An atheist’s magical practice in detail, by AtheistWitch

This essay (with minor edits) was originally published at AtheistWitch’s blog, Spiritual atheist witch…and other strange labels.

Rational use of irrationality: […] since the only defensible logical explanation for magic is the psychological effect it creates on a person, that is always the model I assume to be at play. Magic changes my mindset; my mindset changes my probabilities of successfully manifesting my will in my life. It works by reconciling the rational and the irrational parts of myself. Take a protection charm for instance. A braid of garlic, a bag of herbs or a piece of metal, in and of itself, doesn’t protect me from anything. But if I use it as a protection charm, it reminds my rational brain to be vigilant, which helps me avoid avoidable danger. But it also appeases my irrational side by acting as if the piece of metal or bag of herbs will protect me from unavoidable danger. My irrational side is an heirloom from some hairy caveman who screeched and ran when he heard the “angry” thunderstorm. That irrational side is where uncontrollable emotional breakdowns come from. With magic, I gave that irrational side a more productive job to do so that I don’t have to simply repress it. That way all of me can work towards the same goal. It’s a virtuous cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.Of course, it only works as long as both the logical and the illogical are working together. I’m not going to walk willingly into a lava pit wearing a talisman and expecting to emerge unscathed, for example. I’ll let go emotionally for the sake of a ritual, but if irrational and rational disagree fundamentally, I always go with the rational. (Rational does always have reasons, after all). […]

Symbolic representation of and reverential attitude towards nature: Nature is represented in my magical working, either literally through the use of herbs or plant life, etc., or figuratively through the use of symbols. In a full-blown ritual, I represent the sun and the moon and the four classic elements (earth, fire, water, and air). Firstly, I feel that I and the majority of humans on this planet are too disconnected from nature, and representing it in that poetic way reminds me of its existence, our dependance on it, my impact on it and therefore my place in the world. Secondly, it also helps me to represent whatever issue I want to deal with in my rite in a more isolated and hopefully effective way. Me, the universe, and the issue to be dealt with. When I use herbs, I revel in the sensory experience of holding, smelling or tasting them and feel a sense of gratitude.

Varied elements of folk and ceremonial magic: I use many of the tools and forms that are used in magical systems around the world, including candles, incense, herbs, symbols, oils, concoctions, little bags, bottles, knotted cords, talismans, chants, etc., applied in ways to make them ritually significant. Some of my magical practices are extremely simple–just a rhyming couplet, for example. Others involve full-blown ceremonies. I am always interested in learning about new types of practices, with a view to updating my system if I find something I like. I feel like I know a lot about Wicca, both traditional and eclectic. Now I am investigating hoodoo, North American Shamanism, Mexican brujería, Cuban santería, and other forms of traditional witchcraft. One has to be exposed to many styles in order to adopt one’s own style.

Systemic use of correspondences: One of the ways to make workings “ritually significant”, as I stated above, is to use correspondences. This means doing certain type of magical workings on certain days of the week, certain phases of the moon, using certain colors of candles, certain types of herbs, and so on. My system establishes priorities for establishing correspondences:

  1. Proven medical or scientific properties (i.e. White tea from China for weight loss, St. John’s Wort for depression)
  2. Mythological Associations (i.e. Safe Travels potion on Weds. before trip, because Weds. or Miércoles in Spanish corresponds to Mercury, who was the God of Travelers).
  3. Consistent use across many witchcraft or magical traditions (i.e. sage is often used as a cleansing herb for smudge sticks in many types of magical systems, including virtually all traditions of Wicca and North American Shamanism.)
  4. Asthetics or personal inclination (i.e. hibiscus, I use for love magic; beautiful flowers, bright colors, and sweet smells evoke ideal love to me).

Personal Adjustment:  My spells are rarely one-size-fits-all, suitable for all people and all occasions. I think that any magic has to be adapted to the person practicing it. I readily draw inspiration from other people and established traditions in my spell-crafting. But the final arbiter is always me. I say this because I find that some authors and some practitioners play games of psychological manipulation that imply that not doing it their way means that one is not initiated into the true “secrets” of magic. Or worse, that one is exposing him or herself to harm by not doing it “the right way” (i.e., their way). Never mind that the person asserting this has no evidence for their way working beyond their own personal experience. And never mind that they don’t prove that any negative consequences (i.e. evil spirits) are not coming from that person’s own mind. They want you to be scared into following their way of doing things. That doesn’t work for me. These people also contradict themselves because they say that the more one puts his or her own “energy” into the practice, the greater the effect will be. Other more traditional folk magicians (i.e. Hoodooists, Voodooists) talk about the need to have a “link” to the object of the spell in order to carry out work on them (i.e. hair, bodily fluids). So personal involvement is paramount, and in my opinion can never be delegated.

Words, words, words: One of the easiest ways I ensure personal involvement in a spell is to use my own words, or to use words that are relevant to the target. I subscribe fully to a quote from the very last Harry Potter movie which was uttered by Albus Dumbledore:

“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic. They are potent forms of enchantments, rich with the power to hurt or heal.”

Some of my most potent spells have also been simple recitations of words. If anything analogous to evil spirits exist, I believe they are mostly manifestations of one’s own fears. The best psychological abuse occurs when the abuser can make the abused participate in their own victimization. Occasionally, when I read a very detailed account of someone who claims to have encountered evil spirits that have caused them physical harm, misfortune and financial ruin, my irrational side gets the best of me. “What if it’s true? Am I exposing myself to harm?”, I wonder as the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up. I came up with a very simple spell that I repeat as long as is necessary to feel better.

“Black magic I may have seen on TV, but it has no power over me.”

This helps rationality take control again. Without exception, the fear has disappeared in a short period of time. A post on evil spirits in the blog of a Druid named Jeff Lilly pointed out that:

“I do know a number of people who claim to have seen them. But interestingly, the only people who see them are the ones who somehow “expect” to see them — that is, people who already believe in supernatural entities. Evil spirits leave secular humanists alone….

“I also read somewhere that the only reason that evil spirits don’t go around possessing people all over the world is that most people believe so strongly that evil spirits don’t exist, and that their bodies are inviolable, that the spirits can’t get in. Effectively, the disbelief itself is a powerful protective spell.”

Divination as a projection screen for intuition: I like to think about “The Big Picture”. The way that different parts interact to make for a more congruent whole. I do this when I think about how any system I deal with can function better, from my body to my relationships, from my workplace to my planet. I have ideas about all of those things, but sometimes a little inspiration to help connect the dots doesn’t hurt. So when I read cards about a particular situation, rather than expect to be given the answers by some hidden spirit, I can find a symbolic expression of the answers that are already inside of me.

Magical ethics = mundane ethics: The fact that magic seems to have purely psychological effects does not mean there are no ethical considerations to be taken into account. If magic is meant to facilitate the manifestation of real-world outcomes, then I shouldn’t try to manifest a will that is unethical. In practice, this is not necessarily that different from the ethical system of some witches who believe in the supernatural. A Wiccan might say that it is unethical to try to cast a spell on someone so that they won’t break up with you. If the spell works, one would be imposing their will on that person. I also think it is unethical, but not because some supernatural force will be returned to me threefold. To my way of thinking, if I ever feared that my partner would leave me and, instead of talking to him, I started lighting candles and incense, something would be seriously wrong. The equivalent in mundane action would be threatening to commit suicide to manipulate a partner from leaving. The first casualty of such an immoral action would be my own dignity and self-respect. The second would be any shot at a healthy relationship with that person, and the third would be the partner’s well-being. So I evaluate the equivalent magical action in those terms.

Just as I am careful professionally to not claim that I can do things which I cannot, I am also very careful in what I claim to be able to do for other people magically. I don’t generally do spells for people unless I know them well. When I did a ritual to help a friend lose weight, I made it clear that the ritual itself would not make him lose weight and that he would have to eat more healthily for that. I would be extremely careful, or even declare an absolute prohibition, on doing something like a healing spell for the relative of an unconscious person in the hospital. What if the unconscious person dies? Would the relative then feel guilty about invoking “unnatural forces”? Would they blame me for what happened?Would I then feel guilty about the outcome? It could turn into a huge mess. The only circumstance I would even think about doing something like that would be if the person involved was a very well-known friend who knew that the ritual would be aimed ONLY at making the friend feel better by allowing him or her to express his or her will for the relative’s well-being.

That being said, whereas some Wiccans are completely against any kind of bindings or curses, I am more flexible. I would call myself a “pragmatic pacifist”. I try to believe that most people have mostly good intentions most of the time. When someone’s behavior annoys me, my first instinct is usually to not take it personally. I also subscribe to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Unfortunately, everyone does not play according to those rules. When it becomes clear that one is faced with an unavoidable high-stakes confrontation with people who are not acting in good faith, then I think one has to fight back. In the words of the late Aaliyah in the movie, Romeo Must Die

“When a girl is kicking your ass, you do not have to be a gentleman.”

Similarly, if a binding or a curse helps you deal with someone (i.e. an emotional abuser, a workplace harasser, etc.) in a way that will keep you from being completely and totally screwed over, then by all means, do it. Just like physical violence, the defense has to be relatively proportional to the offense (i.e. you can’t shoot someone for slapping you).

Celebration of full moons and traditional nature festivals: Similar to the second characteristic of my practice as stated above, celebrating the 13 annual full moons and the eight dates commonly recognized as the “Wheel of the Year” is a way for me to feel more in tune with the rest of the natural world. I also consider those occasions to be good times for magical workings, if I happen to be so inclined.

Well, there you have a summary of my magical practice. Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or want to tell me about your practice, feel free.

The author


AtheistWitch: I was born in the middle of the United States, but have been living in Europe for most of my adult life.  I was raised an Evangelical Christian, but started to disconnect from my denomination at around the age of 16 when I realized I was gay.  I only admitted to being an atheist around the age of 23.  At some point, I started researching Wicca and Paganism in depth and liked most of what I saw, but didn’t want to give up my Atheism.  Since Wicca’s symbols are nominally related to real natural events or aspects, I realized I didn’t have to. While I don’t consider myself a Wiccan, I today call myself a naturalistic, atheistic eclectic, solitary witch.  I celebrate the wheel of the year, meditate, do rituals both complex and simple, strive towards better understanding of self and others, as I try to be an ecological eater and walk through the greener parts around my area on a regular basis.  It is an ever-evolving practice, one that attempts to remain scientifically and logically grounded, while at the same time involving a lot of humor and being very “me”.”  Here is the link to my blog:

See AtheistWitch’s other posts.



3 Comments on “An atheist’s magical practice in detail, by AtheistWitch

  1. I love this! I’m a naturalistic/atheistic dabbler in the strange, myself — it’s always nice to find others exploring this neck of the woods. I’m going to subscribe to your blog right now, AW.

    BT, you find us the best bloggers.

  2. I always struggle to explain to people that “Yes, I’m a practicing pagan” but “No, magic isn’t exactly real in the sense you think it is”. They always think I’m lying about one, or the other. But I really love this post, because it proves and it shows (and it explains far better than I’ve done so far) that there isn’t a dichotomy between being a witch and disbelief in the supernatural.

  3. Well done! This is exactly the kind of nuts-and-bolts detail that I wish we had more of. How exactly does magic work for a naturalist, in all its varieties? You’ve explained exactly that, for yourself (and for me, wherever our practices overlap, such as with divination). Thank you, very much!

    Jeremy: I can’t take credit. This article was found by John, who’s continuing to do an amazing job as managing editor. 🙂

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