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.

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About Adam Lee

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