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Magical Thinking and the Essence of Religion

Recent attacks on religion identify it with what is perceived to be its lowest common denominator: magical thinking. This means believing in supernatural agents who can be persuaded to intervene upon the natural chain of events–to turn the course of a battle, end a drought, free slaves or revive the dead. Magical thinking operates in terms of cause and effect, which is also the domain of science. This makes the conflict between religion and science inevitable.

But defenders of religion often argue that magical thinking isn’t the essence of religion. Other things can be regarded as more important in religious life than beliefs about the supernatural: morality, cultural identity, philosophical consolation, ecstatic experiences, social support systems, etc. You can be religious, say the defenders, without expecting to affect the physical world through ritual behavior. What you get from religion is nothing like what you get from technology or science.

This doesn’t satisfy the enemies of religion, who see all the good effects of religion (don’t get them started on the bad ones!) as tainted by their supposed dependence on beliefs about the supernatural, just as they see “holy books” as tainted–whatever their literary or moral value–by the absurd accounts of their origins. Besides, they say, the percentage of religious people who don’t indulge in magical thinking is vanishingly small. The idea that religious literature is to be read metaphorically rather than literally only appeals to an elite, educated contingent. You can’t say that the “essence” of religion is missing from the vast majority of its instances.

And yet there is a long tradition of religious people who claimed exactly that–claimed that the majority of their putative coreligionists (not to mention members of other religions) were laboring in the dark. Kierkegaard, for example, claimed that there were no real Christians in the “Christian nation” of Denmark. Such language is obviously exaggerated, but it points to something that the enemies of religion might find worthy of their attention.

I suggest that it isn’t by accident that religious people often get past magical thinking in order to concentrate on other topics. Rather, the battle against magical thinking is itself part of religion. Careful reading shows it to be a predominant concern of even the most “mythic” religious writers (especially in the Biblical traditions), and a source of their moral, philosophical and poetic energy. I want to call it the essence of religion (which really just means I think it’s the most important part). And I find its classical expressions far superior to the battles currently being waged by narrow-minded critics.

The first great Biblical example of what I mean is the story of “the binding of Isaac.” It presupposes a cultural background in which supernatural aid is sought by sacrificing animals and, in extreme cases, humans. It conveys the message that, at least in the human case, such behavior is unwarranted (in fact, henceforth forbidden); but that some aspect of the willingness to sacrifice can be captured and made use of, even (or especially) in the absence of actual killings. It also suggests the value of skepticism toward the traditions of one’s social group.

Animal sacrifices continued in the Jerusalem Temple until its destruction in 70 AD, but the Israelite prophets had started using them as an ironic counterpoint in the 8th century BC, when Hosea pictured God saying “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Similarly, the book of Samuel has the prophet rebuking the king with: “Has Yahweh as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Yahweh? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifices, and to listen than the fat of rams.” And Amos disparages not just the sacrifices but the whole service, with its liturgical singing: “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Here poetry in the service of morality trumps all magical thinking.

A final example comes in the form of the book of Deuteronomy. Modern scholarship suggests that it was written long after the earliest parts of the Bible, being associated with the scroll that, according to the book of Kings, was “discovered” in the Temple during the reign of Josiah (one of the last kings of Judah). The text makes use of the fiction of a second giving of the Law by Moses, 40 years after the events at Sinai, to deploy a rhetoric that emphasizes “we who gather here today,” the present generation, as its real subject. Textual analysis shows that Deuteronomy is a revision of the earlier laws in important ways. These include replacing all local shrines (the substance of religion as hitherto known in Israel) with the single Temple in Jerusalem. (There is even a provision for priests thrown out of work by this revolution). The consequent permission of meat-eating (which had previously required the ritual blessing of a local priest) without priestly assistance (and thus without the necessity of traveling to Jerusalem) is only one aspect of Deuteronomy’s general diminution of myth and ritual, in favor of morality and mental attitude (i.e., “love of God”). Its rewriting of the Ten Commandments, for example, replaces a mythic rationale for the Sabbath (God’s rest after creation) with a social rationale: because you were slaves in Egypt. Or again, the purpose of animal sacrifice changes from that of providing a “pleasing odor” for the deity in the sky, to a system of feeding the poor.

In these and other cases it isn’t just that enlightened thinkers had an admirable set of priorities; what’s important is the reversal of perspective they effected. Such reversals are useful, even essential, to the general process of moral education. What is first experienced as an external, abstract rule gets transformed into something felt and desired. Morality goes from being a parental “because I said so” to a pattern freely chosen because it is its own reward–life feels better that way. And “faith” (that purposely ambiguous term) may be transformed from an authoritarian “belief without evidence” to the kind of “faith” or hopeful confidence I can have in a cause, in a person, or in myself.

This is not news. 2300 years ago Aristotle explained the emotive requirements of moral education, and pointed out some of the consequences. Educating the emotions isn’t like teaching math. It works by means of poetry and music as much as by logical argument. There must be some kind of emulation of heroes–a flaw in the system, logically speaking (since without prior guidance how is one to pick the right hero?), but there it is. Everybody can see that the dependence on moral exemplars can easily devolve into rigid conservatism, if not corrupt authoritarianism. But this problem isn’t specific to religion. What it means is that all moral education must be dialectical, must involve the reversal of perspective in which one first gains a distance from what was simply taken on authority, and then grows into a new way of looking at and feeling about things–a way that is recognized as authentic, as “right for me.”

The magical thinking in religion provides the background for a process of emotional maturation. This process replaces the desire for control and security (which initially gives rise to magical thinking) with a moral and aesthetic perspective of acceptance and gratitude, correlative with the metaphorical reinterpretation of mythic symbols. The hurdle of magic is used as a launching pad onto the path of existential discovery. The possibilities of meaningful living, of love and generosity, turn out to be as “magically” wonderful as the literal-minded magic of stories learned as a child.

Now the objection was that such metaphorical reinterpretation only occurs very infrequently, amongst the elite, the educated, the intellectually inclined. Such people don’t need an elaborate mythic framework to work through moral and philosophical issues anyway. They can read novels, read Plato and Aristotle, sample the existential and moral musings of world culture. They can still celebrate weddings and mourn the dead. They can gather together in affinity groups, and give themselves a narrative and thus an identity.

All well and good, but still not a replacement for religion. The final test of such efforts lies not just with the experience of this rational elite itself, but with the viability of their community several generations hence. Here we have the mostly negative evidence of groups who tried founding religious communities without the pretense of a divine mandate, like the Transcendentalists and the Hippies. One of the problems such groups face is that their discourse speaks primarily to the individual in her subjectivity, and lacks a clear objective pole–even if the only function of this objective pole would be to provide a springboard for dialectical development, a stodgy parental solidity to be punctured and turned upside-down in creative reinterpretation.

The point is that the semiotic space for such dialectical development has been built into religious language and symbolism, honed and augmented over centuries. To invent a social equivalent of religion out of thin air is akin to inventing a new language–much harder than it looks. So the rational elite may indeed be missing out on something–the “essence” of religion.

My suggestion is that while there is, and has always been, a great difference between the esoteric (metaphorical) and exoteric (literal) modes of religious understanding, there is also a continuum running between them. Many people move along this continuum in the course of their lives, beginning with the debunking of Santa Claus. As they learn the moral interpretations of mythic symbols and stories, they grow to put more emphasis on those interpretations than on the assertion that the stories really happened. Eventually they may come to feel that “God is within,” animating their moral judgment and feeling for the world. But in most cases this doesn’t prevent them from telling their children about Santa Claus, nor does it impel them to attack the “beliefs” of their less-advanced coreligionists.

Therefore it is wrong to classify everyone based on answers to polling questions about religious “belief.” What people say they “believe” doesn’t necessarily capture the functional role of the “beliefs,” their symbolism and moral perspective. It doesn’t tell you where they lie on the magical/moral continuum. So the picture of a tiny enlightened elite and literal-minded masses is also wrong.

Religion is both a process and a communal possession. Whether it can be replaced with cultural frameworks that don’t involve magical thinking is debatable. But any replacement would still have to address the processes of ethical education, intergenerational change and the dialectical movements upon which they depend. And it might well find that, without a framework for taming and transmuting magical thinking, its society experiences more superstition and authoritarianism than ever.