Magic in the 22nd century, by Drew Jacob
This article will not convince you that magic is real.
I practice the art of magic. I define magic as using ritual or ceremony to cause something to happen. That doesn’t imply anything supernatural; I suspect most ritual has primarily psychological effects.
In theory, if those psychological effects get someone to change their attitude or behavior, the impact of the ritual could be significant. Love spells, financial success, and other effects can be quite real.
But I don’t care for one second if you believe that.
Instead, let’s assume you believe magic never works. How then should you view people who practice or believe in it?
Frauds and charlatans?
In general, skeptic literature has demonized magicians and magic believers. There are exactly two ways a skeptic is allowed to view magic types: idiots, or parasites. B. T.’s own writeup neatly echoes that sentiment: “Magic scrolls… It’s hard to imagine a more blatant way to exploit naïve believers…”
His comments were actually meant to be positive. He wrote the article to say how interesting and different my approach to magic is. He wanted his most skeptical readers to give it consideration, so he started out by playing to their concerns: magic is fraud, magic is crazy.
This is symptomatic. If the only way you can talk to skeptics and humanists about a sincere, intelligent magician is to start off with the ridicule of magicians in general, there’s a deep and questionable bias at work. B. T.’s message was that I’m the “good” magician, not like all those other magicians. But being the good magician is kind of like being the good Jew. “You’re not like those other Jews.” Hmm.
I see magic very differently.
The practice of magic is art-and-tech utilizing beautiful, empowering rituals to radically change lives. It’s an art in that it draws on the vivid imagery of myth and dreams. It’s a technology because it uses that imagery to create profound, predictable effects in the subject. Magic rites take myth and template it onto the individual practitioner, for an engaging art form with a deep and lasting emotional impact. This impact is so significant that people who merely witness it or believe in it feel it as vividly as those who participate in it. Which is why so many people who are not magicians nonetheless “feel the energy” in magical talismans.
Consider the significance of that. The emotional impact of these rituals is so great that people feel it tangibly. This puts magic on a par with the most powerful works of theatre, except magic is uniquely aimed at the individual. In many ways, I think this is what motivates people to hire a magician – more so, in many cases, than the alleged effects of the spell itself.
Magic injects wonder into your life.
Religion, culture, and philosophy
This is different from religion. Instead of placing one’s hope in unknowable beings, magic tells the individual to place their hope in themselves. It says they have the power to make changes on their own, to wrest what they want from the world around them.
Magical traditions also serve as living repositories of culture. Elements of art, music, dance, philosophy, folklore and social commentary are embedded into each magical lineage. An active magical tradition in turn informs culture, with its own innovations in art, music and theory feeding into broader society at many levels. We see this in tribal cultures to this day.
These contributions don’t have to be considered inherently valuable. You can make an argument that art and philosophy have relatively little worth compared to science and industry. But art and philosophy remain a vital area of interest: most skeptics don’t call for the closing of philosophy departments for teaching Aristotle, whose theories are disproved. Nor do they call artists and galleries charlatans for selling expensive objects whose alleged benefits are far from proven.
Instead we dedicate significant private, public and academic resources to understanding and preserving art and cultural tradition. There is an increasing awareness that something important is lost if these things are simply put in a museum for display. Thus, last year when the Minneapolis Institute of Arts opened its special exhibition of Native American artwork, traditional musicians played in the gallery, videos of elders and tribal artists graced each room, and birch bark baskets were placed before ceremonial works of art so museum visitors could make offerings of tobacco. Tribes and bands throughout the region were consulted on the exhibition. The inclusion of living practices – and respect for the people who care about them – was seen to add something above and beyond simply presenting relics of the past with explanatory note cards.
The real benefits of magic
I place the practice of magic very much in the same camp. There are claims in magic that are bullshit. It is unlikely in the extreme that any magic rite will allow you to fly or turn into a cat; but very few magical traditions make such claims (outside of fiction). There are magical practices that are a public danger, such as select Santería potions that contain mercury. These practices should be outlawed (and have been, in the United States). But the majority of magic practices make neither of those mistakes. Without making any reference to the supernatural, we can say that most magic practices do at least one of three things:
- Promise a variety of hard-to-prove effects, many of which could come true simply because the person believes they will and acts accordingly
- Give individuals a sense of control over their life when they otherwise feel disempowered
- Act as ritual theater offering an immersive cultural experience
These are admittedly nebulous benefits. But it’s foolish to write off something that encodes cultural narrative and, at the same time, contributes to the emotional wellbeing of millions of people. There’s also a great deal of misinformation spread about magic: that it has all been proven not to work. That it all relies on supernatural thinking. That anyone who practices it is a liar. These beliefs are factually untrue, which makes them a poor basis for opinions about magic.
A call for critical thinking
I think humanists can do better. The entirety of skeptic literature can do better, but I think spiritual humanists are the ones most likely to make nuanced, informed opinions about things like rituals and spells.
It’s perfectly reasonable to take the position that psychological and social benefits, or cultural traditions and beliefs, are not worth paying for. That’s different than saying that anyone who does pay for them is stupid, and anyone charging for them is a fraud.
Most magicians are sincere believers, who themselves use the same charms and methods they prescribe to their clients. More to the point, they are skilled artisans using time-tested tools that have observable, beneficial effects.
I think it’s time for critical thinkers to look at the reality of the art of magic, and not just the foregone conclusions of a less educated generation of skeptics.
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