Little stands as an object of greater (counter-)ridicule for atheists on the internet than the popularity of “magic sky fairy,” applied to the god of Judeo-Christianity.
I should be the last person to defend atheists’ use of this; and I only do so with qualification. Maybe it’s not even a defense that I believe in at all, and more just like an exercise in understanding—or a thought experiment to imagine what a defense of this would look like, if one were made.
I—along with other atheists not stubbornly hostile to religion—pride myself on respecting, at the very least, the complexity of the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition and its theology, and that there are plenty of reasons to take it seriously. One of the main reasons that “magic sky fairy” is so objectionable is that, in effect, it tries to ignore this. When it’s used, it can hardly be considered a good-faith conversation starter. Instead, it seems to function almost solely as a sort of shibboleth for (at least a subset of) atheists: an in-group code word that the person using doesn’t expect to be challenged on, by a faction that’s given it currency as a safe and familiar expression of shared ideology—one bound up in ridicule.
But while “shibboleth” was supposed to be a safe word among those of the same cultural group, its use could also be a sign of danger, that one was dealing with a hostile enemy.¹ So, then, “magic sky fairy” functions similarly in both regards: for Christians, seeing its receptive use signifies that this is probably not a safe place to be.
I don’t think there’s any denying that the term was born in ridicule—and, indeed, it’s been received by Christians as condescending and hostile. In that regard, I think we can agree that its use is not exactly polite.
But part of the current defense (or whatever it may be) is premised on the mockery on display here is not directed solely at Christian believers. Rather, it’s also directed at a characterization of the deity himself. To flesh this out, I think it’s worth breaking down the term a bit more, and figuring out what exactly it’s trying to signify, and where it is or isn’t fair.
If we could make a sort of epitomizing statement about why “magic sky fairy” exists, and how it functions, I think we could say it’s a kind of exaggerated crudity that really gains its polemical potency via analogy. (More on that shortly.) And yet, like many things that are exaggerated—even if vulgar—we can often find a kernel of truth lurking underneath.
To start with the middle element, “sky”: that the Judeo-Christian god, YHWH/Elohim, was associated with the sky is beyond contention. This is most instructively seen in the fact that in Hebrew, as with other Semitic languages, there’s one common word used to denote both “sky” and “heaven“—the latter obviously familiar as the realm of this god. (Think our Father, who art in heaven…)
Here, the early Israelites inherited the cosmology of several ancient Near Eastern / Mesopotamian cultures, with a clear tiered hierarchy of the sky/heaven above and the earth below—and the underworld below that. In addition to this, however, they inherited other divine anthropomorphic imagery associated with this.
For example, in Deuteronomy 33, God is identified as (he) “who rides through the heavens to your help, majestic through the skies” (33:26); and in Psalm 104, we find a hymn to God in which “you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind.” (104:3). In Psalm 68, he’s called the “rider in the heavens” (68:33). All of this is imagery is clearly related to that ascribed to the Canaanite god Baal, who has a well-known epithet in “rider of the clouds.” In fact, a few major Biblical translations—including NRSV, NIV, NAB, and NET—translate a line earlier in Psalm 68 as “…who rides upon the clouds,” although at least one scholar challenges the accuracy of this.²
Further, in the book of Exodus, we see clouds as a vehicle for God to come down to humanity itself: when Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive the second pair of tablets after the first were shattered, “YHWH descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name, ‘YHWH.'” (34:5).
Although it’s easy to characterize this as archaic remnant of early Israelite poetry, in fact this more “naïve” cosmological baggage was carried over as as important element of early Christian theology, and indeed the life of Jesus himself. For example, at the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus is said to have remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection; and at the end of this, in the sight of the apostles,
[Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go…” (1:9-11)
That Jesus would “come in the same way” that he left hearkens back to, among other things, the trial of Jesus in the gospels, before the high priest. Here, when asked if he was the Messiah, Jesus responded in the affirmative, and then also claimed that he would return at the end of time: “and you will see the Son of Man . . . coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62; see also 13:26). We see here, then, not only the classic linear tiered Near Eastern cosmology, but even more specifically the association with ascent and descent on/with a cloud (or clouds).
It might also be added here that the idea of the Son of Man’s eschatological return itself, as was expressed in Mark 14:62 and elsewhere, is also regularly cited as among the most embarrassingly “arcane” material in the New Testament because of its ultimate failure, vis-à-vis the great early enthusiasm about its imminence—something almost certainly shared by the historical Jesus himself (which I’ve covered several times, most recently here).
Returning to the issue at hand, though: on a somewhat interesting note, recalling Psalm 104’s “you ride on the wings of the wind,” this can be related to the image that I’ve used for this post. This Persian-era coin from Yehud depicts YHWH with long beard—as, indeed, both the Canaanite gods Baal and El were depicted—and sitting on a winged throne.³
(On one final note: just as Jesus’ ascent to heaven is indeed ultimately indebted to an ancient Near Eastern cosmology, so also the tradition of Jesus’ postmortem, pre-resurrection descent into the underworld is, too. I’ve made a post on the cosmology of the latter tradition recently, here.)
Moving on, then, to the magic.
The category “magic” plays a complex and hotly contested role in the history of religion. Specifically relevant to Judaism and Christianity, there are several instances in which God has been implicated in being involved with magic in some way.⁴
Perhaps most well-known among these is the sotah ritual of the Biblical book of Numbers, in which God lends his divine powers to a rite performed by priests, forcing a woman suspected of adultery to ingest a sort of “potion,” consisting of holy water mixed with “dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle”—and consequently (if she is guilty) either causing her to miscarry her child or causing a prolapsed uterus. This is certainly something that, in the academic literature, has been characterized as a “magical” rite.⁵
Of course, maybe the “magic” part of “magic sky fairy” wasn’t meant to be signify something quite so specific, and instead only suggests a more general sense of God’s (“magical”) supernatural intervention into our world. But I suspect that, at the very least, the grouping of “magic” with “fairy” is also intended to suggest the aspect of God answering prayers, on analogy with the motif of fairies granting wishes in modern lore.
And where exactly does this association come from?
The natural starting point is, of course, the ubiquity of prayer in Christian religious life. And although there are certainly different functions for prayer, one seems to dominate more than others: supplication. In this regard, things have changed little since some 2,500 years ago, ever since Euthyphro‘s affirmation, in response to Socrates’ query, that “sacrifice [is] a gift to the gods, and prayer a request for something from the gods.” (As for the increasingly common suggestion that the main function of prayer is actually to “change oneself,” as opposed to influencing divine forces, see my comments here.)
Prayer in this aspect, then, is an appeal for supernatural intervention into the affairs of the mundane world. And it’s here that the line between this, miracles, and several other common practices that comprise what we refer to as “religion” itself can become blurred with “magic”—something that’s become widely recognized in recent decades.
For example, Morton Smith, one of the best known scholars of early Christianity, once wrote—referring here to the Greek magical papyri, a collection of early papyri and other texts containing spells and curses, ritual instructions, etc.—that in terms of “magic” and “(private) religion,”
There is no clear line between the two. When we compare avowedly religious texts and reports of religious practices with the texts of the magical papyri and the practices they prescribe, we find the same goals stated and the same means used. For instance, spells for destruction of an enemy are commonly supposed to be magical, but there are many in the Psalms. The cliche, that the religious man petitions the gods while the magician tries to compel them, is simply false. The magical papyri contain many humble prayers, and the black mass was an outgrowth of Christian belief that credited a priest with the power practically to compel his god to present himself on the altar. (Jesus the Magician, 95)
Now, there’s debate over the issue of compulsion in prayer and magic, and how exactly this is to be understood. Surely this can be connected, however, with just how assured the magician or the one praying is that supernatural forces will indeed intervene; and it’s in the regard that several early Christian traditions—including in the New Testament itself—are relevant.
In 5th chapter of the epistle of James, we come across these verses:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. (5:14-15)
Here, there is no qualification: the sick will be saved.⁶
Similarly unconditional is the saying (of the resurrected Jesus) in Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name . . . they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”
Now, it’s well-known that these verses come from a section of the gospel that was not present in the earliest manuscripts, and was added later; and, consequently, this is not infrequently taken to be sort of “legendary” material of dubious historicity, that doesn’t have a clear applicability for Christians. Lesser known, however, is that one of the earliest non-Biblical Christian traditions, recorded by Papias of Hierapolis, has Joseph Barsabbas—”one of the men who accompanied [the twelve apostles] during all the time that . . . Jesus went in and out among [them]” (Acts 1:31)—willfully performing this act of drinking poison.
He did this as a demonstration when “tested by the unbelievers,” and “was guarded by the name of Christ without experience of [harm].”⁷ Papias even claims to have heard this story from actual eyewitnesses to Joseph’s act—witnesses who, in fact, appear in the New Testament itself, in the book of Acts (21:9).
There’s another interesting anecdote about Joseph Barsabbas relevant here: he was one of the two candidates to fill the apostolic position left vacant by Judas Iscariot. Joseph ended up “losing,” however, to a certain Matthias. Funny enough, though, Acts 1:24-26 reports that the ultimate decision between the two candidates was made by cleromancy—the casting of lots—an eminently “magical” act.
(Finally, the motif of invulnerability to poison also appears in an expanded form of the story of the contest between Moses/Aaron and the Egyptian magicians, in the Syriac Testament of Ephrem. Moses, having been offered a cup full of wine spiked with poison venom—which the rival magicians had induced from snakes via spells—”signed” the cup “in the name of God” before drinking, and was consequently protected from harm. Similar traditions clearly seek to portray Moses’ proficiency in “magic,” over and against the Egyptians; see Gager, “Moses the Magician: Hero of an Ancient Counter-culture?”)
In all four of the texts just discussed—James 5:14-15; Mark 16:17-18; the story of Joseph Barsabbas in Papias; and Moses in Testament of Ephrem—the miraculous acts is performed by employing the name of God or Jesus. The use of the name of deities in various aspects of magical practice was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Further, the story of Moses cited above may bear some affinity with authentic Egyptian magical traditions: for example, John Walton writes that “The name of Re, the sun god, was used to effect the magical expulsion of poison from a person bitten by a scorpion or snake.”⁸
Finally, it’s interesting that YHWH himself seems to have been a particularly “potent” name in the ancient world. Morton Smith notes that in the Greek magical papyri, the use of the name YHWH “outnumbers that of any other deity by more than three to one” (94).
So far, even though we’ve been able to find “magical” elements lurking even in orthodox Christianity, it remains the case that in most Christian theology, the process of prayer is usually thought to be cooperative; or, perhaps more accurately, it’s thought to highly favor the agency of God, who unilaterally decides when to answer prayer or not⁹—in contrast to an understanding of God as closer to “genie”-like figures that can be “compelled” to grant wishes.
Yet this is not the way that it’s portrayed in all Christian texts. For example, in Mark 11:22-24, we find this saying of Jesus to his followers:
Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
The radicalness of this passage has long been neglected by scholars; but looking at it in the wider context of “magical” practices can yield important insights.
Although the opening part of the saying exhorts faith in God, the rest of the saying is striking in how much “power” is given to the one praying him- or herself, (seemingly) autonomous from God. In fact, the fulfillment of the prayer seems to depend firmly on the individual praying—specifically, (like those verses in the epistle of James) it depends on their conviction. In this regard, Dowd notes—in conjunction with these verses in Mark—”[t]hat the magician, sorcerer or witch is able to accomplish whatever he or she wills to do is a commonplace in ancient descriptions of magic” (Prayer, Power, and the Problem of Suffering: Mark 11:22-25 in the Context of Markan Theology, 138).¹⁰
But this was not always the case; and—again, similar to the epistle of James, where lack of proper conviction in prayer can lead to failure of its fulfillment—we might note that the idea that the efficacy of a ritual or magical act can be altered or nullified by the mindset of the one performing it has been shown to be common, in cross-cultural anthropological studies (cf. Winkelman, “Magic: A Theoretical Reassessment”).
Further: interestingly, the motif of moving mountains seems to have been intentionally used as a typical example of an (otherwise) “impossible” feat—one that usually only, say, Greek and Roman deities could perform; and so here it appears that individual Christians are being portrayed as having access to traditional powers normally reserved for these deities (cf. Prayer, Power, and the Problem of Suffering, 78f.).
To begin to conclude here: it seems obvious that more respectful and productive Christian-atheist dialogue could take place if we focused on, say, the various ideas and issues that seem to have influenced the conception of the “magic sky fairy,” as have been discussed here, as opposed to merely being satisfied with the phrase as a dividing shibboleth.
However, in more cynical moments, I wonder if this is really as obvious or true as it seems. Can there really be any substantive Christian-atheist dialogue in this regard—or is it just as easy to dismiss (with some apologetic hand-wave) the issues I’ve raised as it is to dismiss the person who satisfies herself solely with the mockery of “magic sky fairy” itself?
It’s easy to predict the typical apologetic responses that usually emerge here. (At least in regard to some of the things I’ve said about magic and individual agency in the New Testament, this is often dismissed simply by citing the prooftext “do not put the Lord to the test,” as if this solves all problems.) Because of this, sometimes I feel more compelled to think to hell with good intentions. If no criticism will ever be good enough—if, at the end of the day, everything is always hand-waved away—what’s the point anyways?
In this light, “magic sky fairy” then comes from a place of frustration, or perhaps even powerlessness.
Now that I’m at the (real) end, this all seems like it was more just an exercise in understanding than in approval.
I do think—I hope—that there’s a way to have truly substantive dialogue where real progress is made in some senses, even when discussing some of the issues that underlie “magic sky fairy.”
I’ve yet to use the phrase myself in any sincerity, and I never will; but I can’t say that there aren’t moments when—like the 2nd century Christian critic Celsus, who once slandered the Judeo-Christian god as a “cook,” due to the widespread tradition that the grand eschatological finale would amply involve the use of fire—frustration sets in, and I at least feel like standing alongside Celsus.
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
 With all this, I’m referring to the story from the 12th chapter of the Book of Judges. The analogy kind of falls apart here, as the Gileadites used this to identify Ephraimites who had trouble pronouncing it.
 The Ugaritic text of this is rkb ‘rpt; the Hebrew of Psalm 68:4 is rkb (b)‘rbwt. The question is whether the latter means “who rides through the deserts” instead (adopted by NASB, etc.). Despite the enthusiasm for the alternate rendering, “rider of the clouds,” see the discussion of Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 91f. for the possibility or probability that it really did mean “who rides through the deserts” here.
 See Mark Smith, The Early History of God, 37.
 Schmidt, in his article “The Problem of Magic and Monotheism in the Book of Leviticus,” discusses some of the criteria that scholars have used to draw a distinction between “magic” and other miraculous or other sanctioned acts in ancient Israelite religion. For example, he notes “In the view of most exegetes and scholars of religious studies, monotheistic religion rejects the mechanistic magic in favour of conceptions of the absolute dependence of human beings on to the one and only God, who cannot be manipulated by magic manipulations” (3). However, later, he writes (6)
Concerning prophetic healing and other rituals, Mary Douglas makes a distinction between miracles and magic (“When the Lord allows Elijah or Moses to perform miracles the miracles are not magic. In the Bible, magic is the secret lore of magicians, essentially working through spells and ritual formulae performed upon images”). I feel that this distinction is artificial and not appropriate to ancient Near Eastern religions. An unbiased look at symbolic and therapeutic acts of legitimate prophets shows that their ritual behaviour is magic in its essence…
the term “magic”—as it has been defined by late 19th and early 20th Century scholarship—has become problematic and prejudicial; there is at present no consensus about an adequate term to replace it. Therefore, I decided to continue to use the term “magic” for performative symbolic ritual acts, which are performed to achieve a certain result by divine intervention (8)
 Gudme writes, of the sotah ritual, that “Regardless of the different hermeneutical approaches, there is broad agreement that the ritual is inherently magical (Miller 2010, 5; Friedman 2012, 374–377)” (149-50). Gudme also follows Schmidt in suggesting that, above all, “magic is used as a social category to discern between practices performed by either legitimate or illegitimate practitioners,” and “[s]een through the theological and political lens of the Hebrew Bible, the same actions are construed as magic or as miracle” (151).
Jeffers (“Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,” in the volume A Kind of Magic: Understanding Magic in the New Testament and Its Religious Environment, 127) writes
The idea that religion and magic . . . are separate fields of activity . . . is clearly based on ideological presuppositions. It is useful here to quote Ricks: ‘there is no difference between “religion” and “magic” — this distinction is a scholarly evaluative fiction’. I would propose that both religion and magic are part of a wider system of intermediation and interconnection between the world of nature, human, animal, vegetal and mineral. . . . Religious or religio-magical intermediation is best understood not so much as a crude, mechanical manipulation, nor just as a symbolic re-enactment but as a manifestation of a vivified universe.
For an interesting study relating to the distinction between “licit magic” and “illicit magic,” relevant to Christianity, see Sophie Page’s Magic in the Cloister.
 In his commentary, Dale Allison notes “to the extent to which [the] author [of James] thought of oil as having an instrinsic power or magical properties is unclear, even though a purely medicinal use seems highly improbable” (760).
5:16-18 further puts this in the context of supernatural miracles. But then what happens when faithful prayers invariably fail to save someone? One potential explanation might be inferred from other material, earlier in James. For example, 1:5 begins “If any one of you is lacking in wisdom…”; and the prescription given by the author, here, is to “ask God”—which must mean to ask in prayer. Yet the next line reads “ask in faith, never doubting . . . for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” (1:6, 8).
There’s a a close parallel to this in the 2nd century Christian Shepherd of Hermas (which explicitly frames this in the context of prayer): “all those who are weak and lazy in prayer hesitate to ask anything from the Lord. The Lord has great compassion and gives without hesitation to everyone who asks of him” (57 [V.4]). The implication, then, is that those who fail to secure the results they desire merely lack strong faith (“weak and lazy”), and consequently haven’t truly “asked.” (Further, in James 4:3, we find another explanation for why prayer fails—that the intent was wrong: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”)
 Παπίας . . . ἱστόρησεν ὡς παραλαβὼν ἀπὸ τῶν θυγατέρων Φιλίππου, ὅτι Βαρσαβᾶς ὁ καὶ Ἰοῦστος δοκιμαζόμενος ὑπὸ τῶν ἀπίστων ἰὸν ἐχίδνης πιὼν ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ χριστοῦ ἀπαθῆς διεφυλάχθη, recorded by Philip of Side.
 Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 452
 Here I think the inanity of “God answers every prayer; sometimes the answer is ‘no'” can be ignored.
 Dowd cites Apuleius, that “a magician is properly a person who, from communication and discourse with the immortal Gods, is able, by a certain incredible power centered in his incantations, to do everything he pleases.”