Column: Magic vs. Religion?

Are magic(k) and religion contrary? One of the ongoing debates in our Pagan Community is the place of magic. Some gather to ‘only’ celebrate and worship. Some find magic central to their practice. Being heterodoxic, Pagans revel in the diversity of opinions we hold, so the range held on this topic is vast.

We are not alone in the discussion. There is a very long standing argument in the academic community about what magic is and how it is different from religion. Attempting to coerce the God(s), which they call impiety, or rites performed outside the customary space, time, and staff for them, which they call illegitimacy are among the more consistent elements. Often this shades over into magic meaning any expected result of a ritual action. [1]

Communal harvest altar at Faerieworlds 2013.

Harvest altar [Courtesy Photo].

Historically, we get these values from the Romans, which were then taken over by Christianity and became dominant in Western civilization. In history, even these ideas are problematic. Going back to Egypt, the use of Heka, more or less what we call magic, was available to anyone with the skills and will. Unless you were using it for crime, the act of magic was in no sense a crime.[2] Contrast this to Europe, through most of its history in the so-called Common Era, where imprisonment, torture and death were the common punishments for magic.

With a life potentially on the line, one might think we would have a very clear definition of magic, but that has yet to be produced. Scholars, starting from their Eurocentric foundation, discovered it was much harder to separate magic from religion when they were looking at cultures other than the West. Whereas for us, Christianity supplanted the ancient traditional religions of Europe, but did not come with a substitute for all of the common magics that folks used to potentiate medicine or bring a little luck. (Actually early on it had a number of traditions of magic, taken over from older practice, but these were suppressed in the first centuries.)

To fill this void, spells and techniques from the ancient world were reused, often but not always with a change in the divine names empowering it. The Kyranides text containing elements from the Greek Magical Papyri shows the enduring nature of these ancient spells well into the Christian period.[3] Naturally, biblical resources were deployed, such as using the Psalms for magic. Misunderstood elements of the Mass were taken out of context for magic, giving us the famous “Hokus Pokus” arguably from ‘Hoc est corpus meum’, meaning ‘This is my body,’ the Latin words of consecration.

However, as we well know from our inheritance, many other elements of the classical world came over into Christian culture to provide for the needs of magic. The most obvious ones being the Elements, and the names and character of the Planets. But when we look at the world over, this is unusual. We are possibly unique in that the (once) dominant religion of the West, Christianity, is not the religion we take our magic from. (There may be structures like this in Islamic and Buddhist countries.)

In most cultures the main religion also provides for the deployment of spiritual resources to accomplish the needs and desires of its adherents. Mantra (spells), talismans, all manner of rites of blessing or expiation exist to heal, to help, to make things a bit better. But when they perform these rites, they call upon the names of the Gods they regularly worship. This posed something of a problem for scholars in that it made it hard to see the difference between a prayer and a spell.

While allowing for a few exceptions, most of us who practice magic think what we are doing is good. When we look at how magic is viewed from the perspective of non-magic users (muggles, cowans, normals, etc.), magic is generally seen as bad. Much of the discussion about it in the academy, or among ourselves, really comes down to a value judgment. It is all the harder to discuss since the topic is being variously valued by the participants in the debate: what is the value of magic?

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

[Photo Credit: by Leila Darwish ]

The rub is that the definitions of magic, centered in coercion or legitimacy, run into trouble when very similar actions are found in not obviously coercive modes or performed under legitimate conditions. If a need is being addressed through supplication or prayer, the ‘spell’ (such as the Pater Noster or ‘Hail Mary’) is religious, but if presented in a more aggressive mood, it is magic. If done by the right person under the right conditions it is religious but if not it is magic.

We might be able to make these distinctions in our own culture, but they are much harder in other parts of the world. When looked at overall, any given action, such as the repetition of a phrase, would be considered holy japa (mantra repetition) in India, but ‘vain repetition’ in Biblically dominated cultures. (but then there is the Rosary…)

It has become very hard to find an objective difference between magic and religion. So, much of the judgment is actually subjective. It begins with the idea that magic is bad and that religion is good. This is, of course, not universal. The Atheists and Humanists often think of religion itself as bad, but then for them magic is even worse, being vain foolery or failed science. However, the larger society holds to this pattern.

The other major distinguishing factor is the outcome. Are any boons asked, are any supplications made? Is there any hope or expectation that after performing this action spiritual power will be deployed to accomplish what is asked for? If worship is without expectation, but magic expects results, we have an even worse problem separating magic from religion. It is very easy to make the case that the Catholic Mass is magical. It gathers spiritual force and then propitiates the God for benefits for the congregation and beyond. Indeed most worship includes prayer for those in need. If you think about it, even the hope for spiritual improvement or a good afterlife state is still an expectation of result.

What about the ecstasy that comes in worship itself? Is this not an effect or a benefit? When this analysis is applied it becomes very hard to find an example of ‘pure’ worship that has no expectation of result.

I propose that part of the problem with the argument is that we have such a hard time distinguishing between magic and religion that what we are really talking about is a value judgement: is this given spiritual activity good or bad? Calling it magic just becomes a way of saying to someone that their spirituality is bad. Irritating, I know…

*   *   *

[1] A selection of sources that deal with this problem: Ruth Benedict, ‘Magic’, in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 10 (1933), pp. 39-41; ‘Religion’ in Franz Boas (ed.), General Anthropology (Boston: Heath, 1938), pp. 64-67; William J. Goode, ‘Magic and Religion’, Ethnos, 14 (1949), pp. 172-82, and Religion among the Primitives (Glencoe: Freepress, 1951), pp. 52-55.

[2] Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization). (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; 2008 reprint edition, 1997). 322 pp.

[3] One example is a spell for getting one’s lover to say who they have been having sex with by putting the tongue or heart of a frog or bird on their breast while they are sleeping. It shows up in all three texts: Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), LXIII. 7-12 p. 295, and another version VII. 411-16 p. 129. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim, The Three Books of Occult Philosophy: A Complete Edition, ed. Donald Tyson, tr. Jame Freake, (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993) p. 47, and Anonymous, Kyranides, On the Occult Virtues of Plants, Animals & Stones (Renaissance Astrology Facsimile Editions, 2005) p. 67.

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33 thoughts on “Column: Magic vs. Religion?

  1. I think that part of what it also comes down to is what feels like the predominantly Christian attitude that humans are finite and fallible, thus we can’t be trusted with the arguably infinite and perfect power of magic and sorcery. Magic done in the religious name of a deity is deemed acceptable, because the deity in question is the ultimate fail-safe who permits “good” magic and punishes or foils “bad” magic.

    In a way, when viewed through a feminist lens, this can go back to the fear of men in ancient Greece of the rebellion of slaves and women, or said another way, the fear of a subversive force outside the control of the establishment.

    • Or, what WE do is religion/spiritual, what THEY do is (gasp) magic. Don’t do what they do.
      A lot of the do-nots in Tanakh seem to be based on this premise, given what we know of surrounding cultures in the area.

  2. Another way of going at the problem of magic (in European cultures, at least) is to regard it as a residue class, specifically, what is left over when you cut out science and technology, on the one hand, and philosophy and religion, on the other, from a certain very broad field of human discourse and activity.

    On the one hand, magic doesn’t easily lend itself to empirical testing by the scientific method, unlike science and technology. On the other hand, unlike religion, philosophy and science, magic is a body of recipes and techniques, not a logically coherent system of propositions which have truth-value (i.e., can be said to be either true or false in principle). Thus magic is (to use technical terms from semiotics) a doubly unmarked category, unlike technology and religion (with philosophy), which are each singly marked, although in different ways, and unlike science, which is doubly marked.

    This approach can, in principle, also be applied to non-European cultures, even if the result happens not to align in any interesting way — it often won’t! — with those cultures’ own indigenous ways of categorizing the same broad field of discourse and action.

    If this approach interests you, take a look at my 1995 article, “Magic in Slavia Orthodoxa” (in the volume _Byzantine Magic_),” which is freely available here and there on the web (including my own web page at

    • Thank you for the link to your works. Since I am of Balto/Slavic extraction (Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Lithuanian) this is of great interest to me.

  3. I regard the distinction as totally artificial and establishmentarian, going back to “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” — ie, don’t invoke JHVH for your trivial personal purposes; it is the property of the priests.

  4. Also, there’s an interesting historical problem lying at the foundation of the approach in this column. One of the most learned and insightful 20th-century scholars who worked on early Christianity and Judaism of the same period was the late Morton Smith.

    Smith took a good hard look at all the evidence (Christian, Jewish, Pagan) for the life of the historical person, Joshua (aka Jesus*), whose followers and devotees eventually came to call themselves Christians, and he noticed that virtually everything this person did, as described in the earliest accounts of his work, relied on the very same techniques and implicit theories as did the recorded practices of magicians of the 1st century CE. Now Smith was a solid and somewhat outspoken atheist, so he ruled out any divine explanation for the healings, the miracles and the exorcisms that this Joshua was credited with doing — no incarnate Deity here, thank you very much! Thus he came to the conclusion that this Jew named Joshua was just another 1st-century Jewish magician, and a rather skilled and charismatic one, at that.

    Smith published his results and the evidence for them in a somewhat popular book titled _Jesus the Magician_ (1978). Despite his high reputation in his academic fields before this, and despite the solid scholarship in his book, it was almost completely ignored by his fellow scholars, and it greatly harmed his own standing in the academic world. It was, in a nutshell, too hard a pill for his Christian and Jewish colleagues to take.

    Now if Smith’s conclusions hold — I think they do! — then the later hostility of Christianity to all forms of magic is best accounted for as a piece of necessary damage-control in the Roman world of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, where all magic was suspect, and much of it was regarded as criminal activity. Indeed, one Christian writer of the early 3rd century even goes so far as to say that any “magus” is forever barred from being baptized as a Christian, even if he renounces his magic wholly and believes. So extreme was this damage-control that it became a pronounced feature of Christian teaching for the next two millenia.

    This must be very early damage-control indeed: the very earliest of the gospels is that of Mark (probably written before 70 CE), and it is also the one and only gospel that presents the miracles, healings and exorcisms chielfy as a matter of the same skills and techniques used by other contemporary magicians (who, however, are not mentioned). Later gospels largely eliminate all the potentially magical features from their accounts of the same miracles, etc.

    So the hostility of Christianity to magic began as a practical response to an outside threat (from the Roman state), rather than as a matter of theology. The theological justifications (and their later scholarly fallout) came much later.
    * “Jesus,” by the way, is just the usual way that Jews rendered the Hebrew name Joshua when they were writing in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. The Hebrew book of Joshua in the Bible was translated into Greek by Jews as the book of “Jesus, the son of Nun.”

  5. Good article, although I wish people would stop useing “muggle”. With all due respect it is a term from a work of fiction. It gives non pagans the idea that pagans are living out fantasies rather than on a serious sincere path

    • The issue is commercial selling of the neo pagan practices. They’ve turned it into a joke to further destroy our culture and make a quick buck.

    • Agreed. We don’t need to label others when we choose a label ourselves.

  6. I feel that magic shmaintainedy be practiced as each religion dictates. Magic is not something that should be used in play and only for the better ment of others, not personal gain. One must learn why magic should or shouldn’t be used before they use it. An they must learn the consequences. Magic isn’t a game nor should we treat it as such. All magic whether divine or arcane, drudaic or wizardry has a price some are immediate and others won’t be taken toll for years to come. Irresponsible user will throw the world off balance.

    • I utterly disagree with that. I know Many people who agree with you, but my experience over the last 26 years just doesn’t bear that out.
      True, you can screw up, but mostly that doesn’t echo very far beyond yourself. The world is ever so much larger than one person’s will.
      I straight up just Play with magick, just to see what it will do. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it doesn’t, and I pay no price for it beyond simple cause and effect, and the mental/spiritual strain that comes with being a magus.
      I’ve attempted some 60,000 acts of magick- but, and this is important, I do it by my Own power. Sure, if you’re calling down gods, spirits, universal forces- caution is called for- For all the reasons you list and more that we both know, I’m sure.
      But if it’s a bit of your Self you’re throwing out there, your Own will, your Own *spiritual pressure* it won’t do anything you’re not cool with, beyond just “hidden rake in the grass” oops.
      There has been Nothing in my experience to suggest that most magickal actions should be held to a higher account than our physical ones- So long as we don’t violate our own ethical principles, the world doesn’t care.
      I find this Overcautious attitude toward magick to be shortsighted and very unhelpful to the practice of magick at large- Literally the Practice. People are afraid to. And they should not be.
      Just my opinion, and experience.

    • You scribed:
      I feel that magic shmaintainedy be practiced as each religion dictates.

      That fifth word seems to have been hit & messed up by the awful Auto-Correct. Would it translate to “should be maintained by”? In that case, the following “be” makes no sense.

      Could you please enlighten us?

    • No they don’t, not by the practitioner. It’s just an academic exercise, really.

  7. To my mind, religion is the set of beliefs and practices which aim at helping one discern the nature of the world, of deity and ourselves, and how we ought to best live in that context. Religion is the What, Why and Who. Magic is the How, or one piece of it. It is a set of beliefs and techniques which assist us in drawing on energy and focusing and directing it with our wills, and doing work with it. It’s a practical application of the nature of things which we might know through religion, though we need not be religious to use it anymore than an engineer needs religion to harness that laws of physics.

    Magic certainly can have a religious aspect, as when we employ it to interact with deity or when we ask their assistance in it. The Catholic Mass employs magic. There is simply no way around that. They propose to actually transmute the communion wafer and wine into the body and blood of their god. The don’t see the priest as spellcaster so much as a qualified guy who invokes and channels that magic from deity.

    All distinctions are by necessity fuzzy in this area, but I’ve never found it to be a troublesome question. It may be for the Christian/reductionist science overculture, but that’s their problem, not mine.

  8. Magic can also be regarded as Science which hasn’t yet been explained by the establishment. When doing Magic, we work with forces and energies that do exist in our world. These forces and energies may be invisible or only sensed in ways beyond the commonly accepted 5 senses. I often regard spells as scientific experiments and I learn so much from doing them! Magic, to me, enriches my life in so many ways…it keeps me in good relation with my environment and helps me live a life of Health, Prosperity, and
    Creativity. My teacher, Marion Weinstein, said, “Magic is what we do instead of prayer, it is how we make changes in our own lives and help do changes in other peoples lives. It’s a way of transforming things by means of will and intention and according to natural law.” The key word is “natural.” Marion used to say that Magic wasn’t supernatural; it was SUPER-DUPER-NATURAL!! 😉

  9. This is one of my favorite topics, and I’m glad to see it being tackled here.

    One difference between magic and religion that I don’t believe was touched upon above, is the difference in power level between a magical practitioner versus a religious practitioner. While there are (often famous) exceptions, historically the practice of magic falls to the disadvantaged portions of society, e.g. the lower classes and women. One of the curiosities of the Neopagan movement, to my mind, is the fact that we embrace a traditionally marginalized practice as our own.

    Another interesting boundary to examine is the difference between magic and superstition. Much of “folk magic” has survived as superstitious practices–for instance my Pennsylvania German grandfather who would never leave a house without sitting down first. Perhaps the line here is one of intent: magic of when done deliberately, and superstition when done without thought.

    • Superstition is religion that doesn’t get respect. Your grand-dad is classified as superstitious but a Catholic who crosses herself upon entering a church is classified as pious.I am reminded of Thomas Szasz: “If you talk to God every day you are labeled pious. If God talks to you once you are labeled schizophrenic.”

      • Thankfully, my pdoc understands there is a difference between schizophrenia and my experiences. They’ve usually been very private-unto-me messages, and no-one is ever harmed when I feel a Nudge to do something in particular.

        Now, the folks who last lived in this house we rent included a holy-roller who made the entire block nervous. Apparently the house stank three houses away, and there were way too many people in the family who were living in a 3 br house (10-12) in a semi-suburban street.

        We looked soooo ordinary compared to them, and the neighbors are happy with us.

  10. There’s a very interesting treatment of this issue in Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (2004) He speaks of those three fields as overlapping circles which now overlap much, much less than they used to. Isaac was exploring these ideas before he passed.

    I also highly recommend The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (1994) by Valerie I.J. Flint She goes into how no-no Pagan magical practices were Christianized so they were acceptable to use. Just fascinating.

    • At one time I had a reproduction copy of the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga, which was an 11th Century (?) “recipe” book of magical charms and you can certainly see the influence of Christianity on those practices that formerly where definitely pagan. Similarly, the book entitled “The Long Lost Friend” which was used heavily in the early 20th Century by Amish/German magicians also shows heavy influence of Christianity, but if carefully read, one can discern the underlying pagan themes.

      • The Lacnunga is a mavelous manuscript. Its last known owner/user, before it was gathered up by scholarly collectors of antiquities, was a woman named Barbara Crocker, who died in 1655.

        You can now find color scans of the entire manuscript (Harley 585) on line at:

        The Lacnunga itself occupies leaves 130 recto to 193 recto of Harley 585, so you need print out only 127 scans in all. The rest of the manuscript has other herbals and medical texts (all translations from the Latin).

      • The reproduction edited by Edward Pettit (2001) seems to be in two volumes: Vol. 1 Introduction, Text, Translation, and Appendices and Vol. 2 Commentary & Bibliography. Do you happen to know which one you had? These books are truly out of my budget, although I found one copy of each volume at under $80 (not by much). Damn.

  11. “It has become very hard to find an objective difference between magic and religion.”

    Really? Religion is a set of rules, beliefs and tenets. Magic is a way of making change using one’s own ability, prayer is asking for deity’s help.

    “The Atheists and Humanists often think of religion itself as bad”

    Most atheists and humanists only think of the big 3 (or 4) when thinking of religion, and they have proven to be a bit dodgy.

    “I propose that part of the problem with the argument is that we have such a hard time distinguishing between magic and religion..”

    I propose it is you who is having a hard time doing that. I have no problem.

    • Well, good for you.

      What then would you call theurgical practices, in contemporary Paganism, if not religious magic?

  12. My definition may be overly simple but for me, if you’re calling on anyone (meaning a person, divine being, ancestors etc…) you’re doing religion. If you’re using your own energies and directing them according to *your own will* (this is the big key distinction for me) you’re doing magick. And I think this distinction is why magick has been looked upon as wicked. In the West, we inherited the idea that doing the will of others is better than one’s own, submission to a spiritual authority a virtue, obeying beings seen as higher (angels, god(s), ancestors…) the greater good. The whole, “Not my will, but thine be done.” is common in Christianity, esp Catholicism where you see vows of obedience taken to spiritual authorities, but I see traces of it remain in others simply because they imbibe it in the culture we live in. Thus anything that says that an individual may direct energies according to their own will and desires is very often seen as dangerous at best, downright evil at worst.

    • So, when using your own power to cast a circle, for those that do, is that magic or religion?

      If you’re casting that circle prior to worshipping a deity, is the circle casting a different category of thing than If you were doing it prior to a healing ritual?

  13. This question is quite blurry among many pagan, indigenous, and ceremonial traditions, what with the tendency toward intercessional deity and spirits (calling upon gods and spirits to get stuff done). There is also a tendency for magick to be taught in a religious context, as such it’s very hard to separate out.
    But if you look at Chaos Magick, or a Direct Manipulation practice like mine that has No dogma, little to no reliance on gods and spirits (unless we just Want to), is fueled by an individuals will and power, and is judged by real world results- I find it quite a distinct matter.
    I’m functionally an Atheist, even as I Believe in just about everything and deal with them on occasion. I do not worship, bind myself to no religious structure, and “throw my own voo” as it were.
    I frankly think the Pagans in particular would benefit greatly from uncoupling their religious practice from their magick, at least in part, as there’s a Whole lot of “thou shalt not” or “This is the One True Way” when playing by the rules of gods and spirits (as one must when they are involved) than when you’re doing it yourself, in my experience. I can explain that further if anyone’s interested.
    Just my two bits

  14. I really must object very strenuously to the terms “normals” and “muggles” for us non-magic users. Really, human beings cannot be anything except normal. None of us are immortal, shape-shift, drink blood, etc. That somehow someone is “specshul” (deliberate misspelling) because they can say a few words or have taken an initiation is hilarious. Even the so-called magic in ancient Kemet had more to do with taking care of the gods (feeding them &c.) and their shrines. A person was not supposed to ask for a god’s aid — so, the next best was a dead person, which was the practice of necromancy. This was fully condemned by all societies. To this day, the gods will not help you unless they want to help. You cannot bribe them.