Magic and Magical Thinking

When Magic Ruled

In the days of myth, when the land was wild, and the animals talked, and the people knew the shape of time and the color of laughter, and the gods spoke from the grass and the clouds and the creek, magic filled the pores and cells of every creature and every stone, and the people and the cosmos were one. Magic was the thread. It connected the creation to the gods and embedded humans solidly into the natural world. As it wound its way through everything, magic made the universe whole. Sometimes it was huge and dangerous, for it could trap people as easily as save them. But magic also made life shine, touching everything with a shimmer of joy. Because of magic, the sacred was everywhere.

We see this reflected in the world of Carnival or Mardi Gras. A holiday of reversal, Carnival recreates the chaos that existed before the gods turned confusion into order, nothingness into life. In a last gasp of merriment before the strictures of Lent constrain the devout, Christians and their neighbors celebrate Carnival by donning masks and costumes, parading through crowds, singing, dancing, shouting, and wielding pitchforks and staves to drive away the winter demons.

During Carnival, as on All Hallows’ Eve, the veil between life and death thins enough that the dead can mingle with the living, and chaos makes a resurgence. We fight this mayhem with a joyful noise and a distracting disorder of our own. Thus, we drive evil from the land. This is the ritual of Carnival. [1]

Magical Thinking and Carnival

Not everyone who celebrates Carnival believes in the religious trappings or the supernatural purpose of the holiday. For many, it’s an opportunity to feast on food and flesh. In the days before refrigeration, it gave people an excuse to gorge on perishables before the Lenten fast. During Carnival, people could, with impunity, revel in the corporeal, the decadent, the worldly.

Especially during the 1400s, when the Catholic Church emphasized the angelic over the beastly, the soul over the body, the transcendent over the earthy, and when life was harsh for the poor, Carnival gave people a chance to love and laugh and claim their power over clerics and lords who ruled them the rest of the year. A professor of religion, Ingvild Salid Gilhus, explains that on this day, it was “as if the energy which kept the elements of the religious system together was let loose, increased and spent.” [2] Carnival gave the people a moment of freedom.

Yet unless they believed in the magical idea of Satan, or the spiritual teachings of the priests, or the Eucharist itself, there was no point in lampooning them. What we make fun of loses its power to frighten us. Unless we believe in holy things or goddesses, in demons or witches, the holiday becomes nothing but performance art.

In this way, the holiday speaks to the persistence of magical thinking. Though not the same as Carnival or magic itself, magical thinking inclines us to believe that prayers can bend fate to our will, that through sacrifice we can influence the gods, and that ritual and superstition keep us safe.

All In Our Brains

Something in our brains longs for a god, for a holiness that is bigger and wiser than we, a deity who will watch over us and take care of us. We long for the eternal, for an escape from death. Though we might think we are rational and scientific, that magical thinking plays no part in our thoughts and behaviors, it does. Not only are religious rituals and beliefs based on magical mythologies, but to one degree or another, we all hold superstitions.

When we survive a serious accident or miss the plane that crashes into the ocean, we offer thanks for our salvation, assuming we were spared for some divine purpose. Our brains naturally seek to create meaning out of coincidences.

Because of magical thinking, we engage in ritual. We hope that by dancing and loving with abandon, we can encourage the new year to rise from the ashes of the old. Every morning, we sing to make the sun rise. If we worship the ancestors, we bring them food so they will answer our prayers. We think we can guarantee eternal life by believing the right creed or receiving the right blessing. We carry lucky charms, smudge our homes, weave protection spells over ourselves and loved ones, talk to leprechauns or devas. This is faith, but it’s also magical thinking. Thinking magically makes us feel safe, connected to the holy, and powerful, as if we had control in a world that is traumatically unpredictable.

Not All Bad

This is not all bad. As the author, Benedict Carey, points out, believing that we have power gives us courage when we feel threatened. It soothes our anxieties and eases our despair. “If the tendency to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition,” he writes, “then over the pitiless history of human evolution it should have all but disappeared in intellectually mature adults.” [3]

It has not. We continue to behave in ways we know are irrational, yet we do those things anyway because they make us feel better.

The same brain circuitry that encourages magical thinking drives us to develop religions which, though they have been used to shame and abuse people, have also brought great comfort for as long as we have been human. Throughout the world, people tell of a time when gods walked among them, when food was plentiful, when humans were innocent and immortal. The stories share similarities. All societies explain, for instance, how the world began and why there is death. The particularities of these myths arise out of each culture’s values. In return, they shape those values, generate traditions, and inform the rituals that sustain their beliefs.

Photo by Dmitry Vechorko

Out of the Watersnake’s Mouth

Take the Dayak of Borneo. As Mircea Eliade shows in his article on myth and history, the Dayak creation story is intimately woven into their worldview, their architecture, and their rituals.

In the beginning, an undivided cosmos sat quiescent in the mouth of the watersnake. Yet something had to arise, so two mountains formed. From them came the clouds and moon, the contours of the earth. When that work was complete, the mountains changed into gods, Matahala and Putir. These two continued the act of creation, finally forming the tree of life.

Immediately, a pair of hornbills flew to the tree and began fighting. In their frenzy, they damaged it. The bits and pieces that fell away gave rise to humans. At last, the birds destroyed the tree, then killed one another.

For the Dayak, duality is everywhere: two mountains, two creators, two hornbills, two people. Yet, everything is also one. The mountains are of the same essence as the gods, as the hornbills. When one thing is destroyed, another arises. For life to exist, the gods must die. We cannot have birth without death.

It Arises from Magical Thinking

But theirs is not just a story. The Dayak recreate their myths. The steep roofs of their houses, for instance, represent the mountains. Birthing rooms symbolize the primordial water where the snake dwelt. When they marry, brides carry a model of the tree. The Dayak place their dead in a boat-shaped coffin that carries them to the land of the gods. Each year, they, too, celebrate with the wildness of a Carnival, holding an orgy in which human laws and values are suspended, symbolizing a return to the time of chaos before creation. As the Dayak act out their sacred stories, they “recover in themselves the total godhead.” [4] They become one with the holy.

We might dismiss such myths as “primitive” or “magical.” Yet are Matahala and Putir less believable than a god who speaks a universe into existence and saunters through paradise talking with his creation? Are the hornbills stranger than a talking snake?

How we answer these questions matters, for if we cannot see the myth in our own religious tales, if we cannot understand that these stories helped our ancestors explain why we exist and why we die, if we think our scripture tells the facts, we will continue to fight one another over our version of truth.

Yet no matter what myths we believe, and no matter how seriously we take them, to one degree or another, our beliefs in the sacred, the magical realm of fairies and watersnakes and the Word, arise out of our human propensity for magical thinking. We long for connection, holiness, wholeness.

Magical Thinking and Grief

Even if we don’t normally engage in magical thinking or rituals, when we feel helpless, we may resort to superstition and prayer. If we live a simple life, have enough to eat, rest assured that our color or our privilege will make us welcome wherever we go, it is easy to dismiss magical thinking and religious belief as primitive. In our sterile environments, protected from wild beasts and storms, we don’t realize how soothing it can be to trust in a god who has compassion for us.

Yet not even the rich can control the time of their death. Of course, we have some power over illness and infirmity. If we have the means, we can take good care of ourselves, accessing decent health care to keep illness at bay. In the United States, we might never see a dead body. This helps us imagine we can live forever, but there are no guarantees, and it’s magical thinking to pretend there are.

No matter how long we avoid the truth of our mortality, one day someone we care about will die. We might deny what happened, make bargains with the holy to bring our loved one back, cling to a ring or a journal to make us feel as if she were with us.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tells the story of her grief after her husband died from a heart attack. At times, she imagined she could undo the past. “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.” [5] She held onto his shoes for a long time, for what if he came home and needed them? She knew this made no sense, yet the thoughts persisted. She could not stop thinking magically.

Predisposed to Believe

That’s what it means to be human. We do and think things that make no sense logically, but do make sense emotionally and spiritually. Our brains are primed to understand cause and effect. Where causality doesn’t exist, we must invent it, for randomness makes us uncomfortable.

We are also predisposed to believe in gods.

Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause performed experiments with Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, all of whom had meditated and prayed for many years. Examining their brains during the moments when their consciousness shifted, the researchers identified the parts and processes of the brain that seemed to manufacture the sense of unity these religious practitioners experienced.

These were transcendent moments. Though the monks and nuns interpreted their experiences differently, they all felt that the reality they encountered while meditating was more real than their day-to-day lives. The spiritual world seemed more true than the material one. [6]

As the researchers explain, “reality happens in the brain.” Their studies didn’t “prove the existence of a higher spiritual plane,” but they did “indicate that to the brain, these states are as real as any other.” [7] No wonder we easily believe in God. Our consciousness can expand beyond the limitations of our bodies and our surroundings, reaching into an existence in which space and time have no meaning. In this place that the authors called “Absolute Unitary Being,” “suffering vanishes and all desires are at peace.” [8]

Magical Thinking and Connecting with God

Newberg and his colleagues haven’t proven that God exists, nor have they proven that God doesn’t. What we call a connection with the holy could be no more than brain pathways that turn on and off, a figment, magical thinking. But if there is a god, surely she would want us to be able to experience her, so wouldn’t our brains need to be able to access the divine by turning on some parts and turning off others? There would have to be some mechanism.

Besides, this idea of the supernatural appears to have evolutionary value, for we’re not the only ones who honor our dead and create rituals to soothe our spirits. Some animals do this, as well. At least, they understand about death, and in response, they engage in ritualized behavior. Elephants, for instance, bury dead animals of all kinds, and observers have witnessed them putting flowers or fruit in the graves of other elephants. When a chimpanzee dies, group members groom the deceased ape, holding visitations and wailing. Crows stand vigil over their dead. [9]

These days, the Western world is mostly scientific and linear. For instance, unlike in other cultures, where time circles back on itself or winds around in ever-expanding spirals, time in the West flows in one direction, like an arrow. We can’t imagine anything else.

Reality, too, is different for us. We reduce the world to things that can be measured and described. A place where space and time thin, where the material world seems like a dream, where something can exist and not exist at the same moment, can’t be real. There are physical laws that can’t be broken. Either something exists or it doesn’t. Everything is not one. To believe otherwise is to believe in magic.

Kneeling to the Holy

But such rationality is not the human experience and never will be. For us, something magical will always shimmer in the air, the water, the sky.

The priest and mystic, Bede Griffiths, tells of the time he discovered God. It was early in his vocation. The world oppressed him, the sights and sounds sharp and painful. Within himself, he felt a powerful conflict. Though he longed to fast, to pray, to open himself to God, his rational mind told him he was being foolish. He didn’t need to deprive himself to be holy.

Yet one day, he felt moved to spend the night in prayer. He tried to talk himself out of this drastic fit of religiosity, but could not. As he knelt before the altar, Griffiths realized he had “made a God of [his] own reason,” using his ego and his will to create a barrier between himself and the divine. That night, something rose up in him that he could not stop nor control. He “was being called to surrender the very citadel of [his] self.” [10] To reach God, he had to allow himself to be overtaken by a force that lay outside his understanding. That frightened him. All he could see of that power that called him was darkness. Surely that was not safe.

Even so, he did not get up and walk away.

Encountering God

In the morning, when he finally pushed himself up from his knees, he heard a voice tell him to go to a retreat. Having no idea of what that meant, Griffiths went to a nearby church and asked the priest if he knew of a retreat in the area. It turned out, there was one that very day. Griffiths attended, and the message he heard there changed his life forever. It allowed him to open himself to that source of grace and mercy. When he left the retreat, returning to the world of traffic and shouting and laughter, he found the noise did not disturb him. He was at peace. Suddenly, everything shone with an incredible brilliance.

Returning home, he picked up the Bible and read this verse: “Not that we loved God, but that He loved us.”

Suddenly, he understood. “God had brought me to my knees and made me acknowledge my own nothingness, and out of that knowledge I had been reborn.” Now that he no longer saw himself as the center of everything, he could see God, and God was everywhere. As he put it, “I had jumped into the darkness, and I had been caught in the arms of love.” [11]

Surrendering to the Magic

Hearing the voices of the spirits and the saints can be terrifying. Initially, Griffiths thought this godhead was dark and threatening. To protect ourselves, we develop rituals, we shout and celebrate, we say prayers to contain ghosts, threaten demons with pitchforks. In this way, we hope to appease the gods and satisfy the dead so they need not feed off us or play nasty tricks on us.

It’s all magical thinking, though. After all, we don’t know that this God Griffiths saw everywhere even exists. How many of us believe in ghosts or devils that can be chased away with weapons? It’s metaphor and myth. A figment of our longing and imagination.

Yet, real or not, that magical realm is where we find great courage, deep connections, and joyous hope. We are wired to think magically and to believe in the holy. This can cause problems, as when we deny death, but it also makes it possible for us to keep going through fear and tragedy and despair. If we believe that even during the most agonizing pain, God has not abandoned us, we can make it. When we surrender to the magic, we might find that loving arms catch us when we jump. If this is magical thinking, there are worse things.

In faith and fondness,



  1. “Carnival,” Wikipedia,, accessed 6/8/21.
  2. Gilhus, Ingvild Salid, “Carnival in Religion: the Feast of Fools in France,” Numen, Jun 1990, Vol. 37, Fasc. 1 (June 1990), pp. 24-52, 46,, accessed 6/12/21.
  3. Carey, Benedict, “Do You Believe in Magic?,” The New York Times, January 23, 2007,, accessed 6/8/21.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, “Cosmogonic Myth and ‘Sacred History,’” Religious Studies , Apr., 1967, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1967), pp. 171-183, 177, Cambridge University Press,, accessed 6/9/21.
  5. Didion, Joan, The Year of Magical Thinking, New York: Knopf, 2005.
  6. Newberg, Andrew, and Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away, New York: Ballantine, 2001, 177.
  7. Ibid 178.
  8. Ibid 172.
  9. “Religious Behavior in Animals,” Wikipedia,, accessed 6/12/21.
  10. Bede Griffiths, The Golden String, God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing, Lucinda Vardey, ed., New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 86.
  11. Ibid 89.

Photo by Dmitry Vechorko

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