An Atheist Thinks About Magic and Religion

decorated pumpkinsOn the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz were discussing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, the one about any sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic.

They were frustrated with the way some interpretations of this statement have affected SF/F. For example, there are many stories in which something revered as magic by the people turns out to be technology that can be explained. Also, magic is often written as having some very definite rules, making sorcerers seem more like scientists doing step-by-step procedures.

I listened to this the day after a writers’ group meeting in which we discussed the powerful magic inherent in the liturgy of the Anglican Church (relevant to the story under discussion), especially if one uses the older Book of Common Prayer in which many of the prayers and blessings use the same language as in the King James version of the Bible, which is to say, Shakespearean English.

Thinking back to my own experience in the Episcopal Church (the U.S. version of the English Anglican one), I recall feeling very moved while reciting the creed or singing canticles. I suspect there’s a similar feeling when one does the Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin, and I know I’ve felt moved listening to the Hebrew words at a Passover Seder.

Words have magic of their own, even if you don’t believe in God. And in a world in which we cannot explain everything, and perhaps will never be able to, we need to leave some room for magic, whether we “believe” in it or just accept that we don’t know everything.

I am an atheist because I find it impossible to believe that there is such a thing as the superior being God of the Christianity of my youth. But unlike many atheists, I am not a materialist. I do believe there are things out there that are beyond our understanding and yet affect our lives, even if I can’t find any evidence to support them.

I just don’t find the label of religion to be a useful way of looking at them and I reject categorically the idea of worshipping a supposed superior being in the same way that I reject the idea of monarchies. As far as I’m concerned, the proper approach to others (supernatural or mortal or alien) is the Zen Buddhist one of treating everyone the same, with respect but without fawning.

But I do respond to things that get labeled spiritual. Meditation is useful for me. Some words move me beyond measure. Music often gets to me.

Some years ago I read several books by Karen Armstrong. In one of them – I think The Battle for God – she points out that much of the fundamentalist Christian emphasis on a literal reading of the Bible is due to people’s unwillingness to take religious stories in the metaphorical way they were intended. They are trying to put rules on the myth and metaphor when that’s not how it actually works.

Years ago, when I spent a summer in South Dakota, I sometimes woke with the feeling that there was someone else in the room. The presence felt benign, but I kept my eyes closed, just in case. And sometimes in the late afternoon I’d hear a loud noise, like someone slamming a car door, but there wouldn’t be anyone outside. And my closest neighbors were a mile away.

I don’t believe in ghosts. I can’t explain what happened. I’m comfortable with that.

It’s Hallowe’en. Samhain starts at sunset today. In Celtic tradition, the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest on Samhain.

A lot of good people have passed this year. I don’t have to believe that I can almost touch the dead to feel comforted by the idea that they might be nearby, and that’s despite the fact that I think that when you’re gone, you’re gone.

Not everything has to fit into nice rational boxes.

Happy Hallowe’en. And for all you Celts out there, Happy New Year.



An Atheist Thinks About Magic and Religion — 6 Comments

  1. I love the line in Contact about intelligent life in the universe, that if we’re the only sentient species it’s an awful waste of space. In a somewhat inchoate way, that’s my feeling about God and faith. I believe in something but I can’t tell you what it is. It is not a prescriptivist father figure–why would a superior being be so… human. It suggests a failure of imagination on the part of humanity if a Human Only Much Bigger is the best God we can come up with.

    And I’ve had a couple of those eldritch moments where I’m in touch with something beyond what I can see or name. I suppose you could say I’m keeping my options open, and resisting the urge to name things.

  2. By definition a deity is superior to human understanding so how can anyone or any faith presume to put limits on their deity?

  3. Nancy Jane, have you seen any of Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series? I’ve read the first, and in that, actual religious prayers had true power that could be built to protect or attack. And messing with the oldest prayers because of changing social or political reasons could cause chaos with those protections.

    I always remember that “grimoire,” a book of magic spells and invocations, coms from the word grammar.