Magical Thinking

AnthropologistsI am about 2/3 done with a textbook for Cultural Anthropology. “Ministry in Diversity: Applied Anthropology in a Multicultural World.” It will primarily be used (hopefully) for Seminiary by Extension classes in the Philippines. Here is the section on Magic and Magical Thinking. It is still a bit rough… but getting there.

Magic is often differentiated from Religion, yet there is a lot of similarity. Instead of focusing on the concept of magic, it may be more useful to focus on “magical thinking.”

People often feel powerless. They cannot see the future, they cannot control people around them, nature, or the spirit realm. But such powerlessness is difficult to accept. Magical Thinking is the belief that by saying certain things, or owning certain things, or doing certain rituals, one can manipulate spiritual power or spiritual beings to give one power and control. Bronislav Malinowski would argue that religious thinking is different from magical thinking in that, rather than seeking to manipulate spiritual powers, the goal is for spiritual forces to flow through the worshiper and accomplish what God (or the gods or spirits) desire. But it is probably reasonable to say that magic and religion overlap.


Desire for the “Spiritual”

Personal Desire

Magical Thinking

To control the spiritual


Religious Thinking

To be a conduit or tool for the spiritual


Table 4. Religious and Magical Thinking

Many psychologists and anthropologists consider religious beliefs or religious thinking as a part of magical thinking. However, especially based on the above thoughts, it should be considered that perhaps it is best to see magical thinking as a subset of religious thinking. After all, religious people all over the world and across religious lines, do seek understanding and supplications from God (or spirits or gods).

The reason for focusing on magical versus religious thinking is that it may not be possible to separate magic from religion simply by action. Consider the following:

<The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination, 52-53>

  1. Three runners are preparing to race. All three of them have a religious symbol (such as a cross or crucifix) on a chain around their necks. One of them wears it because he thinks it looks nice, another wears it as a symbol of his faith, and the third wears it hoping it will give him good luck. In this case, the first did not have any religious motivation for wearing the symbol. The second did it as a symbol of his faith, and perhaps as an act of worship. This is clearly religious thinking. The third may also be religious, but he was additionally wearing it as a talisman, to manipulate power/luck in his favor. This is magical thinking.

  2. Four families in Asia have a small “shrine” in their house where they place fruits in front of pictures of their ancestors. One family does it to show honor for their ancestors (not necessarily religious). Another family may do it because it is culturally appropriate (not religious). A third may do it as evidence of thanksgiving to God (or gods) for their family (religious thinking/worship). A fourth may do it to appease their ancestors and ensure that their family is not cursed (magical thinking).

A few terms are useful as it pertains to magic:

  • Contagious Magic: This is built on the idea that having a piece of something can contain the power of that thing. Wearing one’s “lucky shirt” hoping that one will have good fortune, or shaking hands with a successful person on the hope that his luck will “rub off” is contagious magic.

  • Homeopathic (or Sympathetic) Magic: Having something that looks like something else or doing something that is similar to something else is sympathetic magic. In the Old Testament period, in neighboring cultures, sex was sometimes done as part of a religious rite. By doing it, it was supposed to magically result in fertility of family and soil. Making paper products (out of Joss paper) in the shape of money or cars or other items of wealth and then burning them is used in some cultures to try to gain these items in real life.

  • Amulets and Talismans. These are charms or items often warn for magical purposes. Amulets are to protect the person from bad spiritual forces or bad luck. Talismans have an opposite purpose. They are to bring good luck or special power. Amulets and Talismans may work on homeopathic or contagious magic.

    Is magic bad? Not everyone as Christians would agree in this area. (We are not talking about illusionists or sleight of hand artists here.) Some would say that all magic is wrong. The challenge to this viewpoint is that magical thinking is, in fact, quite common in Christian circles, especially, but not limited to, Folk Christianity. Some will use a crucifix, or Bible or handkerchief or other items to seek to compel God’s blessings. Some use special prayers (incantations) to get God to do what they desire (to use God rather than to be used by God). Some try to determine the future by searching for numerical “secrets” in the Bible.

Some would argue that magic is good if the power is good (God or angels for example) or evil if the power is evil (such as Satan or devils). But is the desire to manipulate good powers better than the desire to manipulate bad powers?

Some would argue that magic is good if the goal is good (moral) or evil if the goal is evil (immoral). But does the (intended) ends justify the means… ever?

Some would argue that magic is not “real” so how could it be bad? Still, even if one doesn’t seek to answer the question of the ability to manipulate spiritual forces, magic as an action starts as a heart desire, commonly fueled by fear and uncertainty. Christian ministry should seek to replace such fear and uncertainty with something better– hopefully without replacing the magical thinking with a Christianized magical thinking.

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