Magical Thinking.

Magical Thinking. January 14, 2014

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. The privileged boy responsible for it had chosen to drink and drive one dark Texas night. He piled into his red pickup truck with a bunch of his friends to go on a speeding joyride, and he hit an SUV that’d had a flat tire and was now at the side of the road. He never even tried to hit the brakes–it was over with and done just that fast. He had hit a bunch of people, and the scene was now one of unmitigated horror. Victims and bystanders alike began to call 911, sobbing and screaming for help. Confused, drunken-sounding teenagers stumbled away from the wreck and tried to sound adult to dispatchers when really they were terrified children inside, heartbreakingly baffled at just how their awesome night 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?” He began to corral people and sit 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 has an idea of what will help. Prayer will help. Get people praying. That’s what we need now. Prayer. Yes.

Amy Grant (album)
Amy Grant (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia). She 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. You could have had all the people he ended up hitting be way 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, or made us more durable so so many of us wouldn’t die so gruesomely in accidents like this one. But no, you let this accident happen, and you’ve allowed a youth pastor and a bunch of other people to die and become paralyzed for life. So now that you’ve done that, please… do something.” I realize this guy was probably just trying to give those folks something to do and keep them occupied, but it just sounds like sheerest obscenity to me to appeal to a divinity that could have done a thousand, a million things to prevent something like this accident from ever happening, yet 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.

Want more? 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 disease or illness. Even sane 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 these zealots just 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 heard of say that. All parents like these are doing is taking the dogma a little too far into reality. All they’re doing is behaving as if their magic rituals and spells can do exactly what nearly every Christian in the world says happens all the damned time. All they’re doing is 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 magic, along with a number of other types of magic Christianity practices, and magic is what we’re going to talk about today.

“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 (like burning incense and reciting a special series of words so the speaker will get a good job or some target will fall madly in love with the sorcerer). “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. 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 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 it 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.

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 over-arching concept that people tend to 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”). This type of 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 witch or whatever, it’s important to remember that since Christianity got rolling, witches were actually generally Christians until about the 1930s.

(Incidentally, I’m not saying either form of Christianity is intrinsically more valid than the other. I think there’s a big chunk of our minds that really responds to the more emotional and cathartic practices in low Christianity, and a lot of high Christianity appeals to our need to advance ourselves and grow and learn. Some denominations do a decent job of combining the two forms and I know folks in them and get along with them just fine. Folks run into trouble when they go too far to one side or the other–turning into a “logical Christian” or else a crazy intolerant wingnut.)

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.

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, just 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.” I thought that 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. I thought Silver Ravenwolf books were beyond lame (though since then I’ve found out that she’s a terribly nice and charming person in real life), but I was convinced that if I stood in Houston and mouthed words at the ceiling in my church, that a case of brain cancer in Poland could be cured. I thought Native American sweat lodges and spirit-walks and whatnot were just hallucinations, but that 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. I thought 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).

It was really hard to disconnect myself from magical thinking. I still remember the day I began to start doing it. 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 buying that break down the second you roll them into your driveway! That’s the problem here, not a profound lack of Oreo crumbs in your back yard!”

I didn’t actually say what I was thinking, of course. That would have been rude. She was a dear friend and moreover she wasn’t asking for my opinion or any 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 so 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 around me had absolutely nothing to do with the outcomes I and they wanted to see.

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 she had friends. 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. I tithed because I’d somehow absorbed the idea that not tithing would make my whole life crumble around my pretty pink ears. 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 because I needed to believe that my god really was real and could communicate with me and do stuff in the real world. I needed that help because otherwise I’d be totally alone. In the same way, people who are very sick or are having terrible financial situations can do some stuff to impact their lives, but to a certain extent some stuff is totally out of their hands. And it’s really scary to think that there’s no way we can affect or control that stuff.

Part of my mind, as a Christian, was childlike, and like any child, I needed a daddy 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, and just transfer their need for an earthly daddy to an invisible daddy in the sky. And I mean that literally; a couple of days ago, on that note, 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, glorying in their childish natures and inability to care for themselves without their “Daddy God’s” help. (BTW: EW EW EW EWWWWWWW.)

But while you’re busy relying on your sky daddy and saying magic spells and doing magic rituals, you’re spending valuable time and effort not doing actual real stuff that could be helping you. 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, exactly like those parents who pray for their kids instead of taking them to 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 (like in those vulgar old Southern sayings, “pray in one hand and shit in the other, and see which hand fills up faster,” or “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” or “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” all of which indicate a healthy distrust of magic rituals over real action). 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.

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, because just as our parents turned out not to be omnipotent, gods aren’t infallible and all-powerful either. 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.

It might amuse you to know that the Wiccan friend I mentioned with the string of crappy cars had a wife who called herself a “Christian sorceress.” She was a Christian, but she was also way into some kind of witchcraft. We didn’t get along too well, so I never asked just what she meant by the term, but apparently some folks are making that work. At the time I was just astonished by the idea, but now I think it makes about as much sense as most of the other stuff religious people do.

I can kinda see though why Christian zealots are so upset about witchcraft, especially as it’s discussed in the Harry Potter books. That series is so hugely successful that I can easily see why they’d be upset about the ideas contained therein. The only magic they want to see talked about is their own kind. Everybody else’s kind of magic, even totally fictional magic, is off limits. That’s just too much competition in the magic department–and let’s face it, Harry Potter books are a lot better-written, more coherent, more cohesive, and more interesting than the Bible.

(Though I will say that I thought all that Christian backlash against Harry Potter books was entirely made-up and hyperbolic until I traveled one weekend to a tiny mountain town in a flyover state around 2004 and spotted bunches of “Harry Potter is totally demonic” books for sale in the souvenir shops next to the collectible spoons and shotglasses. This town wasn’t big enough to have a McDonald’s, but it sure did have half-a-dozen different religious books denouncing Harry Potter! Now I just wonder what prompted that oddly-specific stocking decision.)

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? Whatever would everybody say? Whatever would the Christian god do to me? The fallout was incredible, simply incredible–which means “simply impossible to believe.” At least, it was impossible for me to believe till I saw it. 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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