Curious Reasoning of True Believers

If you believe in magic, come along with me
We’ll dance until morning till there’s just you and me
And maybe, if the music is right
I’ll meet you tomorrow, sort of late at night
And we’ll go dancing, baby, then you’ll see
How the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me

The Lovin’ Spoonful

The illustrious blogger Fandango has posed the question today: Do you believe in magic? Quite a can of worms, isn’t it? This is partly a question of definition and categorization, taxonomy as much as philosophy. What’s just as interesting is the blurred lines between religion, magic, expertise, intuition, evidence, and conclusions without evidence, and how they lead people to take actions that are self-contradictory.

The question was instigated by a recent incident in a Tennessee Catholic school where the pastor removed the Harry Potter series from the elementary/middle school library because: “These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

Well, as Hermione might say, Revelio!

The most knowledgeable wizard from Harry Potter. Photo from Warner Bros.

Is it a Natural Law If I Don’t Know it Exists Yet?

But first, definitions are required if we’re going to talk about magic and belief. Belief refers to a personal conviction which can either be backed up by facts or not. Belief can be based on unseen evidence. I believe that antibodies and quarks exist because scientific studies have identified them and described how they work. I don’t have to see them. Belief can also occur without evidence. I believe that people have experienced things not yet explained by science, such as dreaming about things that occur in reality but outside the dreamer’s knowledge.

Magic, according to Merriam-Webster, is the art of producing a result …through human control of supernatural agencies or of the force of nature. Hmmm. So what is supernatural? Beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law. (I’m excluding stage magicians here, who perform amazing tricks through explainable but complicated processes such as hidden doorways or misdirection.) What this definition points out is that magic, in essence, is something that occurs which is unexplainable. Let’s also add: CURRENTLY unexplainable.

People didn’t used to understand how bacteria and germs worked. Aristotle thought that fungi and diseases on living organisms arose spontaneously. He was the leading European scientist for centuries, but some of his ideas were wrong, i.e. later disproved with more information. Louis Pasteur’s theory that germs moved through the air was considered wacky magic until he created multiple experiments to turn a belief based on mere ideas into a belief supported by evidence. The writer Arthur C. Clarke famously coined a phrase that encapsulated this line between technology, i.e. known amazing processes, and magic, i.e. un-natural-law-explained amazing processes.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke’s “Third Law”

Thus, whether I believe in magic is really a function of how much I know how about the world operates. Humans don’t yet know how everything works–I still struggle with basic wiring, not to mention whether an inverted yield curve predicts recessions or not. Magic, to me, is a description of everything I don’t yet understand.

It’s Not that It’s Sacrilegious But that It’s Real

Which brings me back to the many tales of religious practitioners banning tales about wizards, food, or scientific practices. What’s often curious is how religious-based argument and rationalization is mixed with the attempt to martial fact-based evidence and logic to justify a non-fact-based conclusion. For example, in the Tennessee school, the pastor cities several authorities on the Harry Potter topic. “I have consulted several exorcists, both in the United States and in Rome, and they have recommended removing the books from circulation.”

The problem isn’t that the books talk about a magic that is separate from the non-fact-based beliefs represented in the Bible or that the books support children acting irrationally and disrepectfully to teachers (I’d consider banning it because I think Harry is an ass) but rather that the incantations would actually work to conjure demons. This is proven, according to the pastor, because experts in Rome on such topics say so.

If someone is going to rely on an expert, I ask them to show their work. Where are these exorcists’ graphs? Where are the results of their experiments? What is their proof that the null hypothesis is rejected at 95% confidence? Otherwise, how can I, a potential parent, be confident that the Roman exorcist is any more knowledgeable than J.K. Rowling? We’re really just back to “because I said so,” even if the person who said it is in Rome. How do you get a certification in exorcism, do you suppose?

One Man’s Magic is Another Man’s Piety

This isn’t the first time that Rowling’s series has been banned, and the reasoning used isn’t new either. Many schools, in England, the U.S., and elsewhere, have frowned upon Harry Pottery for years because “The Bible is very clear and consistent in its teachings that wizards, devils and demons exist and are very real, powerful and dangerous and God’s people are told to have nothing to do with them. “

It’s also not the first time that religious enforcers have taken action because of concerns that the magic is real. As Alton Brown illustrated quite well in a recent episode of the return of Good Eats, the Conquistadors nearly wiped out one of the most valuable foods on the planet: amaranth.

Pre-columbian cultivation of huaútli (amaranth) from

The Mesoamericans–Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans–thrived on key crops like corn, beans, quinoa, and amaranth. When the Spanish invaded, they exported many of the crops they found, to the point where corn and beans along with potatoes, tomatoes, and chocolate became staples in European cuisine. However, they banned quinoa and amaranth, burning fields, and cutting off body parts or executing any who tried to grow those on the banned list. Why?

The Aztecs and other cultures recognized amaranth’s “superpower” as a food source. It’s rich in fiber, vitamins, protein, antioxidants and also happens to be gluten-free. Known to promote health, the Aztecs used it in birthing rituals and with newborns. They also used it in a core religious ritual where they mixed amaranth with honey and–according to some sources–human blood. The food, called tzoali, was deemed sacred and then eaten by the populace as a form of worship.

Did the Spanish consider it barbaric to eat foods shaped, potentially in human form, or symbolizing a human deity? Was it problematic that the ritual was cannibalistic? Apparently not. The real problem was that the Aztec ritual was too close to or could be confused with or substituted for the Eucharist, the Catholic ritual which uses food and liquid to symbolize human body parts. The Spanish Catholics weren’t worried about the magic of the Aztecs, but that the magic would be confused with their own magic.

You say honeycake, I say demon hellspawn of Satan… image at

Some of these odd incidents, these confusing mash-ups of magic, science, and religion can be encapsulated by the inherent contradiction in the passage from Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 1:11

That sentence is self-contradictory. Faith is not evidence. Faith is belief without evidence. There’s nothing wrong with Faith. Faith allows people to do things they didn’t think they could do, like move cars or recover from surgery. Faith doesn’t require evidence. I don’t have evidence that dinosaurs were purple but I can have faith that they might have been. I do have evidence that they had feathers, although that evidence is recent, so roughly a century ago, people didn’t think they could have feathers. There’s nothing wrong with Faith or Belief without Evidence, as long as we recognize it is for what it is. The problem begins when we start saying have faith or believe something, then try to use faulty logic or non-evidence to act as logic and evidence.

I Believe in the Magic of Vaccination and Rock’n’Roll

There is plenty of evidence that measles incidence was substantially reduced by vaccination and that when children don’t get vaccinated, the risk of getting measles rises for everybody. Curiously, many parents who don’t want to get their children vaccinated use “Religious Exemption” as an excuse even though very, very few religions recommend against vaccination. When you peel away the core of the reasoning behind why many parents don’t support vaccination, given that it exposes their children–and everyone else–to life-threatening diseases, what you end up with is their belief in the bad magic of the vaccine.

I know that scientific evidence and facts show that measles incidence is reduced when everyone is vaccinated in the same way that I know that if I let go of a bowling ball above my toe, gravity will cause serious consequences. I can’t see gravity any more than I can see antibodies, but I understand and “believe” in both of them.

On the other hand, I also believe in the magic of music in a young and old girl’s heart, and I believe–without having the scientific evidence or facts to back it up–I believe that if we go dancing until morning you would see that the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.

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