energy Ray and Negative Energy Burst. I bet if I mixed D&D with some science words I could also swindle a bunch of noobs. Too bad I’m ethically opposed to parting fools from their money.

  • aweb

    Have healing spells ever been compared to placebos in a double-blind scientific study?

    Yes they have, don’t you recall the study earlier this year that compared prayer receivers to non-prayer receivers, where it turned out to have no significant effect at all? If praying for healing isna’t a magic healing spell, what is?

  • Brendan

    I was actually really into this stuff for a while, and found a number of websites like this one, or of similar bent, and they are almost all completely serious.
    As to your question, Ebonmuse:

    One wonders, how were the methods and ingredients of this spell and others determined? Are there records of past Wiccan researchers who tried different colors of candles or cast the spell on different days of the week? Or do these practitioners simply claim to have acquired their knowledge through oracles?

    They actually did test them. It works remarkably like the scientific method, but with less independant testing, and a whole lot more confirmation bias. You start with common perceptions of things, and make out a ritual, and then you test it out. Over time, passed from one person to the next, it gets tweaked and tested into an “accepted” form, which they believe works. The simplistic ones think they’re working with improperly studied laws of nature, and the really interesting ones realize that it’s all in your head, but most of them don’t get past the “Secret” stage. Every once in a while, you get a really bright one who sees the full effect of it, and just clings to the ritual out of habit.
    I suppose I fall into this last category, as I recognize that it’s all bunk, but I’m kind of a sucker for elaborate ritual, so I still have most of the candles and apparati I accumulated. I suppose, anymore, it’s just childish role-play, but I guess there’s no harm there, as long as I recognize that.
    Ok, That wandered a bit more than I had hoped, so I’m going to shut up for now.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I suppose I fall into this last category, as I recognize that it’s all bunk, but I’m kind of a sucker for elaborate ritual, so I still have most of the candles and apparati I accumulated. I suppose, anymore, it’s just childish role-play, but I guess there’s no harm there, as long as I recognize that.

    Sounds fair enough to me :)

    Sounds quite fun, actually.

  • Amy

    I wish they’d discover a spell or crystal that would help them with their punctuation. Sheesh.

  • Apocryphon

    Do what thou Wilt, shall be the whole of the law.

    I have to agree with you, that the majority of what people who openly proclaim themselves to practice magic(k) are nothing more than weirdos with huge inferiority complexes (often far left wing nut cases) who personify themselves as elves and wizards or whatever to get attention, and feel special.

    This however is not magic as it is described by Frazier in the Golden Bough, nor is in what Aleister Crowley meant by Magick when he coined the addition of the -k. He was interested in redeeming the ancient practices of pagan religions, when he coined that term and it was stage magic, illusionists, whom he wanted to distinguish his Mage-ick from. Later on when new-age and paganism came about and mixed with sci-fi and fantasy literature, that they decided to start misusing Crowley’s spelling, in a futile attempt to make their idiocy seem legitimate. They will also use every trick and misuse of logic and the nonsense “Philosophy” of postmodernism which is actually a form of literary criticism gone awry, to deceive people to accept that fiction and fact are both equally legitimate forms of expression, and one as good as the other. The will use these and any number of self deceptive devices, anything to make themselves feel superior.

    Anyway on to what did Crowley mean by Magick when he coined the term. It was not the use of supernatural means to achieve natural goals which Crowley was interested in teaching. Rather what he meant by Magick was, the science of doing what you set your mind upon in the most efficient means possible. It is the science of introspection and self-observation to discover which of ones desires are beneficial and which are harmful habits of though or are based on phobias, anxieties, delusions, or just false information that one is taught or acquired in life. Then to learn the self discipline to re-direct oneself towards one’s True WILL, rather than to waste your energy on those distractions, false beliefs, psychological complexes, etc which lead you into trouble. In short, Magick is meant to be the art and science of living you life more effectively.

    In science the Truth is sought by seeing if your stated hypothesis is supported by the experiment, where as Magick the hypothesis is accepted if it aids one’s higher purpose. The explanation of why that action aids one or hinders one’s achievement of the TRUE WILL, that is to say in living ones life effectively, is not relevant. If you know the true explanation for why certain actions achieve what you WILL, that is well and good. However, if you do not know, you may rely on a myth or supernatural explanation.

    Which is to say Magick is science aimed at self discovery and application of one’s skills to live an effective life. It is a science of personal ethics, rather than a science of objective truth seeking.

    It is however true that in almost all cases one lives a better life, if one knows the truth, that if one believes in myths and supernatural explanations, thus when the physical sciences establish a strong explanation that displaces the mythic one, the wise magician will accept the physics in place of the myth.

    However it is known that the mind reacts differently to poetic expressions than appear in myth than to linear science, that personification has more emotional and intuitive content. Thus to know the physics and yet to express it ritually in poetic metaphor, helps to stimulate the whole brain to engage the material, rather than just the strictly logical thinking part of the brain.

    So when Magick is properly understood and practiced, it is a science in that it takes note of one’s actions and internal reactions in controlled experiments to devise the most effective control over the psyche and over how to lead one’s own life. Magick is also an Art form in that it encodes what it learns in terms of symbols, rituals, poetry and images that relate those discoveries in a form that integrates the emotional and unconscious aspects of the psyche.

    The misunderstanding and poor presentation of magick is a shame, as it attracts mentally unstable people to the field and it discourages people with healthy minds from looking deeper into the study.

    The term later used by Crowley was Scientific Illuminism, which has better associations than Magick, but has the term illuminsim since Crowley’s time has come to carry notions of the Illuminati which in the watch word of conspiracy loons.

    Maybe Zen and the Art of Method Acting, is a better name. Though magick is more than this.

    The Logos is corrupted, we need a better word.
    Here it is
    THELEMA

    Love in the law, Love under Will.

    Fr. Apocryphon

  • Snoof

    …This, is because it raises the Angstrom Energy Level of the water and thereby increases its potency by an amount that has a very beneficial effect on all living things. For the good of your health, we unreservedly recommend that you drink this water, every day. According to Prof. Angstrom, the average healthy person has an energy level of 6.5Å to 7.0Å. In order to stay healthy, we should eat food and drink that has an energy level of seven of more Angstroms.

    Let’s see… if we charitably assume they’re using 1Å to mean the amount of energy a photon with wavelength 1Å has… that’s about what, 12 keV, or 2.0×10^-15 joules.

    Not a problem! The food I eat contains far more energy than that! At best guess… I’d say about eighteen, maybe nineteen orders of magnitude more.

    I guess I don’t need their fancy rock, then.

  • http://templearckanum.tumblr.com Dark Arckana

    It doesn’t seem like you’ve done your proper research on the subject. Magikal practices and rituals do work. However, their success is more reliant on the practitioner than the actions themselves. You should undergo training before you think this can work for you.

    The site you use in your analysis doesn’t seem to be serious or sound at all. It is a hoax. This does not mean that all Magik is.

    For those dissatisfied with Wicca, perhaps the Left Hand Path would be more suited for you. I recommend checking out the Temple Of Set and their tenets.

  • http://templearckanum.tumblr.com Dark Arckana

    There are many Occult organizations and groups. There is also the option to be solitary and draw from a variety of traditions and systems, finding ways to syncretize them. There is also experimental Magik, which allows you to come up with new systems altogether. That’s a bit more of an intermediate move, however. You need a foundation to get a working corpus of how Magik works before you decide to become experimental.

  • http://templearckanum.tumblr.com Dark Arckana

    In regards to “placebos”, they are very much healing Magik. Placebos are an interesting thing. They allow for healing with no actual medicine acting upon the body. This is a great power, it makes me wonder why someone would overlook it. The difference between healing Magik and a placebo is one of terminology. There’s stigma attached to it, but stigma is kind of petty. Why should something petty cause one to be apologetic? Who’s to say that it can’t be harnessed and magnified, or if it’s more efficient in altered states of consciousness? The Gamma state for example.