Magical Thinking and Prayer

Magical Thinking and Prayer January 14, 2014

Today, I want to show you what magical thinking is, and why Christians commit this error so often.

internets_dairy, CC.)

The Worst Nightmare.

God only knows the times my life was threatened just today.
A reckless car ran out of gas before it ran my way.
Near misses all around me, accidents unknown,
Though I never see with human eyes the hands that lead me home.
But I know they’re all around me all day and through the night.
When the enemy is closing in, I know sometimes they fight
To keep my feet from falling, I’ll never turn away.
If you’re asking what’s protecting me then you’re gonna hear me say:
God has angels watching over me, every move I make,
Angels watching over me!

— Amy Grant, “Angels”

We will start with a scene out of anyone’s worst nightmares: an accident that totally didn’t need to happen.

One dark Texas night, a privileged boy chose to drink and drive. He piled into his red pickup truck with a bunch of his friends to go on a speeding joyride. His truck then collided with an SUV that’d had a flat tire and was now at the side of the road.

The boy driving never even tried to hit the brakes. The carnage was done just that fast.

Now, the scene was one of unmitigated horror. Victims and bystanders alike began to call 911. They sobbed and screamed out for help. Confused, drunken-sounding teenagers stumbled away from the wreck. They tried to sound mature to dispatchers, when really they were terrified children inside. To me, they sounded heartbreakingly baffled at just how their awesome jaunt had turned out like this.

And then, out of the darkness of the night, came a strong, authoritative male voice (heard around 1:15 on this clip): “I need you to sit here and I need you to pray, OK?” This unknown man began to corral people. He sat them down to pray. You can hear him doing it on the 911 clips.

He’s a busy guy whose voice sounds just as griefstruck as the rest.

But he has a plan. He knows what will help. Prayer will help. He needed to get people praying. That’s what everyone needed right then. Prayer. Yes.

A Weird Time to Ask Gods for Help.

Amy Grant (album)
(Wikipedia). Amy Grant has angels watching over her. The rest of us are SOL.

I couldn’t believe my ears the first time I noticed this fellow. Couldn’t believe my eyes. What the hell was praying going to do now?

“Oh god, you let this happen when you totally could have stopped him. You could have made his car run out of gas like in that old Amy Grant song. You could have made the SUV last a few more miles before it broke down with that flat tire. All the people that drunk kid ended up hitting could have been far away from the car looking at a baby squirrel or something. Hell, you could have made people’s bodies not able to suffer drunkenness at all when you designed us. You could have made us more durable. Then, so many of us wouldn’t die so gruesomely in accidents like this one. But no, you let this accident happen. You’ve allowed a youth pastor and a bunch of other people to die and become paralyzed for life. So now that you’ve allowed all of that, please! Do something to help us deal with your negligence!”

I realize this guy in the accident clip was probably just trying to give those folks something to do and keep them occupied. That said, it sounds like sheerest obscenity to me to appeal to this god. By their own reckoning, he could have done a thousand, a million things to prevent something like this accident from ever happening. Yet he did not lift a finger.

If he really existed, if I thought for a heartbeat he was real, this accident would be yet another of a long list of atrocities that he would have to account for. For every set of car keys Christians think prayer locates, there is an accident like this one crying out for explanation.

Practicing What Is Preached.

For that matter, we all know about the parents who keep killing their sick kids by praying for them instead of getting medical help. This couple has gone through two kids so far, but they show no signs whatsoever of recognizing that prayer doesn’t actually impact their children’s survival rate. Even most Christians look at abuse like this and recognize it as abuse; most Christians have managed to reconcile the need for real medicine with their faith, and rightfully look at zealots who take all that belief in prayer stuff this far and think they’re lunatics.

But aren’t all these zealots simply doing precisely what their religion teaches?

Every Christian in the world just about believes that his or her god answers prayers and can do miraculous things. Even the most progressive Christians I’ve ever encountered say that.

All that overzealous parents are doing is taking the dogma a little too far into reality. They’re behaving as if their magic rituals and spells can do exactly what nearly every Christian in the world says happens all the damned time.

They’re just taking the game too far, like a gal I knew some time ago who got way over her head into crystal healing magic and opened a shop selling crystals and “ministering” to people; she went totally broke, and she totally didn’t get why that could have happened when her magical divination spell had indicated that she’d be a roaring success.

Prayer is just a form of magical thinking, along with a number of other Christian practices.

Magic and Magical Thinking: A Quick Rundown.

“Magic” is a ritual act meant to bring about a desired outcome even though the act itself has nothing directly to do with that outcome. For example, a magic-user might burn incense and recite a special series of words to land a good job.

In turn, “magical thinking” is the process of creating relationships between those acts and those outcomes even when there’s no possible direct relationship between them.

And I was as guilty of magical thinking as a Christian then as Christians are now.

I totally get why I got into magical thinking and why so many Christians do today. People need to feel like they have some kind of control over what’s going on around them, even if they totally don’t have that control. This need people have–and the ability people have–to affect the world around ourselves is called “agency.” This need to feel like we have control sometimes leads to an illusion of control where we think we have a lot more control over something than we really do.

And when we mistake real agency for an illusion of control, we can end up in trouble, though some folks end up going the other direction and don’t think they have control over stuff they totally do actually have control over.

The Balancing Act of Recognition.

It’s a tricky balancing act to recognize what we do and don’t have control over in our lives, what we can and cannot affect and impact, what we do and don’t influence. Most of us have a few points in our lives where we get the balance wrong one way or the other and it causes us grief and drama (like “Nice Guys” who blame the entire female gender for their own inability to attract a mate, or failing students who are convinced that their professors just had it in for them when really they didn’t study enough).

And it’s okay to wobble a little, as long as we keep striving to improve and figure out where the line actually is. We’re human, and part of being human is having to find that line so we can take responsibility for what is our stuff and reject responsibility for stuff that isn’t ours.

But religion can mess up that line and muddy it so much we can’t tell which end of it is which.

The Competition.

The funny thing is that Christians get very excited about witchcraft because it poaches attention away from their god. “Witchcraft=naughty” is one of those rules that Christians are very sure about, just like being gay or eating shellfish–oh, scratch that, I mean just the gay thing. Witchcraft is compared to rebellion against the Biblical god himself and put alongside adultery and fornication.

Christians might not be totally sure what witchcraft is all the time, and they might vary regarding just how effective and “real” witchcraft is (when I was a Christian, I had conflicting information about that part–sometimes I thought it was all totally fake; other times I thought ZOMG REAL), but it seems clear to me after reading a number of resources online and in meatspace that it’s generally thought to be any kind of magic (as defined above, meaning “an act or spoken word that has nothing to do directly with influencing an outcome that is nonetheless thought to influence that outcome”) that isn’t specifically Christian.

It’s funny to me that Christianity tends to jump with both feet on magic in general, considering how much magical thinking there is in the religion. Contrary to what they think, they are all for magic–they just want it to be Christian magic. Christian magic is A-OK.

High and Low Christianity.

Now, “witchcraft” as most Christians understand it is actually an offshoot of low Christianity–remember, we’ve talked about that idea here before, this idea that there are kinda two versions of Christianity people practice. There’s the more pure form that you find at the higher levels of most church denominations; it’s more ascetic, more concept-driven, more theoretical, more dogmatic, more scholarly.

The Jesuits are probably a good example of a group I’d consider “high Christianity.” Often they’ll talk about their “god” and you’re not even totally sure they mean a physical person named “God” or just some overarching concept that they simply label that way. That kind of Christianity is a bit dry and conceptual for most folks’ tastes.

Then there’s low Christianity–which you’ll find among parishioners and congregations as well as among those denominations on the far right side of the pews. In low Christianity, you find a lot more emotion, a lot more compensation fantasizing and performance art, and a lot more non-Biblical practices and folk beliefs (think “Duck Dynasty”).

There’s a big chunk of many folks’ minds that really responds to the more emotional and cathartic practices in low Christianity, while much of high Christianity appeals to our need to advance ourselves and grow and learn and lose ourselves in standardized rituals. Some denominations do a decent job of combining the two forms. Folks run into trouble when they go too far to one side or the other–turning into a “logical Christian” or else a wackadoodle, intolerant wingnut.

The Paganism of Low Christianity.

Low Christianity can look downright pagan sometimes and indeed a lot of the concepts emerged after Christianity began assimilating and incorporating local folk beliefs in the Dark Ages to get converts–turning local gods into Christian saints, incorporating pagan holidays like Christmas and Easter into the church calendar, and the like. Christianity has a long, proud tradition of merging with paganism, and magic is a big part of ancient pagan belief systems.

In low Christianity, people have little rituals and folk beliefs that more dogmatic and scholarly Christians would find downright alarming if not totally out of bounds. I don’t think most practitioners of “high Christianity” (like our friend the Apostate seems to have practiced, though he doesn’t suffer this problem) really understand just how deep that rabbit hole goes. Indeed, most of the more rowdy denominations of Christianity are practicing a form of “low Christianity.”

The sort of Christian magic I’m talking about falls mostly into that second category. Indeed, when you hear about a Wiccan claiming to be a tenth-generation high priestess or whatever, it’s important to remember that ever since Christianity gained control over Europe, witches were actually generally Christians until about the 1930s.

My Magical Life As A Pentecostal.

I felt guilty about just reading horoscopes in my newspaper even though I didn’t take astrology seriously, but if I forgot to say my obligatory prayer before driving, I would find myself panicking on the freeway, terrified that I’d get in an accident. I denounced Wiccans for their various rituals, but every prayer I said had to end in abra-cadabra “amen.”

Waving magic wands or stone daggers was very silly and would never do anything, but my church genuinely thought that laying hands on people would cure them of any sickness or disease of the mind or body. Silver Ravenwolf books were beyond lame, but I was convinced that if I stood in Houston and mouthed words at the ceiling in my church, that a case of cancer in Poland could be cured. Native American sweat lodges and spirit-walks and whatnot were just hallucinations, but my abstention from food for a day or two could convince a deity to magically impose peace upon the Middle East.

But the hits just kept on coming. The Necronomicon was unspeakably dumb, but like many Christians out there I was sure that the Bible had an intrinsic power all its own. Heck, some Christians think that just writing the word “Jesus” on a piece of paper makes that paper magical and sacred. And like many people of any and even no religion, I was scared to even speak about bad or scary things like death for fear they might come true (and I guess I still am a little; there is something in me that is not far removed from a primitive crouching by a fire at night, but at least I know that).

A Deeper Indoctrination Than Dogma Itself.

Even after deconversion, I had trouble disconnecting myself from magical thinking.

In fact, I still remember the day I began to start that process of deprogramming my mind.

A Wiccan friend of mine had a car that kept having engine trouble. She had researched some spells and found one she thought would help. She was going to run over a bag of Oreo cookies and throw the crumbs to the birds.

I was only a few years out of Christianity, but my initial response was, “Why would you ever think that would help with your constant car trouble? Stop buying these cheap crappy old junkers you keep getting that break down the second they wheeze into your driveway! That’s the problem here, not a profound lack of Oreo crumbs in your backyard!”

I didn’t actually say what I was thinking, of course. That would have been rude. She was a dear friend who wasn’t asking for my opinion or suggestions. And she wasn’t in a financial position to get a higher-quality and more reliable car anyway, or else she probably would have done that in the first place.

But I still remember being surprised at my own thought process. I was starting to realize that some of the stuff I’d done and that I saw people doing had absolutely nothing to do with the outcomes we wanted to see.

The Spell Gets Cast.

So my friend recited her spell and ran over her cookies and threw the crumbs to the birds. And the next week, her car literally lost a wheel and broke an axle on the way to the beach, which left her stranded, broke, and broken down after hours in a small town. Thank goodness her friends (like me) could help her get around. We never talked about the spell she’d cast.

In the same way, though, I’d cast so many spells as a Christian and run over cookies of my own–or done similar things like that, all meant to propitiate whatever good things or keep at bay whatever bad things might lurk invisible around me. I prayed because I was terrified not to pray. I went to church because I was afraid of what would happen if I wasn’t obedient. Like many Christians do today, I tithed because I’d somehow absorbed the idea that not tithing would make my whole life crumble around my pretty pink ears. And I said magic spells and did magic rituals because I felt completely powerless to affect my life without them.

The thing was, I truly believed that the prayers and rituals I did had some effect on my life. I needed to believe that my god really was real. He had to be able to communicate with me and do stuff in the real world. I needed that help. Otherwise, I’d be totally alone.

The Safety Net.

In the same way, people who are very sick or are having terrible financial situations can do some stuff to impact their lives. Unfortunately, to a certain extent a lot of stuff is totally out of their hands. And it’s really scary to think about how much stuff we cannot affect or control.

Part of my mind, as a Christian, was childlike. Like any child would, I needed a divine parent who could fix everything and take care of any problem I had.

I think most of us can remember when we realized that our parents weren’t omnipotent. Way too many Christians don’t take that maturing process to its conclusion though. They simply transfer their need for an earthly daddy to an invisible daddy in the sky.

And I mean that literally.

A couple of days ago, I saw a Facebook post from an adult Christian referring to his “Daddy God.” And bunches of his Christian friends were totes on board with this terminology. Together, they gloried in their childish natures and inability to care for themselves without “Daddy God’s” help. (BTW: EW EW EW EWWWWWWW.)

The Opportunity Costs.

But while people are busy relying on their sky daddy and saying magic spells and doing magic rituals, they’re spending valuable time and effort not doing actual real stuff that could be helping them.

There are opportunity costs to spending one’s resources on magical thinking.

Steve Jobs wasn’t Christian, but he was into some wacky spiritual stuff. He died largely because he wasted time on “alternative medicine” quack cures for his cancer instead of getting real help for it. In that way, he did exactly like those parents who pray for their kids instead of obtaining real medical help.

In the same way, Christians who spend days and days on their knees praying aren’t actually fixing the situations they’re so busy praying for. Christians who tithe aren’t spending that money repaying their debts or moving ahead financially. Christians who go to church all the time aren’t spending that time actually doing the stuff Jesus said to do–you know, all that “help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked” stuff like the Laundry Day Christians do.

It reminds me of those vulgar old Southern sayings:

  • Pray in one hand and shit in the other, and see which hand fills up faster.
  • Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!
  • Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

They indicate a healthy distrust of magic rituals over real action.

Living Without a Divine Safety Net.

I’ve had Christians say to me, in all wide-eyed innocence, that if their god wasn’t real, then.. then.. then.. how could they possibly go through life without his protection?

I say to them: If he’s not real, then you already are.

It’s not that scary once you get going. Once you discard the magic rituals and start doing stuff that actually does impact the situations you want, you’ll quickly start to realize just how maddeningly ineffectual all those rituals and spells were. You’ll find a personal power you didn’t even know you had when you start living like an adult instead of like a superstitious, dependent child. You’ll find honesty, too. Just as our parents turned out not to be omnipotent, gods aren’t infallible either.

Finally, you’ll start taking responsibility for yourself and finding that line between what is your stuff and what just isn’t. You’ll start to untangle from the web of magical thinking and find your path in the light.

Next, we’re going to talk about what happened when I actually stopped going to church. A lot of ex-Christians are scared to make that leap and stop going to church. What happened when I stopped going? Please staple the backs of your hands to your foreheads and join me next time for The Adventures of Captain Cas.


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(Cassidy tidied up this post a little on April 20, 2019.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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