Quantcast
Connect with us

Here’s why Christians believe in miracles – and other kinds of magic

Published

on

- Commentary

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands. – Douglas Adams

Why do so many Christians believe in miracles? Former Evangelical minister, John Loftus—now author of skeptical books and founder of the website, Debunking Christianity—asked me to address this question as part of an upcoming anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

ADVERTISEMENT

One obvious answer is that Christians believe because our ancestors did. Handed-down religious beliefs are remarkably powerful and change-resistant, and Christian belief in miracles dates all the way back to the beginnings of Jesus worship. In fact, it dates back even further, back into the beginnings of the Hebrew religion and the earlier religions of the Ancient Near East from which the Hebrew stories and beliefs emerged.

Christianity was born at a time in history when every religion included a belief in magic or miracles. Miraculous healings, natural “signs and wonders,” good things magically happening to good people and (even more satisfying) bad people magically getting what they deserve . . .

Belief in all of these was the norm, along with the conviction that we humans can draw magic to ourselves by attracting the attention of supernatural beings, engaging in certain rituals, eating or drinking special foods, touching objects with talismanic powers, and more. What would have been truly miraculous would have been the emergence of Christian texts and traditions that didn’t include magical thinking.

That would have been a real wonder.

ADVERTISEMENT

You can tell from the language I just used, that I see the Christian belief in miracles as a subset of humanity’s broader belief in magic. Christians for centuries have claimed that what they call miracles are somehow different than magic. They have claimed this, typically, while believing in other kinds of magic. The Bible writers and Church fathers were no exception. The Bible and the traditional Christian worldview include all manner of supernatural beings with special powers. In the Bible itself, this includes disembodied spirits, angels, devils, unicorns, dragons, seers, human sorcerers and witches, enchanted animals, and a whole pantheon of deities.

Many modern fundamentalists, at least in their own minds, continue to inhabit this wonderland. They believe that an invisible ethereal plane underlies the physical world, and that our lives are part of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil which spills from the otherworldly plane into this one. Magic, for them, still exists. On the website, Got Answers, one believer tried to clarify the difference between magic and miracles. His answer reflects the thinking of many other Bible believers:

“Basically, magic and miracles differ in their source: magic has either a human or demonic source, but miracles are a supernatural work of God. . . . “Magic is an attempt to circumvent God in the acquisition of knowledge or power. . . . “Miracles and magic sometimes look the same, but their goals are different. Magic and illusion distract the eye from reality, while miracles draw the eye to reality. Miracles reveal; magic hides. Miracles are an expression of creative power; magic uses what already exists. Miracles are a gift; magic is a studied skill. Miracles do not glorify men; magic seeks to be noticed and bring glory to the magician. Jesus was not a magician. He was the Son of God, known for His many miracles.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Got that? Miracles are the magical stuff done by the Christian God or his proxies. Magic is the magical stuff done by the competition. The latter is bad, bad, bad, because it might trick you into worshiping someone or something else. And it’s real! The Occult. The Dark Arts. Keep your kids away from Harry Potter.

For those of us who don’t believe that any supernatural stuff is done by either the Christian god or any other gods for that matter—the distinction is little more than a cloud of smoke from an illusionist’s mist-making machine. It is just one of the many tedious ways that Christianity claims to be different—not a religion but a relationship, not man-made like all the others, not polytheistic like Hinduism, not antiquated like the fairy tales of Pagan Europe, and definitely not a bundle of superstitious woo like New Age wonders involving crystals and incantations. I find Christian exceptionalism of this sort—philosophers call it special pleading—to be narcissistic and irksome, and I’m going to use the terms miracle and magic interchangeably.

But I digress. It is true that specific Christian beliefs about miracles and magic are products of a specific handed-down tradition, kept alive by the architecture of the Church and the flow of history. But Christians are not alone in their miracle belief. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they believe in miracles, including almost 20 percent of nonbelievers.

ADVERTISEMENT

The fact is, most all of us find ourselves attracted to magic, even if we are firmly convinced it isn’t real. People flock by the thousands to marvel at tricks performed by illusionists. Viewers flock by the millions to watch movies about super-villains and superheroes with superpowers. Young Adult fiction is dominated by genres like fantasy and science fiction and even paranormal romance. We humans love us some magic!

So, to answer the question, Why do Christians believe in miracles? we really have to ask—Why do we all love magic so much, child and adult, skeptic and believer alike? Why does magic so delight and call to us that it emerges in a myriad of different forms when we are given the freedom to build worlds from the unconstrained raw material of the human imagination? And what are the habits of mind that make us so prone not only to create magical stories but to believe the ones that have been handed down by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them all the way back into the shadowy mists of pre-history?

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

ADVERTISEMENT

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and legal efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. And unlike other news outlets, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from billionaires and corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click to donate by check.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. Like you, we here at Raw Story believe in the power of progressive journalism — and we’re investing in investigative reporting as other publications give it the ax. Raw Story readers power David Cay Johnston’s DCReport, which we've expanded to keep watch in Washington. We’ve exposed billionaire tax evasion and uncovered White House efforts to poison our water. We’ve revealed financial scams that prey on veterans, and efforts to harm workers exploited by abusive bosses. We’ve launched a weekly podcast, “We’ve Got Issues,” focused on issues, not tweets. Unlike other news sites, we’ve decided to make our original content free. But we need your support to do what we do.

Raw Story is independent. You won’t find mainstream media bias here. We’re not part of a conglomerate, or a project of venture capital bros. From unflinching coverage of racism, to revealing efforts to erode our rights, Raw Story will continue to expose hypocrisy and harm. Unhinged from corporate overlords, we fight to ensure no one is forgotten.

We need your support to keep producing quality journalism and deepen our investigative reporting. Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Invest with us in the future. Make a one-time contribution to Raw Story Investigates, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.



Report typos and corrections to: [email protected]. Send news tips to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Mike Pence and Nikki Haley battled for attention at a GOP donor retreat: report

Published

on

Who will be President Donald Trump's successor as leader of the Republican Party?

It's a question that GOP officials are already asking themselves, and it is already producing subtle divides within their ranks. Two of the biggest names that get floated are Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Both politicians are comfortable appealing to multiple wings of the GOP, and both have managed to stay in Trump's good graces for far longer than most of the people who have worked in his administration.

They have pushed back aggressively on claims that they are challenging one another for control, with Haley aggressively denying rumors that Trump was interested in swapping her in to replace Pence on the 2020 ticket.

Continue Reading

2020 Election

Mass rallies, crazy decisions, grandiose posturing: This is what living in a dictatorship feels like

Published

on

Another week of shaking our heads and wondering how much longer we can survive him. Yet again, Donald Trump overwhelmed practically everything with the force of his obscene personality, running his mouth and his thumbs even while he was failing to run the country in any sort of conventional sense. He doesn’t actually do anything, but he dominates everything. Living in America today is like being trapped in a room with him — no doors, no windows, no exits, only Trump and the sound of Trump and the hideous image of Trump, all day, every day, for day after day after day.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Trump officials furious with NRA over ‘dick move’ leak of LaPierre phone call: report

Published

on

President Donald Trump originally appeared interested in strengthening federal background check laws in the wake of deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Then, after a phone conversation with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre on Tuesday, Trump reportedly assured him that background checks were "off the table" and pivoted to discussing anything but guns.

It was a depressingly familiar moment for Trump, who also previously headfaked toward some minor gun control reforms after the Parkland school shooting and quickly walked them back.

Continue Reading
 
 

Thank you for whitelisting Raw Story!

As a special thank you, from now until August 31st, we're offering you a discounted rate of $5.99/month to subscribe and get ad-free access. We're honored to have you as a reader. Thank you. :) —Elias, Membership Coordinator
LEARN MORE
close-link
close-image