On Magic and Religion (Pt. I)

A little over two months ago, during the discussion of my post “A Question: Who’s Pagan?“, Psyche over at Plutonica.net and some guy named cartweel* got into a little bit of a spat over the distinction (or lack thereof) between magic, on the one hand, and religion on the other. Psyche even posed the question on her blog, asserting that, “magick can be practiced within a spiritual framework, often in tandem with religion, but it is by no means necessary and conflation of the two is in no way desirable.” I disagree.

I’d like to take this question up again, in order to present my side of the argument. My basic assertion continues to be that, “No distinction between “magic” on the one hand and “religion” on the other has ever been made successfully,” and now I’ll try to explain why.

I have three arguments why magic and religion are actually the same thing. The first of these arguments is more theoretical, the second and third more historical.

I.

My first argument is, I think, both the most generally applicable and the most uninteresting. The idea is that I believe every human that has ever lived engaged in (and currently engages in) religion. This is essentially the “atheism is a religion, too!” argument probably best put forward by that MADtv skit. (kidding!).

Defining exactly what religion is has been the task of theologians, historians, and other scholars for many, many years, and there are sure to be as many answers to the question as there are people asking the question. Some define religion as belief in the supernatural, or as the practice of ritual, but the point is that no good definition exists because the category seems to be too broad. There are always counterexamples to proposed definitions of religion, often counterexamples that are immediately recognizeable as absurd: For example, if religion is “belief in spirits,” then acrolectic, priestly Buddhism (a tradition considered a religion by most, if not at least a “philosophical” religion) wouldn’t pass muster. So, if religion can only broadly and inadequately be described as “a belief system or worldview” (or something similar), then atheism (being a worldview) must count as religion.

But this is the sort of argument you make in middle school, and I don’t find it very satisfying. At this level of abstraction, the word religion indeed looses any relevance as it ceases to signify anything. I only bring all this up here because of a statement made by Psyche, namely: “…As an atheist and a magickian, I stand firmly outside the religious camp.” What I’m trying to say is that I’m not so sure anyone is standing firmly outside of the bounds of religion, and that we need to be a little more subtle in our approach.

Additionally, if we were to concede that atheism ≠ religion (and is indeed its antithesis), then, for reasons that will become clear in an up-coming post, I believe that it would be impossible for one to identify as both an atheist and a magic(k)ian.

II.

The first of my two historical arguments is largely etymological, and part sociological. The word magic(k) comes from two Greek words, μαγικός (magikos) and μάγος (magos). Magos (pl. magoi) refers to the so-called “Magians”, really Zoroastrian priests (cf. the three biblical “magi”), who were seen (at least by Heraclitus c.a. 6th C. BCE) as performers of “impious rites.” Therefore, from its first usages the word magos is applied connotatively, not denotatively. It’s not that Heraclitus saw in the operations of the Zoroastrians something alltogether separate and distinct from what the Greek priests were doing in the temples, it’s that the Magians were doing it impiously, incorrectly, secretly, and/or maliciously. My assertion here is that magic is simply religion on the perimeter, “othered” (to use a tried-and-true pomo-ism) religion, clandestine and foreign religion. Magic is, from this point of view, the religious practices of women and the elderly, the insane, the prisoner and the outcast (and voila! the Salem witch trials suddenly come into focus!).

And, just to be clear, this isn’t all my own pet theory–many historians of the ancient to Hellenistic world agree with me (if I am to be so bold! I suppose it should be the other way around, that is that I agree with them, since some of them had written and were dead and buried by the time I was born! But I digress…) For example, in his introduction to The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation, Hans Dieter Betz writes, “Magical beliefs and practices can hardly be overestimated in their importance for the daily life of the people. The religious beliefs and practices of most people were identical with some form of magic, and the neat distinctions we make today between approved and disapproved forms of religion – calling the former “religion” and “church” and the latter “magic” and “cult” – did not exist in antiquity except among a few intellectuals.” I would assert that those “few intellectuals” would be those same individuals at the center of antique society, whose privileged place in society would benefit from systematizing their cultural hegemony by supporting the rubric of (unorthodox) “magic” vs. (orthodox) “religion”.

This etymological-sociological explanation is really all that I need to be satisfied that no denotative difference exists between magic and religion. But, as I glanced through Psyche’s site and tried to see things from her point of view, I realized that this might not be enough to convince others. We must consider “magic with a -k”, I think; I think it all comes down to that pesky -k.

III.

I noticed that in my original comments in “A Question: Who’s Pagan?” I consistently used the word ‘magic,’ without any -k. On the other hand, Psyche consistently used ‘magick,’ -k included. I’m sure we’ve all read in numerous Wicca 101 or Thelema 101 books that the addition of the -k came about so as to distinguish theurgic magic(k) (or high magic(k), or whatever you want to call it) from sleight-of-hand stuff. Really, I don’t think that’s what happened: Instead, I believe that the addition of -k is meant to do exactly what Psyche is doing, namely trying to make m.a.g.i.c. into science.

We’ve got ourselves a (false, IMO) tripartite division here: religion vs. magic vs. magick. I think that this division parallels a great division upheld by Western culture generally: religion vs. magic vs. science; also, the division alludes to various developments in Western history generally. Given the bredth of this topic, I am going to devote an entire separate post to my third argument – I’ll have to delve into a lot of the History of Thought to make all of this make sense, and that takes a while!

But until that future post, please, tell me what you think. Magic vs. Religion? Or is it Magic = Religion?

(*: Oh wait, that’s me!)

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About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

One Response to On Magic and Religion (Pt. I)

  1. Pitch313 says:

    I consider myself primarily a Neo-Pagan practitioner of magic, not a believer in a Neo-Pagan religion. My awareness has its roots in energies in the Earth and its creatures rather than in acknowledgement of deities and how they influence the world I live in.

    Even though I am a dedicated polytheist and devotee of several deities.

    I think that for a lot of Neo-Pagans the boundary between magic and religion is like a beach. As interest and intention rise and fall, one moves toward magic, then toward religion. It’s less how we make definitions and more how we adapt to circumstances we encounter.

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