Why Not Call What God Does “Magic”? (2 of 2)

Why Not Call What God Does “Magic”? (2 of 2) December 17, 2018

What do you call the magic words and curses, relics and charms, prophecies, potions, divination, numerology, and more that godly people have (and still do) use? How about “magic”?

In this conclusion, we’ll look at curses, magic words, divination, and numerology used by the players in the Christian story. (Part 1 here).


God cursed Cain (Genesis 4:11). Noah cursed the descendants of Ham (Gen. 9:25). Elisha cursed the boys who insulted his bald head (2 Kings 2:23–4). Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:14).

The Psalms are full of curses on enemies. Here’s a fragment from Psalm 109.

May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.

May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.

May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

And on and on it goes. Fun fact: these old curses can be dusted off and used today. (In polite company, these are called “imprecatory prayers”—so much nicer than “curses.”) For example, pastor Wiley Drake in 2009 publicly declared that he called down a curse on President Obama. That’s right—he asked God to kill President Obama. The assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller weeks earlier had been, in his mind, an answer to his prayers. Jesus does talk about turning the other cheek, but who has time for that when there’s righteous smiting to be done?

I suppose the logic is, if you can pray for good things for people, why not bad things? And if you can imagine that prayers for good might nudge the Almighty to grant your wish, you can imagine the same for the prayers for bad. There’s no need to feel bound by the ordinary laws of nature when Jesus promised, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12).

More on prayer here.

Magic words

Then there are words of the “abracadabra” variety. For example, God spoke the universe into existence (“Let there be light,” etc.). Jesus healed Lazarus with words. The gospel of Mark, written in Greek, carefully noted the Aramaic words Jesus used to heal a mute man (7:33–5) and raise a dead girl (5:35–42).

Missionary John Chau’s personal introduction to the Sentinelese people, “My name is John, I love you, and Jesus loves you,” was in English, which suggests that he was hoping for divine assistance. Perhaps he wanted the magical eloquence that God promised Moses when Moses protested against public speaking (Exodus 4:12).

We find the idea of magic words in English when we say “God bless you” after a sneeze (originally, a shield against evil). “Goodbye” originally meant “God be with ye,” expressing the wish that God keep you safe on your journey.


This is the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” category. Several Bible passages tell us that sorcery and related arts are forbidden:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. (Deuteronomy 18:10–11)

The story of the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) also paints witches in a bad light.

And yet the Bible also speaks favorably about divination. Joseph foretold the future by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41), and we learn that he could read the future by scrying with a silver cup (Gen. 44:5). The high priest used the Urim and Thummim, magic stones that divined God’s will (Exodus 28:30, Numbers 27:21, 1 Samuel 14:41–2). The disciples of Jesus cast lots (cleromancy) to determine the successor to Judas (Acts 1:26).


Nutty Harold Camping believed in numerology, the idea that numbers have magical meaning. He predicted that the end of the world would happen on May 21, 2011, which was, by his reckoning, (5 × 10 × 17)² days after the crucifixion. That number may seem like an odd bit of trivia, but Brother Camping used the biblical pairing of numbers with meaning.

Do you remember on what day God rested after creating the world? It was the seventh day, and 7 is the number of completion. Noah’s 40 days and 40 nights of rain? The number for a long period of time is 40, and we see it in Jesus’s temptation in the desert (40 days) and the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai (40 years).

Back to Harold Camping: biblical numerologists say that 5 = atonement, 10 = completion, and 17 = heaven, so the number of days from crucifixion to May 21, 2011 was (atonement × completion × heaven) squared. (Events didn’t work out as Camping planned.)

A few years ago, Paula White decided that the verse du jour was 1 Chronicles 22:9. This verse was particularly important because 229 would (in dollars) make a nice stretch goal for her followers. So she spun that verse into an appeal for $229, ignoring that the division of the Bible into chapters and verses wasn’t done by the original authors and is in fact a fairly recent addition (verses were first labeled in the mid-1500s and chapters a few centuries before that).


And there’s more.

  • Jesus commanded demons, and some denominations do exorcisms today.
  • Holy water acts like a potion.
  • The laying of hands onto a sick or possessed person is thought to have magical power in some denominations.
  • Moses and Aaron got into a magic contest with Pharaoh’s magicians, and once the ten plagues started, the magicians even tried to duplicate them (Exodus 7:22).

And so on.

How is an imprecatory prayer different from an incantation? How is a miracle different from magic? Calling supernatural results “miracles” for God and Friends and “magic” for everyone else is just a groundless Christian conceit. You can define the words that way, but know that that’s an expression of your agenda and not how Merriam-Webster defines them.

This is another instance of Judaism and Christianity looking pretty much the same as all the other religions. Yes, the Bible has its own unique take on magic, but none of this is fundamentally new. The Bible borrows the magical ideas from related religions. If all religions were manmade except for Christianity, Bible magic wouldn’t look like that of neighboring religions.

If Christians really have the 100% direct poop
on what’s moral and what isn’t,
directly from God’s lips to their ears,
how come they can’t agree on what it is?
— commenter RichardSRussell


Image from Leonardo Yip, CC license

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  • TinnyWhistler

    “(Events didn’t work out as Camping planned.”
    Spoilers! >:(

  • Grimlock

    The story of the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) also paints witches in a bad light.

    That’s all well and good. But what does it have to say about the Ewoks?

    • LastManOnEarth

      I believe you may be confusing her with the Witch of the Moon of Endor.

      • Grimlock

        Oh, nicely done, sir. Nicely done indeed.

  • Jim Jones

    > How about “magic”?

    How about “wishful thinking”?

  • How is an imprecatory prayer different from an incantation? How is a miracle different from magic? Calling supernatural results “miracles” for God and Friends and “magic” for everyone else is just a groundless Christian conceit.

    Usually, the word “magic” is used to refer to IMPERSONAL supernatural forces or objects, while “miracles” refers to supernatural forces or events that are PERSONAL in nature – the result of the choices or actions of an intelligent supernatural person or being.

    • Helpful clarification, thanks.

    • Greg G.

      There is major surgery and minor surgery. Minor surgery is done on other people while major surgery is done on me but that is my personal conceit.

      Differentiating between impersonal and personal supernatural things is a pretense based on the conceit of believers. Thinking or saying words to a specific imagined being, a milk jug, the universe in general, or nothing in general are essentially the same.

      It is my personal conceit that the term “magic” is the general term for a set of imaginary forces and “miracles” is a subset of it.

      • Thinking or saying words to a specific imagined being, a milk jug, the universe in general, or nothing in general are essentially the same.

        These actions are similar, I agree, in that saying or thinking words has no actual effect, other than a possible psychological effect.

        However, belief in magic is fudamentally irrational in a way that belief in miracles is not, because belief in magic involves the assumption that unthinking and unintelligent forces can understand language and respond to language in a way that is meaningful. Miracles don’t involve this irrational assumption. Magic involves giving up the distinction between intelligent beings or agents and unthinking objects or forces.

        I agree with you that there is no God or angels or saints or spirits there to hear our prayers, words, or thoughts, but it is more reasonable to believe that an intelligent being could hear and understand and respond appropriately to our prayers, words, or thoughts. Magic and miracles both involve false assumptions about what sorts of things and beings exist, but magic goes a step further and blurs or disregards the distinction between thinking conscious beings and unthinking unconscious beings.

        • Greg G.

          I agree with you that there is no God or angels or saints or spirits there to hear our prayers, words, or thoughts, but it is more reasonable to believe that an intelligent being could hear and understand and respond appropriately to our prayers, words, or thoughts.

          I do not think an intelligent being is more likely than a natural force any more than an intelligent being is more likely to be the cause of orbital mechanics with angels pushing planets. I think the law of averages is a better explanation than an intelligent being for regression to the norm and the occasional outlier. Even an inanimate Karma is more likely than an intelligence but still a less likely explanation than confirmation bias.

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          because belief in magic involves the assumption that unthinking and unintelligent forces can understand language and respond to language in a way that is meaningful.

          This seems to be a distinction without a difference, in large part because you are improperly describing, “magic.”. Magic doesn’t require any recognition on the part of unthinking forces, it just requires that there be some latent energy that can be released or directed with verbal cues.

          This is no more irrational than the idea that an undetectable, barely comprehensible being is meddling with things in untestable manners. In either case, the hypothesis assumes facts not in evidence to explain things that don’t require fantastical explanation.

        • Kodie

          I would say magic is what the agent does and miracle is the result, if you want to say there’s a distinction. Nobody is praying to a mountain to be easier to climb, literally or figuratively. They are praying to what they perceive to be an intelligent agent to intervene in their difficulties and alter natural statistics with some power, which would be “magic”. When they survive that challenge, then they might label it a miracle because they were expecting a worse outcome. Statistics is important here, because the 1-5% survival chance of a disease doesn’t indicate a miracle, it just means most people die of it but some people don’t, and sure it feels awesome to be one that doesn’t, but you’ve also been accounted for here in reality without any supernatural casting of a spell. To put it on another side of the statistics coin, people are statistically “miracled” to be in situations or die, etc. People who are the only one or one of the few to get statistically “chosen” to not get the better outcome. A couple months ago, upstate Massachusetts had a series of gas line explosions and fires, and the only fatality was a teen who had just gotten his driver’s license! A chimney fell on his car as he was going to visit his friend to take him out in the car. If he hadn’t just gotten his license, he might not even have been there, but doesn’t that suck? Yes, everyone’s sad about that guy’s poor luck, they might even rationalize that he must have deserved it (and those people suck so much), but the majority concentrate on the miracle of a disaster having no other fatalities but the one, and how many loose unevacuated dogs were waiting at home for their owners, or how negligent the utility companies are. Hardly anyone is considering the massive coincidence which would be called a miracle statistically in a good outcome. If god didn’t nail that kid, then he didn’t do any magic that gave anyone a miracle either.

        • You… really don’t understand what you’re talking about at all.

          “belief in magic involves the assumption that unthinking and unintelligent forces can understand language and respond to language in a way that is meaningful.”

          That’s entirely wrong, but okay.

          “Magic involves giving up the distinction between intelligent beings or agents and unthinking objects or forces.”

          Again, entirely wrong.

        • TheNuszAbides

          because belief in magic involves the assumption that unthinking and unintelligent forces can understand language and respond to language in a way that is meaningful

          i don’t think that’s a given. there’s additionally/alternatively the conceit that ‘consciousness’ is a more ubiquitous thing [than can be falsified/justified].

    • Sample1

      “Usually”. Well, perhaps recently that is the case, and I won’t argue that, but I found this description after I decided to search about a Catholic Doctor of the Church, religious mystic and “naturalist” Hildegard Von Bingen.

      First, there is the traditional definition of magic as “the art, or body of arts, which claims or is believed to be able to compel a deity or supernatural power to do or refrain from doing some act, or to change temporarily the order of natural events, or which claims or is believed to produce effects by the assistance of supernatural beings, as angels, demons, or departed spirits or by the nature of secret forces in nature.” -Webster (quote from within a longer journal article), Magic In The Works Of Hildegard Von Bingen, George W. Radimersky, Michigan State University. Monatshefte, c.1957

      St. Hildegard employed different kinds of crystals for “healing” and said pre-scientific things about food such as eating peas makes one courageous. Sounds more magical than miraculous to me, but I mean to go somewhere else. It brings me to a side point: religious belief as a gateway drug to other irrationalities. Irrationalities that remain: fear of Ouiija boards, other believers (even non Christians) who talk of hauntings, demon faces on shovels, etc.

      For me these are essentially distinctions without differences: magic and miracles. But I’m not a believer. I can understand how a believer would see these as meaningful distinctions. That brings me to good explanations and bad explanations. Bad explanations, as David Deutsch (via Popper) would say, are those that have content that is easy-to-vary. Content that can be repositioned to support fantastical tales despite new evidence to the contrary. A good explanation about crystals and sustenance is what came after Hildegard during the scientific revolution. A revolution that lays waste to another belief mentioned in the article:

      …man’s urge toward complete autonomy from his Creator is the direct result of his fall, man’s restlessness is a manifestation of the Yeser Hara, the “double heart,” which is apt to drive him to complete paralysis of his creativity, my emphasis. -Radimersky

      I guess we have to ask the believer what is meant by creativity. The fruits of hard-to-vary explanations brought about through the Enlightenment? Who knows. Because they have bad underlying explanations, I’m sure the word can be fudged to mean whatever is convenient for their narrative.

      At any rate, thanks for the input in how you see magic as being distinct from miracles.

      Edit done. Aplogies for perhaps introducing multiple ideas without a better denouement, but I’m short on time.

      • The distinction between “magic” and “miracles” relates to the anthropological distinction between “animatism” and “animism”:


        animatism: A belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings is referred to as animatism. For those who hold this belief, the power is usually impersonal, unseen, and potentially everywhere. It is neither good nor evil, but it is powerful and dangerous if misused. It is something like electricity or “the force” in the Star Wars movies.

        animism: A belief that natural objects are animated by spirits is animism. The term comes from the Latin word for soul (anima). This belief can take diverse forms. Things in nature may all have within them different spirits–each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit. Alternatively, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit. This latter version of animism was characteristic of many Native American cultures. In both forms of animism, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender. …They can interact with humans and can be pleased or irritated by human actions. Therefore, people must be concerned about them and will try to avoid displeasing them.

        animatism is related to the concept of “magic” – both are concerned with impersonal supernatural forces.
        animism is related to the concept of “miracles” – both are concerned with personal supernatural beings.

        Although animatism and belief in magic have an irrational aspect that is missing from animism and belief in miracles, namely a tendency to blur the distinction between intelligent beings and unthinking inanimate objects and forces, there is also a sense in which animatism and magic represent an intellectual advance over animism and miracles.

        In thinking about IMPERSONAL forces, animatism and magic are precursors to SCIENCE. Astrology and Alchemy are examples of belief in MAGIC, but they represent and advancement over Shamanism and religious attempts to please the gods. Astrology and Alchemy were stepping stones to SCIENCE (esp. Astronomy and Chemistry), because scientific thinking requires thinking about objects and forces of nature as being IMPERSONAL.

        When we stop begging gods and spirits to help us out, and focus instead on understanding and controlling the impersonal forces of nature, then we move towards a scientific view of reality, and towards humanism – working for ourselves to improve our lives, not asking some invisible being or beings to fix things for us.

        • Sample1

          I know what you write sounds sensible, today. I’ve no issue. However, the more I read about the attitudes a thousand or so years ago (and before even that with Von Bingen referencing the old Book of Enoch), I’m beginning to think we could be misunderstanding what magic historically was thought to be in the context of the Catholic Church.

          Hildegard actually writes about the natural sciences of her day (alchemy and pre-botany, pharmacology) and the “useful arts” like mining (for armory), as being akin to magic. From what I’m reading, it seems potentially any interest that would keep man from her cult was magic (even if we now call it pre scientific). Anything that could make one critical of the Church. Apparently she was under the impression that pre-scientific thinking (advances over Shamanism) could do just that. Hence, it was magic to her (and I’m guessing her culture).

          I just find that interesting.

          Edit done.

        • JustAnotherAtheist2

          because belief in magic involves the assumption that unthinking and unintelligent forces can understand language and respond to language in a way that is meaningful.

          This seems to be a distinction without a difference, in large part because you are improperly describing, “magic.”. Magic doesn’t require any recognition on the part of unthinking forces, it just requires that there be some latent energy that can be released or directed with verbal cues.

          This is no more irrational than the idea that an undetectable, barely comprehensible being is meddling with things in untestable manners. In either case, the hypothesis assumes facts not in evidence to explain things that don’t require fantastical explanation.

        • Kevin K

          That’s an interesting distinction between personal and impersonal magic. Seems to me that impersonal magic is “just there” (aka, astrology) and can’t be bent to your will … you can’t change your horoscope, you can only understand it. While personal magic is the use of some external source of power to change time or otherwise mess with the ordered clockwork of the universe.

    • Don’t many Christians believe that the illusions done by today’s magicians are actual magic, and done with the help of Satan? I’m reminded of a story that Seth Andrews tells about magic tricks he used to do when he was a Christian radio producer. He was on the road with someone and showed him a trick, and the companion asked him whether he wasn’t afraid of being so close to the works of Satan! Seth was shocked, so he showed the guy how the trick worked. The response was “that’s not what you did before!”

      I suppose not many Christians believe that, but this may have been during the Satanic Panic days. Anyway, my point was that they don’t consider magic to be impersonal. They think that it’s real and that there are evil spirits involved.

      I’m not saying that your definition may not be generally true. It just reminded me that there are people who do not define it that way.

      • TheNuszAbides

        I’m not saying that your definition may not be generally true. It just reminded me that there are people who do not define it that way.

        yes, i’m having trouble seeing the applicability/value of the distinction he’s making, unless maybe it were accompanied by some comprehensive anthropological survey, maybe a Venn diagram or two.

        • al kimeea

          I think he’s just pointing out that animatism is on the path to science while being magicke like animism. That and belief in one is more rational than in the other, because one magicke relies on the outside forces understanding language.

          It’s interesting as you say, but they’re both magicke to me. Both put hoomans as the special snowflakes of the universe. Snowflakes with either the understanding of this “universal energy” (vitalism?) and/or power over it via softly spoken magic spells. These latter snowflakes have the proper language with the power to manipulate/appease this external energy/spirit. There’s no understanding required when words alone will do the trick.

        • TheNuszAbides

          There’s no understanding required when words alone will do the trick.

          therefore those who notice that ]and are making an effort to develop the concept at all coherently] will ‘upgrade’ the Special Ability to requiring both. much harder to falsify.

        • al kimeea

          Hmmm, lightning understands language 😉 I honestly can’t say it doesn’t although I’m a might flummoxed how a massive number of electrons leaping among the clouds & ground hears anyone calling out to it in many languages. I wonder what lightning did for kicks before we had language. Watch for the proper ritual, maybe.

        • TheNuszAbides

          (kinda the way the more aggravating bubble-heads will posit that, as “even the devil can quote scripture”, anyone ‘ungodly’ [however that is angled] won’t derive anything ‘true’ (or useful or whatever) from it.)

    • That’s funny. Every magickal working I’ve done has been… personal.

  • Michael Neville

    There’s an Irish folk song that’s mainly a curse on “the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s Drake”.

    May his pig never grunt, may his cat never hunt,
    May a ghost always haunt him in the dead of the night,
    May his hen never lay, may horse never neigh,
    May his goat fly away like an old paper kite;
    May the flies and the fleas may the wretch ever tease,
    May the piercing March breeze make him shiver and shake,
    May the hump of a stick raise the lumps fast and thick,
    Of the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s Drake.

    May his cock never crow, may his bellows ne’er blow,
    And a-pot or po, may he never have one,
    May his cradle not rock, may his box have no lock,
    May his wife have no smock to shield her back bone,
    May his duck never quack, and his goose turn quite black
    And pull down the turf with his long yellow beak.
    May scurvy and itch, not depart from the breech,
    Of the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s Drake.

    May his pipe never smoke, may his teapot be broke,
    And to add to the joke may his kettle not boil,
    May he lay in the bed ’till the moment he’s dead
    May he always be fed on lob-scouse and fish oil,
    May he swell with the gout, may his grinders fall out,
    May he roar, bawl and shout, with the horrid toothache.
    May his temples wear horns, and all his toes corns,
    The monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s drake.

    May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig,
    May each hair on his wig be well thrashed with a flail,
    May his door have no latch and his roof have no thatch,
    May his turkey not hatch, may the rats eat his meal,
    May every old fairy from Cork to Dunleary,
    Dip him in snug and easy in river or lake,
    That the eel and the trout may dine on the snout
    Of the monster that murdered Nell Flaherty’s Drake.

    Now that’s a curse!

    • Lurker111

      Wow. Any time period to this? 1800’s?

      • Michael Neville

        This website discusses the song:

        ‘Nell Flaherty’s Drake’ is an anonymous Irish ballad from the nineteenth century. The drake of the title is believed to be a coded reference to Robert Emmet (1778-1803), who helped to plan and led an uprising against British rule in Dublin in 1803. The uprising went wrong after an explosion at an arms depot, and Emmet was captured and hanged for his part in the uprising and the assassination of the Lord Chief Justice. Nell Flaherty represents Emmet’s fiance, Sarah Curran, (1782-1808). The author curses those (i.e. the British authorities) who killed Nell Flaherty’s drake and urges the readers to keep up the fight. Irish Home Rule was a volatile subject in Britain in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century, hence the coding in this song.

        • Lurker111

          Ah! Thanks a bunch. Though if someone had killed my pet duck, I probably would have been as angry. 😉

        • Greg G.

          I would be in a fowl mood as well.

        • I’d go quackers.

    • With the right workings, that could be a potent thing.

  • Jeff Hinkle

    “Witch” is just what monotheistic idiots have historically called hot, sexually confident women lol

    • RichardSRussell

      Well, yes, probably that too, to explain away the sinful lust idiots were feeling as Satanic temptation. But far more often the insult was used on elderly, toothless women who lived alone (either spinsters or widows) and probably didn’t dress very well or smell very good because they were usually poor and sick in addition to being old and family-free.

      • epicurus

        It always brings a tear to my eye when I think about how some of those most helpless and vulnerable were labelled witches and killed. It’s too bad the Church couldn’t have actually helped them instead of persecuting them when they had no one to look after them.

      • And more often than not, owned property that the accuser or church wanted.

      • And gods help them if the woman happened to know a little folk medicine on top of that.

    • epicurus

      Here is a current case just days before the law is to be junked in Canada – except here she calls herself a witch and is trying to extort money

      • Greg G.


        They are trying a witch with a law that is a zombie.

        The last two paragraphs of the article:

        Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould promised to review the Criminal Code after an Edmonton judge vacated Travis Vader’s second-degree murder conviction in the killings of two Alberta seniors.

        The use of a zombie law in Vader’s original conviction nearly derailed the legal proceedings after the defence filed an appeal. The law had been declared unconstitutional but remained on the books and was cited by the judge in his ruling.

        But can Canada try Vader for crimes committed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?

        • epicurus

          They should use a different law to go after her – extortion or something that’s not so controversial. And I erred in saying she calls herself a witch, she says others called her that.

          Yea, in the Vader case the judge cited a law that was deemed unconstitutional in 1990, but was never taken off the books. oops

        • Only if they get the Witch of Endor to officiate the trial.

        • Greg G.

          Someone recently pointed out that there is a Witch of the Moon of Endor.

    • Or any woman who isn’t a man’s property.

      Alewives supported themselves by brewing.
      Their business was frowned upon by the church, so they couldn’t advertise. Instead, they hung a broom up in the window when a new batch was ready.
      They naturally kept cats around to keep rats out of their grain supplies.
      When they went to market with their wares, they wore tall, pointy hats so they’d stand out in a crowd.

      Women associated with brooms, cats, pointed hats, and “potions” that intoxicated men. Sounds like you’ve got your classic “Wicked Witch” archetype right there.

  • In our congregation, we used drawing of lots to select people for various key roles. As a result I once got to be treasurer for a year – not a job I would choose, though I could do it OK. Some members also had this idea of “laying out a fleece” (from Gideon) – for example, saying that if we got X volunteers and Y dollars then we would take it as a sign we should do Z (which I thought was a bit dubious – boiling down to “We’ll do what we think God might want, so long as he does what we want first…”).

    It’s not Christian, but I also was interested by the Bath curse tablets (HERE). Written on metal, and very specific with the punishments they wanted the gods to give the people who had (usually) stolen their possessions. Particularly amusing to me was that some of them helpfully told the god who they thought might have taken their goods – wasn’t a god supposed to be powerful enough to work out things like that?

  • John Beasley

    I will agree with you that there are many things in scripture that we moderns would call magic, and for scientistic materialists it might all look the same, like how biology and chemistry look the same to someone who only knows science through TV dramas.

    There is a difference between magic and miracles running back through the classical Greeks, at least. Magic is potent via the material cause, the thing itself. Think of the tetragrammeton from Ephesus. The words themselves were considered to be magical, of their own accord. Miracles are instead powered externally by some nonmaterial entity, whether it is the God of Abraham or some other deity or spirit. We can see the difference in Acts 19 when the sons of Sceva try to use Jesus’s name as a magic spell.
    Is there crossover? Sure (like biochemistry!), especially since through the ages magicians often invoke divine names and outside powers, while designers of religious rites sometimes supplement their ceremonies with magical elements.

    • Greg G.

      like how biology and chemistry look the same to someone who only knows science through TV dramas.

      Biology and chemistry are interesting physics to a physicist.

      • RichardSRussell

        Every biologist is a chemist at heart.

        Every chemist is a physicist at heart.

        Every physicist is a mathematician at heart.

        Every mathematician is a philosopher at heart.

        Every philosopher is a biologist at heart.

    • Grimlock

      […] and for scientistic materialists it might all look the same, like how biology and chemistry look the same to someone who only knows science through TV dramas.

      Out of curiosity, what does it look like to non-scientistic naturalists?

    • JustAnotherAtheist2

      Scientific materialists?

      • Grimlock

        I think he meant scientistic, as in scientism. That great foe of apologists.

  • MadScientist1023

    Well, if you follow the logic of D&D and other such games, arcane magics are mindless forces that can be called upon through either one’s innate connection to such forces or through careful study of magical words, gestures, and materials that could be used to trigger them. Miracles and divine magics, on the other hand, don’t come from the caster themselves but are reliable results from specific individuals asking a higher power to intercede on their behalf. The different name is really only there to reflect the different origin, even though the effect can be entirely the same.

    • RichardSRussell

      Yup. Mages work magic thru personal manipulation of the auras and energy fields, whereas clerics can do much the same sort of thing by appealing to their deities for spiritual intervention. It’s like the difference in communication devices between a technological ansible (in science-fiction works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Joan D. Vinge) and a magical palantir (in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy). They both do exactly the same thing: permit 2-way communication at a distance with no material connection.

      • Greg G.

        In Roddenberry-verse, they communicate by sub-space transmissions. Pratchett had a character who was working on a means of communication based on the fact that royalty travels faster than light. When a king dies, the next in line immediately becomes king. He tried to modulate the message by torturing and resurrecting a king near the point of death.

  • RichardSRussell

    Jesus does talk about turning the other cheek, but who has time for that when there’s righteous smiting to be done?

    There was once a fairly frequently updated website purporting to be published by God himself. He would often refer to himself as “God Allsmitey”. I understand that the divine one bailed out of that medium in favor of Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook or some other service that I don’t use, but I always enjoyed it when I still had access to it.

    • At first I mentally applauded God’s honesty in referring to himself as “God Allsmitey,” but then I remembered that he can do whatever he wants. His standing in the polls doesn’t matter.

    • God occasionally appears on The Late Show on CBS with Stephen Colbert! He shows up on the ceiling. The character is amazingly similar to the God on fb/twitter, which is amazing considering that Colbert is a convinced Catholic.

      • RichardSRussell

        Colbert was also the guy who did the periodic “This Week in God” segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The bits were invariably hilarious, and Catholics came in for their share of ridicule along with everyone else. I think Colbert’s one of these “cafeteria Catholics” who just picks and chooses what he wants to believe. And never lets any of it stand in the way of a good joke!

    • wtfwjtd

      Yes! My wife follows God on Facebook, he’s actually quite an entertaining and amicable fellow, who appreciates good humor.And comes up with some pretty good zingers on his own! He’s not at all like that horrible, self-absorbed fellow described in the Bible, who’s always in a snit about one petty thing or another.

  • Sample1

    So last night an aquaintance’s dog was dying at home. I’m all about the human non-human animal bond and I know this was very tough on him and his family. I get that. It royally sucks.

    During what would be the dog’s final hours he told me he had been praying for the dog to rally and this even included, lastly, praying with a communion host over the dog. He was grief stricken and then he said it. He wanted to save this dog and remarked that if I had a magic wand he would use it.

    This is a fairly highly educated man in nursing. And last night he was using incantations, supernatural food, and wishing for a magic wand. I could do little more than remain speechless or offer heartfelt condolences.

    I don’t think he knows I’m an atheist. Its interesting to me the cultural privilege he takes for granted that he assumed I knew what communion and other provincial magical things were and felt he could just assume I knew what the blazes he was talking about. I felt like saying, “why don’t they teach magic in nursing school?” But my human morality said, “don’t do it Mike!”


    • That tangentially reminds me of faith healers. Why do they do their miraculous work in tents and stadiums? If they really were big-hearted people who could heal the sick, they would go to where the sick people are! Why aren’t they in hospitals?

      • Kodie

        And why do people go to these tents on purpose? I mean, people who don’t need to be healed just show up at the tent. I know what you’re getting at, but if healers went to hospitals, could they get the same kind of audience?

        • A winter solstice surprise–welcome back!

          Oh, yes–I see your point. They go to hospitals and actually (really!) heal people without an audience and get a warm feeling in their hearts, but they do scam healing in tents and they rake in big money. Add to that that they can’t do real healings, in hospitals or tents, and the tent scam looks pretty good by comparison.

        • wtfwjtd

          …and isn’t it funny, in a coincidental sort of way, that “faith healers” can only ever heal certain *kinds* of sickness or injury? Just like an Jesus’ day, they are still only able to make the “blind” see, the “lame beggar” walk, and so forth. One would have thought, after all these years of perfecting their craft, that at least some “faith” healers could actually expand their abilities at least a little. And why does God hate the amputee so much that he never heals them? Hmm, unless…

        • Admittedly, they are good at removing that money from your wallet, so that’s something.

        • wtfwjtd

          The faith healer realizes that although money doesn’t grow on trees, it can often be found in the pockets of the foolish and gullible.

    • Otto

      This imo is exactly why religion exists and probably always will, it is trying to get some power and control over things we just cannot control. I feel bad for your friend. Personally I found it a lot easier to let go of religion and move to acceptance. It is not for everyone obviously.

      • Lark62

        Yes. The pull is incredibly strong.

        My 5 yr old dog is deathly ill. My older son is incredibly close to him. We’ve spent 5 days bouncing between he’s “not going to make it” to “he’s really sick but might get better”, back and forth, several times a day.

        There is a human need to bargain with the universe.

        • Otto

          That is awful, it is one thing to deal with it yourself but watching your child go through it has to be excruciating. I have done my fair share of bargaining. I hope things turn out.

        • Lark62


      • “Personally I found it a lot easier to let go of religion and move to acceptance.”

        Yes! When I realized that the religion I’d been taught to assume was real, wasn’t, one of my first thoughts was that things made so much sense now! It still baffles me that I didn’t see it years earlier. But it’s a persistent meme for a reason.

    • Kodie

      It’s not exactly the same, but a person I know had to rush because she was late decorating for Christmas, and said it looked like an atheist’s house. I have never said anything about any religion ever to her, but I said, atheists can celebrate Christmas. I didn’t go into, well, not the birth of Jesus, but the giving and eating and drinking and it’s fun to decorate, none of those things has anything exclusive to Jesus, and most of the trappings you are worried about are rooted in pagan history, plus your kids are grown and don’t need lights to guide Santa Claus to your house. I don’t know if she did the calculations on my comment, but it’s still weird what people will still say out loud and not think twice. I don’t have kids, so it is not really something I go for just myself, but there are tons of elements around Christmas, and the lights are my favorite, that are secular and appealing.

      • Sample1

        Trippy story and a slippy lip. She could have said it might look like a Muslim or a Bahá’í house. Maybe it’s a kind of faint praise for the visibility secularism is obtaining to choose atheism?

        Yeah Christmastime is fun, or can be. Of course, it’s a season with increased depression and suicide too. I remember one church in Fairbanks that a friend wanted to attend on Xmas, “Friend’s Church.” Turns out it was closed on Xmas! The sign said they were closed so as to spend time with family and friends. You read that correctly.

        May all choose to close someday.

        Merry Christmas!


        • Kodie

          Yeah, it’s funny, because some apartment dwellers around me have signs or wreaths on the door, I see xmas trees at night through the windows, and lights put in the window, but predominantly, not. I don’t think every one of them is not Christian, just, you know, it’s a lot of effort. I do some shit every couple years, and then I remember how traumatized I am by changing everything for a month, having a tree inside my apartment, and those sad bare discarded trees out at the dumpster immediately the day after Christmas, because it’s weird what we do. It’s weird to look at that stuff out of context, i.e., the holiday has passed and it’s just out of place and unnecessary all of a sudden. I’m the kind who doesn’t bother maybe until March, but I also can’t stand people who say shit like “it’s mid-January, take your fucking lights down already!” but you hear complaints about the long bleak period before Spring. I think the lights are cheery all through the winter, the pine trees in the living room, not so much.

          I hate mostly how Christmas is depressing for some people. My mom wanted a fantasy family and perfection about Christmas, and the whole day was wrecked because this was never achieved, so I don’t participate in it with my family, and they understand. I hate how a stress on togetherness on one particular day makes some people feel lonely because they don’t have that, but I am over it, mostly. I don’t like talking on the phone with people who inadvertently make me feel like a loser – I would rather not talk to them at all and have the day to myself to catch up, set up, etc. There’s a lot of commercials that have been setting me off, and I cry a tiny bit and say “fucking Christmas”, because in that way it’s so manipulative to make people feel lonelier than they would another time of year, so yeah, Christmas makes you feel more of a loser and more likely to despair not having positive social connections. I hate like the atheist I am that it really is just another day, and you don’t need some charity to feed you a feast that day or give your kids plastic presents that day because “it’s Christmas”, and ignore your needs the rest of the year. You don’t need to feel worse that you’re alone on one particular day, especially me, who likes to be by myself the rest of the time, and love being home from work and left to do whatever I really want to do for a change. Family visits and gifting makes obligation to spend your only free time with people who are determined to make you feel miserable and give them a gift because you’re supposed to, which they probably won’t even like as much thought as you put into it, or money you spent on it. In that vein, I LOVE Christmas, because I don’t have to visit and no one is expecting a gift, and I get 2 days off from work in a row, and that’s exactly what I want and appreciate. I just feel manipulatedly terrible that other people are superstitious about the day that they’re supposed to have a magical family to be with, and can’t let that go and just feel as fine as they will the next day.

      • Greg G.

        I don’t decorate for Christmas either, nor Halloween nor any other holiday, but it’s because I am too lazy to pick up the decorations when they eventually fall off because I am too lazy to take them down after the holiday season. It is not because I am too lazy to put them up, it is more because I am too lazy to go buy them.

        • Kodie

          I have decorations for Christmas because I inherited them, but I also have really good closet space where I live, so it’s not terrible to store them up there. If I bother for a Christmas tree, I regret it for years and years before I forget and do it again. I have a pretty steady record of undecorating Christmas trees in about March (I don’t light them after January), and once bought a small branch saw just to get the tree out of my apartment without attracting notice.

        • Greg G.

          We had a table-top manger scene with animals and people when I was a kid. It was old then but we had fun playing with them. I regret that because we wore off some of the paint and it is an antique now. My grandmother didn’t like it when we put the Santa Claus figurine in the scene.

        • Kodie

          I made a manger scene once, in a clementine crate. Superman was Joseph and some tiny teddy bear was Jesus. I can’t find a picture in my files, but I think Jiminy Cricket, Smurfette, and Bugs Bunny played the wise men, and some of the animals were those figurines that come in Red Rose tea. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a manger, we were not religious, but we had a styrofoam scene with pine trees and a classic car. My memory of it is assembling the color-coded artificial tree, getting all angry about the lights, which had to be on before the ornaments, and the car decoration on the tv, the old black and white piece of furniture tv that became the stand for our color tv, which was the stand for the Christmas car diorama.

        • wtfwjtd

          Ah yes, the good old days when TV’s were a (large) piece of furniture that took up half the living room (remember the old “console” TV’s?) We did something similar, when the old 19-inch color Zenith finally crapped out some time in the ’70’s dad tore all the guts out of it and set a “portable” TV in the cabinet. Mom had that thing up until maybe 10 years ago, when they finally replaced it. It was big and clunky, but it sure lasted a LONG time.

        • Kodie

          Our old black-and-white tv gave out, but it remained as a tv stand. When we got a real tv stand, it was practically made out of cardboard, and covered in wood-looking paper with some brass-like handles that looked like it might be a cabinet door, but wasn’t. We had a gigantic stereo console as well, and it had a cheap “nice piece of furniture” look to it, but was actually a good stereo. My grandparents had a stereo cabinet, I think it was like what people may have a tv armoire, a whole bookcase unit where you can store your videos and close the doors so you don’t look at a tv when it’s off. I would not say the stereo cabinet was the stereo itself, but only housed it, but it seems to derive from people having a giant radio as furniture. They also had my things that got away, end tables that were also stereo speakers, all mid-century modern and shit. I wasn’t there to help my grandma move, so I didn’t get to call dibs on much.

        • Kodie

          It’s become its own cliche now.

        • I actually had one of those one year.

        • wtfwjtd

          If we didn’t put up an Xmas tree, our cat would never forgive us! They are a great cat condo, he enjoys climbing it and knocking the shiny ornaments onto the floor. Then he bats them around and chases them. Hint: Only use plastic ornaments, glass ones are a real hazard in a house with a cat!
          It’s all great fun for everyone, and no “Baby Jesus” is needed or wanted.

        • ildi

          It went terribly wrong for this poor cat…

        • wtfwjtd

          Poor kitty! He may have burned one or two lives with that episode…

        • wtfwjtd briefly

    • Your experiece with your friend shows how devilishly hard it is to publicly promote atheism or even casually discuss it. It would seem heartless and cruel to bring it up while your friend employed desperate, irrational measures to save his beloved dog. Maybe later you can drop some hints, educate the guy a little at a time to desensitize him.

    • Any sufficiently advanced technology…

  • RichardSRussell

    I know that the individual blogs on Patheos don’t control the advertising, but one has to wonder why even Patheos thinks we’re the target audience for the one from Blaze TV that promises “No censors. No liberal ads.”

    • Kevin K

      What in the world would be a “liberal” ad? Ads for CBD oil or patchouli?

      • Kodie

        A liberal ad would be for anything that’s not selling guns or delusion.

        • So… everything except for “as seen on TV” products and those weight-loss/penile-enhancement/whatever-the-health-scam-of-the-day-is pills.

    • Michael Neville

      I keep getting ads for courses from a fundamentalist evangelical seminary: “we’ll be be accredited real soon now…probably”.

      • Greg G.

        I like to click on the as for travel to Israel. Their ads have pretty girls.

    • Perhaps the All-Seeing Eye of google saw that you’d visited The Blaze and thought you’d be a candidate for the ad.

      My suggestion: click on the lingerie ads to get more lingerie ads.

  • Kevin K

    It is interesting how many apocalyptic preachers are into numerology in a big way.

    • They have to find some way to set a series of arbitrary deadlines by which their followers need to give the preacher all of their stuff.

      • Kevin K

        Those Blood Moon books don’t sell themselves, you know!

  • Pofarmer

    Well Joshua Harris finally gets it, kinda.


    He’s the author of “I kissed dating goodbye, and he’s asking that his book stop being published.

  • Regarding blessings, Israel was devastated when he accidentally gave the blessing to Esau instead of Jacob. Clearly there was some magic there, and no take-backs!

  • Anthrotheist

    I don’t know if this has been covered before, but as far as I can tell the only difference between “miracle” and “magic” is the matter of agency. Magic implies that the person — a human being — has the power to influence the invisible workings of the universe. That notion is anathema to a theist, who believes that the only entity in the universe that can affect the workings of nature is God. Thus, miracles are the righteous workings of a supernatural god while magic is the selfish hubris of frail and flawed human beings. Even prayers — close as they are to incantations — are really little more than appeals to God; the answer to a prayer still remains God’s prerogative, making it miraculous instead of magical.

    Of course, it’s all silly to my mind. Prayers have just as much effect — and are just as evil — as incantations and curses.

    • the answer to a prayer still remains God’s prerogative, making it miraculous instead of magical.

      According to Christian dogma, but not to what Jesus actually said. Jesus makes clear that God/Jesus is a genie who does what he’s asked.

      • Anthrotheist

        True. Then again, if most Christians followed what Jesus said rather than following Christian dogma, I almost certainly wouldn’t have a problem with most Christians. 🙂

    • I’m thinking that if people actually saw Jesus seem to “raise Lazarus” from the dead, that’s magic, because for it to be a miracle, it would need to be God-performed. And Jesus, no matter how charismatic he may have been, was almost certainly (to be hugely generous) just a man.

      • Probably off topic, but the story about raising Lazarus (indeed, every supernatural story) is just a story. Jesus “raising” Lazarus as a stunt is unlikely, but it’s far, far more likely than it actually happening for real.

    • TheNuszAbides

      i think that gets a bit muddled by the various ‘saint’ traditions: officially qualifying for sainthood (not that the gatekeeping is/was always sufficient to prevent ‘grandfathering’ in local folk heroes etc.) generally requires some ‘documentation’ of the person in question performing (triggering? channeling?) miracles. though i don’t know if there are more fancy/exact terms to describe/equivocate such things (like ‘venerate’ as supposedly-distinct from ‘worship’), it’s more or less academic because most ‘flocks’ of the religious aren’t troubling themselves with precise language, never have been, and likely never will be. (further reason that B.Bowen’s categorizations seem to fall flat.)

      Of course, it’s all silly to my mind.

      i concur!

  • ildi

    I guess the difference in my mind is that magic is the fantasy version of science, in that it works all the time if you know the rules. Miracles are unpredictable and not under the direct control of those who pray for/experience them.

  • Magick is when YOUR will is being done.

    Miracle is when God’s will is being done, whether you like it (or consented) or not.

    • Greg G.

      Magick is when YOUR will is being done.

      But if you say that to God, then his miracles are magick.

  • TheNuszAbides

    i was half-expecting Cozmo or Max Doubt to make a professional response to this series …