Do You Believe in Magic?


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

A good way to show off one’s ignorance of theology is to throw the word “magic” around.

At least, it is if one is implying that belief in God constitutes belief in a kind of magic. This assertion, can only be made if one either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is. Or (and I’m worried that this is far more common than it ought to be) is only interested in the rhetorical value of the word and doesn’t actually care that the assertion is a false one.

That is, if magic is to be objectionable, it can’t simply be something that one, personally, doesn’t understand. If that’s all we mean by magic (as in the quotation above), then I completely agree that almost the whole of theology would be “magic” to the New Atheists–as they understand little to none of it. But this is hardly a point in favor of atheism.

Of course, the word “magic” is often used to reference something that isn’t really an explanation. A word that is used as a kind of filler for a real explanation. But this, too, fails to help the atheist.

First is the simple fact that, in order to make this work, the New Atheist is reduced to arguing against the “god-of-the-gaps”. Which immediately means that we’re no longer discussing the God of any of the great monotheist religions. Again, this is either ignorance or a sloppy appeal to rhetoric, not a point against a religion than anyone actually believes in.

God is an explanation for many things in reality we experience–not an efficient cause under the model of science, but a perfectly reasonable explanation in other contexts. One can try to argue that there is a problem with these explanations. What one can’t rationally do is say that God is not an explanation–which is what appeals to the word “magic” do.

The technical term for “magic”, in this sense, is “brute fact”–something that is true without any explanation whatsoever. And it is no small point that it is typically atheists, not theists, that appeal to brute facts in discussing the explanation for the universe.

That is what atheists have traditionally said, of course: that the universe has no explanation for its existence. And this is, logically, no different from saying “the universe is magic”.

And it isn’t enough to say “well, maybe there really is no explanation” or “I’m okay with not knowing”. Both of these things contradict inquiry–and even show a misunderstanding of the science many atheists claim to cherish. The fact is that theists have offered an explanation (meaning that suggesting that there isn’t one is simply false). No theory is ever overturned by appeals to the idea that some things just aren’t explicable. Nor are they stopped by self-righteously declaring that it is morally preferable to live in ignorance rather than accept the best explanation on offer.

“Planetary orbits are a brute fact” and “I’m okay with not knowing why biodiversity exists” aren’t legitimate responses to Newton and Darwin. These kinds of statements aren’t legitimate responses to any explanation whatsoever. They are appeals to magic in all but name.

As such, it is those who make these and similar statements toward theists who are confessing a belief in a kind of magic.


65 responses to “Do You Believe in Magic?

  • violetwisp

    Nice thoughts! I feel inspired to state that the universe came into existence because of magic and my consciousness is magic. Makes it all seem a lot more exciting until humans find a reality-based explanation for it all, which has happened with everything else that was labelled magic/deity-derived.

    I think Christians should embrace the fact that they believe their supernatural god can do magic tricks (Jesus did loads after all) and not feel so defensive about a usefully descriptive label.

    • Debilis

      Greetings, and best wishes to you!

      As to the discussion, let me see…

      First, this simply assumes that theism isn’t a “reality based explanation”. You’re free to believe that, but it is no defense of atheism to say “If you assume that theism is false, then it is no better an explanation than I have”. That is circular reasoning.

      But, if the only alternatives are theism and magic, it seems clear which is the more reasonable.

      Second, if you want to argue against the theism that is actually being defended, then I need to be the one to say what I do or don’t believe. I’ve given very specific reasons why “magic tricks” has no non-rhetorical value in this conversation.

      If you disagree with those reasons, feel free to explain why. But simply repeating the assertion doesn’t give me a rational reason to change my view.

      Really, and I say this as someone who thinks highly of you, this particular comment reads as lacking any concern over whether or not the term ‘magic’ was actually valid. It seems much more interested in the rhetorical value of the word. This is precisely what I’ve criticized above.

      Perhaps this was not your meaning, but, if not, I see no good reason to insist upon using the wrong terms for things. More to the point, I see no reason to amend anything I’ve said as a result of this.

      • violetwisp

        I checked the Oxford English Dictionary for ‘magic’:
        “The power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces”

        I’m not sure what part of that you object to in the description above for actions like parting the Red Sea, planning and causing a global flood, instantly healing sick people, raising the dead etc. It seems a suitable description for biblical events from anyone’s point of view.

        • Debilis

          Mostly, I object to the things that get tacked on to that. There are many, but nearly all of them seem based in a single mistake:

          That “influence” means being one force among many.

          This is where people demand that the supernatural has somehow been tested by science, that the concept of the miracle is no different from the concept of the paranormal, and quite a few other things.

          So, I simply disagree that miraculous events are a matter of the supernatural “influencing” events. Rather, all events occur under the supervision of the divine. Some of those are more obviously so to us, some less so. But, either way, “influence” is the wrong word.

          And that is why “magic” is the wrong word. I’m not remotely discussing something which creates some kind of force, which is present among the natural forces in the universe, and could in theory be isolated from them.

          That would indeed be magic; but this is not what I was discussing.

    • Anonymous

      violetwisp, so you have a “reality-based” explanation for the existence of the universe and for consciousness?

      Did you really mean to pick these two things as examples of how science has shown the New Atheists to be correct?

      We so often hear the tired and entirely false assertion that science gets us closer and closer to atheism every day. When pressed for examples, we get vague references such as yours but glaringly missing that promised “explanation”. Either that or the Old Atheists are still milking the centuries old Galileo example.

      In recent centuries, what has science unearthed? Lets see, materialists insisted that the universe and all matter and energy has always existed.

      Oooops. We now know that all matter, energy and the entire universe came into existence from a single point at one specific point in time. How… theistic.

      We were told that evolution was random mutations, hewn by selection, per Darwin.

      Oooooooooops. We now know that evolution can be induced in predictable ways by changing the environment of the organism. Evolution is as purposeful as all other matter movements in life.

      We were told that consciousness was an “illusion”, caused by lucky chemicals, as if that makes any sense at all.

      Erps. We now know that focused consciousness can affect random number generators, wave particle duality and even structure molecules – all EXTERNAL to the human organism.

      We were told that time and space are immutable and eternal laws.

      D’oooh. Turns out time and space are both bent up, warped and downright squishy and pliable.

      Neurologists who toed the materialist line told us that the brain causes the mind.

      Eppps. We have now demonstrated that repeated thoughts cause the formation of neural pathways. Free will thoughts of the mind cause the brain and we can directly observe it happening.

      We were force-fed the “fact” that the randomness of the universe is proof there is no intelligent agency involved.

      Eeeek. Dozens of physical laws had to be extremely precise for the universe to not be destroyed. The odds against this are unfathomably tiny, which is statistically impossible. The universe is clearly intentional.

      We were told emphatically that all movements of life are just chance chemical reactions that luckily always happen to align with our needs. Yes, we all win the lottery every moment of the day.

      Gagggg. All movements of all life have been demonstrated to be intentional, free will purposeful movements, just as we ourselves make the conscious decision to move freely.

      Sounds to me as if science is making it clear which religious belief is “magic” (atheism) versus reality-based. According to science, God, or something very much like a god, is a reality.

      • violetwisp

        “so you have a “reality-based” explanation for the existence of the universe and for consciousness?” No, I don’t. That’s why I said I’m happy to believe it’s magic, but I’m confident we will have a reality-based explanation in time. The magic of the gaps in science, I think it’s called.

        Human discoveries have informed us that the earth wasn’t created in 6 days, 6000 years ago. They’ve also shown us that there’s no God and heaven up in the sky. They’ve also proved that miracles don’t exist, but occasionally coincidence and rare events can make us think they do. They’ve shown us that people aren’t born evil and that what we do in live is more likely to be determined by our upbringing than anything else.

        “According to science, God, or something very much like a god, is a reality.” Don’t you find it odd that over 90% of the scientific community completely disagree with on that? Or is it 99%? Can’t remember. Any chance you were indoctrinated from birth or had a traumatic incident in your life that led you to ‘see the light’?

        • Frank Morris

          Vw, actually the majority of scientists are theists. Nearly zero members of the scientific community disagree with anything I said and nothing you came up with contested any of my numerous examples either.

          Of course the earth wasn’t made in 6 days a few thousand years ago. Nor does this have anything to do with the reality that an intelligent agency created the universe and life. The book of Genesis was written by someone who wasn’t there when the universe came to be. Why anyone would give it credibility is beyond me.

          There are all sorts of stories about extraterrestrials as well. Since they are so often disproven does that prove that there is no life beyond earth? They can’t all be right so certainly none are right, correct?

          Besides your age of earth silliness, none of your other claims are demonstrated by science at all. In fact, as I have shown, yours are anti-scientific claims.

          No childhood trauma or brainwashing here. How ’bout you? My conversion from avid Darwinist to teleologist began in college as a Biology major and took decades to gradually form. It took me awhile to finally accept what science was telling me.

          Maybe someday you’ll do the same. All it takes is an open mind, an honest assessment of the facts and some education.

          We now know that there is a reality-based explanation, and it is essentially the opposite of your unscientific beliefs.

        • Frank Morris

          VW: ” I’m confident we will have a reality-based explanation in time.”

          Translation: “I have faith in my religious belief in materialism, despite the lack of scientific support.”

          This is known as “promissory materialism”, the unscientific faith that insists that someday somebody will think of something that changes everything we know into something completely different than reality, but fits your religious beliefs in matter-only pseudoscience.

          I support your right to believe in whatever you want, no matter how foolish you look, but don’t for one second claim that any scientist – other than a known atheist apologist – would ever agree with you.

        • violetwisp

          I expect you’re right that no scientist would agree with me that magic is the answer to our current gaps in knowledge, but quite frankly, that’s their imaginative loss. However, I’d be interested to know where you get your figures on the percentage split between theism and atheist in the scientific community. Care to share?

          When you decided that evolution was unsatisfactory and a creator needed to be involved, why did you choose the Christian god if you think the Bible is nonsense?

        • Frank Morris

          VW, you sure do put a lot of words in my mouth I never said.

          “evolution is unsatisfactory” I am an evolutionist, so I would never have said this. The fact that intelligent beings exist which can adapt to changing environmental needs supports the existence of intelligent agency, not materialistic atheism.

          On that note, if you are an atheist, why do YOU find evolution unsatisfactory?

          “choose the Christian God” I didn’t say I have some inherent knowledge of which version of theism is correct. I am just as likely to accept a different culture’s version of theism and I fairly suspect that nobody really has all the answers right. The only thing that science completely rejects is materialistic atheism. I’m pretty open-minded on the specific details that nobody really knows for sure, as long as nobody is trying to deny teleological realities.

          “the bible is nonsense” I didn’t say it was nonsense nor that it is factual. It is a book, actually a compilation of several books and correspondence from numerous authors I have never met. Human beings write books and humans get some things right and some things wrong. The bible is not relevant to the science of teleology nor does the concept of theism rise or fall on the veracity of one group of writings.

          Is science complete garbage because science fiction exists?

          If someone was trying to give scientific reasons that they believe there is life on other planets, would it make any sense for me to give evidence that the Vulcan grip can not cause unconsciousness?

          You claimed that science proves atheism, which is pretty much the opposite of the truth. To argue against ONE writer’s claim that relates to theism does not demonstrate your case. You need to show how what we know scientifically shows that there is no god or creative intelligence.

          Lastly, there is no “gap”. ALL relevant science shows the opposite of what you claim.

        • violetwisp

          Okay, so the link you provided tells us “the National Academy of Science charted belief in God as low as 5.5 percent among biologists and 7.5 percent among physicist and astronomers in a 1998 study.” and concludes with one person’s view on what scientists should be:
          “I don’t think there’s a necessity for scientists to be atheists,” Eagleman says. “I don’t even think it’s a very good idea necessarily.”

          If that’s the best ‘proof’ you can come up with for most scientists being theists, I’m sorry to inform you, you’re deluded.

          I also don’t think the knowledge we have of science is incompatible with the idea of a creator. Many Christians do though. But the fact is that we can’t yet explain everything about our minds, about our existence, and in those gaps all Christians see their god. Maybe all Christians barring you. I’ve always said that if you believe in a creator deity-in-hiding, it should be a deity that could create without leaving a trace. However, the fact that people down through the centuries have believed their god is responsible for storms, for disease, for crop successes and failures, and that this god resides up in the sky, is an indication that the gods created by men evolve along with men, to suit what we want to believe, to give us the comfort and security we long for. And that is why the history of belief and gaps in knowledge is so relevant to this discussion.

      • Frank Morris

        Vw, it is an elusive statistic, because it depends on how the question is worded. The same article I linked said 51% of scientists believe in God. The difference is whether or not the question is specific to a singular religious belief or just a belief in ANY deity.

        This link cites a poll that determined that 2/3rds of scientists believe in God. The greatest scientists of all time and in recent centuries do tend to be believers, although rarely in any standard religion. This would include geniuses such as Einstein, Von Braun or Max Planck.

        Scientists like these believe in God, BECAUSE OF science, precisely because there is no “in-hiding” about it. The creator clearly gave no concern about trying to hide.

        I hear this “gaps” claim all the time, but I don’t see anything from the materialist side other than one enormous void. I would almost reverse that, and say that the atheists are living off of gaps, but I don’t even see gaps for them to hide in.

        I don’t know anyone who thinks God is responsible for storms, disease or crops, at least not in recent centuries. Can you give any examples that are within recent lifetimes? I could as easily read about what scientists thought about science many centuries ago and we could have a good laugh at their ignorance too.

        Science clearly demonstrates the necessity, and obvious reality of, intelligent creation. That’s why most scientists are believers in an intelligent creative force.

  • john zande

    OK then, if not “magic,” then what word (which describes the magic performed by your particular Middle Eastern god) fits better?

    • Debilis

      Given that my “particular Middle Eastern [G]od” doesn’t perform magic, there’s no need for a word.

      I can’t think of a reason why someone would want a word for something I’ve never claimed–I can only think of reasons why someone would want to keep throwing the word “magic” around as a rhetorical jab.

      And, as I’ve said, doing so only shows off one’s ignorance. Anyone who doesn’t know theology better than than to resort to this, and doesn’t have a large enough vocabulary in the subject to avoid the term “magic” simply has no business claiming anything on the subject other than his/her own ignorance.

      Really, “I can’t discuss the subject without the term ‘magic’, but I understand it better than the experts who claim that I’m wrong” is deeply suspicious at best.

      Anyone who claims to reject belief without evidence should be completely unimpressed by this.

      • john zande

        That has to be the most unsatisfactory answer/excuse you’ve ever delivered…. and you’ve delivered some astounding whoppers in the past.

        If parting the sea, for example, was not “magic,” then what was it? If you say its not, then surely you have a word for it which you’re more comfortable with.

        • Debilis

          Most tend to call it a “miracle”, or “act of God”, or something like that. Personally, I’m more inclined to call it a particularly obvious example of providence. Either way, I really don’t see what it is about the term “magic” that isn’t communicated by those terms.

          Unless, of course, it’s the fact that “magic” sounds more insulting.

          Most New Atheists are willing to invest tremendous amounts of energy defending their use of insulting terms when perfectly good alternatives are available. Pope Dawkins commands that theists be ridiculed with contempt, I suppose. But it does strike me as more than a little ignorant.

          But the reason why I reject the term is basically the same thing that I’ve said many times. Theism is not a physical concept. Unlike magic, it is not remotely an extra force among the natural forces that make an event.

          That makes it rather different from magic. The emotional need to mock aside, there really is no good reason to use it.

        • john zande

          Again, wildly unsatisfactory.

          [prov-i-duh ns]
          ( often initial capital letter ) the foreseeing care and guidance ofGod or nature over the creatures of the earth.
          ( initial capital letter ) God, especially when conceived asomnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankindwith wise benevolence.
          a manifestation of divine care or direction.
          provident or prudent management of resources; prudence.
          foresight; provident care.

          These are motives, not actions. I am motivated to take care of my garden, but that does not describe anything about how I take care of my garden. Taking care of my garden involves physical work, and a little music. I weed, plant, cut grass, trim, harvest. These are descriptions of what I do, and how.

          You have failed to say how parting the Red Sea was anything but “magic.”

        • Debilis

          Guidance is an action.

          The difference I’m trying get others to see is the difference between the programmer and a character in a video game–or between a metabolism and a virus.

          There is a qualitative difference between the establishment, and fundamental nature, of a system and a particular element in that system. Providence refers to the former, “magic” to the latter.

          Moreover, whether or not I’ve “failed” to prove to you that your terminology is incorrect, it is perfectly obvious to even the most casual reader that other terms are available to you.

          That is to say, there is absolutely no logical reason for the atheist to cling to this term “magic”. It’s really only good for its value in mockery.

          And that is one more thing in the mounting pile of evidence that the New Atheists aren’t actually interested in what is true. They seem much more interested in making themselves sound smarter than the other guy. Anyone concerned with actually being smarter would spend less time insisting on the right to use the term “magic”, and the right to define Christianity (or religion in general). They would spend time on dealing with the things that theologians have actually said.

          Complaints about complete straw men like “God sacrificing himself to himself”, “threats of Hell”, or “magic” are for those that want to feel smart, not those interested in what is actually being claimed.

        • john zande

          I’m sorry Debilis, but providence is a motivation, and no amount of handwaving will alter that fact. We are, therefore, right where we began which is:

          1. You whining about people calling magic, magic.
          2. You not providing an alternative word.

          Believe me, if you can come up with a viable word which satisfies me, and is less offensive to you, then I’ll use it from minute one.

        • Debilis

          I’m not quite sure how you can define a term by simple declaration. This is particularly true when the definition you yourself offered included the term I used (guidance)–and I also could have pulled the words “management” or “direction” from the definitions you provided.

          Am I allowed the same debate super-power? Can I say “I’m sorry, zande, but atheism is the position that God does not exist, and no amount of handwaving will alter that fact.”?

          If so, consider that the definition of atheism.
          If not, give me a reason why your word should be taken over the dictionary with respect to a definition.

          Moreover, I’ve provided an alternative word. We’re specifically discussing that word. You are doing exactly what I claimed: rejecting the word I gave you (providence) in favor of clinging to the word “magic”.

          And, also as I claimed, you’re beginning to expend some degree of energy on defending the term: as if it is you, rather than I, who should define what it is that I believe. This is typical New Atheist rhetoric: define the theist’s position for them, then attack that. If they challenge, just declare that the New Atheist version of theism is the “correct” one–not that thing that the theist is actually saying.

          Simply put, my words don’t have to satisfy you. And, in the Twilight Zone universe where they did, your words describing your positions would have to satisfy me.

          So far, I’ve not made a big deal out of the fact that many of them don’t–because its your position. I’ve stuck to the logic.

          If you can’t do the same, then I’ll be needing some defense of quite a few words that you use.

          Last, I’m going to harp again about this term “whining”–as if there is any more reason to apply that to myself than your “whining” that I don’t describe my beliefs in terms you happen to like.

          I’m not claiming the following, but (to illustrate the point) let me put it in New Atheist terms:
          “Look, I know that you’re emotionally committed to the idea that you’re smarter than religious people. I know you need to use insulting terms to defend your sense of being better than someone, regardless of the fact that they’re straw men. But using the wrong terms only shows off your ignorance and refusal to learn.”

          So, yes, we can spend endless rounds accusing each other of “whining” or other forms of emotional weakness.

          Or, we could actually get down to discussing the form of theism I’m defending–and which you, if your past comments are still valid, don’t understand.

          But, to do that, we’ll need to quit insisting that I’m talking about magic and move on to trying to understand what it is I’m actually talking about.

        • john zande

          “management” or “direction” don’t describe the action either. Take the turning water into wine. This is not the simple rearrangement of molecules. They are two completely different chemical cocktails. To turn water into wine requires “magic.” It’s a simple as that.

          I’m rejecting “providence” because it doesn’t describe the action! Providence is a motivation.

          Yes, *you* do have to define it because it is *you* who are making the positive claim. You are saying these magical events occurred, but then you’re objecting to the word magic being used. I have asked for an alternative word, one that won’t offend your sensibilities, but you have, so far, failed to offer one up.

          Actually, your words do have to satisfy me. You wrote the post whining about the word “magic,” but have not presented a viable alternative.

          No, we can’t move on until you’ve established how magic is not, in fact, magic.

        • Debilis

          This is exactly what I’d predicted earlier.

          I’ve not been given any response to what I’ve actually claimed, but merely consistent demands that we use your terms, rather than mine, to describe my beliefs.

          Apparently, we’re willing to go so far as to outright deny the fact that words like “management’ and “direction” are, in fact, verbs in order to demand that I prove, to your satisfaction, that I’m allowed to describe my beliefs in my own terms.

          This is all very presumptive. I’ve never, for instance, written a single word on this blog about the “water into wine” passage, and yet you’re telling me exactly what I’m claiming about it. You don’t even know whether I believe it–let alone what particular understanding of it I have.

          And, yet, when I’m telling you directly that what I’m claiming isn’t what you’re describing, you tell me that you know better than me what it is that I think.

          This is certainly not anything that I’d call a scientific way of thinking. It is wild speculation.

          So, let me make another prediction. I’ll not get any questions in response–no engagement with the concept of transcendence, of telos in the aristotelian sense, or any attempt to defend materialism from the specific challenges I made in the opening.

          Rather, I’ll get another demand that I prove, to your satisfaction, that the words you prefer aren’t the most accurate ones. And this, of course, simply skips over the fact that everything I’ve just named is that proof. Those are the differences between what I’m claiming and “magic”, if you’d care to look.

        • john zande

          Why would i ask such questions when this post was dealing solely with the word, “magic”?

          As it was you doing the whining i really don’t think its asking too much for you to suggest a viable, accurate and meaningful alternative… one that doesn’t involve deeper layers of transcendent voodoo.

        • Debilis

          Actually, I raised all those issues in the opening post and the discussion. The concept of providence is based on transcendence, telos is specifically the form of explanation I was referencing (as I’ve explained directly in past conversations), and I specifically mentioned, by name, a few of the issues regarding materialism.

          But these were all ignored in favor of demanding that I need your personal approval before clarifying the terms of my own position.

          We see that again here. For all the repetitive use of the word “whining” (really, can’t we expand our vocabulary a bit?), I’ve been getting a lot of, shall we say, unjustified complaint (i.e. whining) about the fact that you don’t understand my position.

          Really, I’ve given specific reasons why the term “magic” is inaccurate, and you seem to think that referring to those reasons as “transcendent voodoo” is a rational response.

          Since when is name-calling a way of determining truth?

          What I said was that, with respect to the questions it is meant to answer, theism is neither an appeal to the unknown, nor a case of special pleading, nor a claim that there are forces with physical effects other than those which science studies.

          Whether or not you, personally, understand the concept well enough to see the difference between that and “transcendent voodoo” is not the issue.

          The issue is that this is my position. And anyone who claims to have a good reason to dismiss that position is simply wrong unless he/she actually understands that position.

          And not being able to tell the difference between it and some silly made-up term is a good indication of a lack of understanding.

        • john zande

          Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it’s just me.

        • john zande

          And anyway, what’s wrong with the word, magic? Why are you so offended by it? Is your particular Middle Eastern god not a grander version of Gandalf?

          But again, if you can actually provide a viable alternative to “magic,” then I’ll happily use it, because believe it or not, i’m not in the business of offending you on purpose.

        • Debilis

          I’ve mostly answered this above, but, to be more direct:

          Because it’s incorrect.

          This isn’t a matter of offense. It’s about the simple fact that you’re using the wrong term–thinking in the wrong categories. I’m trying to explain to you the difference. I thought this would be appreciated, after all the times I’ve been told that you don’t understand my beliefs.

          Now you’re telling me that you simply refuse to think about the difference, but are simply going to wait until I use a word that fits what you think of as my beliefs.

          Do you see how this isn’t going to help you understand them?

        • john zande

          Debilis, you haven’t progressed a single centimeter. I simply fail to see how you even think you have. You have offered providence, management and direction as alternatives. This is ludicrous!

          Again, you brought this subject up, you said you were upset with “magic,” so I’m begging you to give an alternative that suitably works.

          If it’s not magic, then what is it? What is turning water in wine? What is turning 3 fish into 5,000?

          Frankly, I don’t know why you don’t just accept the word magic. It fits the dictionary definition.

        • Debilis

          I agree that I’ve not “progressed” if, by that, you mean that I’ve not taught you anything about what it is I’m claiming. We definitely seem to be in the same spot.

          But I’m not “upset” with magic. I’m pointing out that there are differences.

          And anything I say “suitably works” in describing my position because (here comes the shock) it’s my position. I have no idea why you presume to debate with me over what my position is. My position is whatever I say it is.

          You’re free to argue that it is false. You are not free to argue that it is not my position.

          Wait, when did I say a word about turning water into wine, or multiplying fish? Here I was discussing natural theology, and an entirely new subject is brought up. Theism doesn’t require any particular position on that.

          But I echo your closing remark: frankly, I don’t know why you don’t just accept my terminology. What is it about this word “magic” that so compels you?

        • john zande

          “My position is whatever I say it is.”

          Of course, but i remind you, you wrote the post whining about people using the word “magic.” So far I haven’t seen anything presented that overrides that rather accurate word for the reality-denying events contained in the Bible.

        • Debilis

          Again, let’s skip the whining about “whining”.

          But, to the topic, you’re again trying to tell me what my position is. I haven’t said a word about the Bible here.

          More than that, you’re trying to tell me what my position is without making a case for it. You keep assuming that we should just accept your terminology until I can make a case against.

          That isn’t remotely agreeing that my position is whatever I say it is.

          So, please quit dictating to me whether or not that word is correct, and let me tell you what it is that I actually think.

        • john zande

          Aren’t we talking about Christianity here?

        • Debilis

          I didn’t think so.

          I was talking about theism.

          And, whenever we get around to talking about Christianity, we’ll be talking about my understanding of it–which doesn’t include the things that have been mocked here.

        • john zande

          I’m not mocking. If your worldview can’t stand up against reason and rationality without looking silly then that’s a problem with your worldview, not the reason that looking at it.

          Just so we’re clear: Are you a Deist?

        • Debilis

          Well, you are mocking, actually, but that’s not the point.

          The point was that what you’re mocking–the thing you keep calling my worldview, simply isn’t my worldview.

          But, to answer you question, no. I am not a Deist. Nor does it terribly matter with respect to this point. I was discussing natural theism, and making claims that nearly every form of theist (including Deists) agree on.

        • john zande

          If not magic, then what, precisely, is placing a shekel in a fish’s mouth?

          Matthew 17:24-27

          “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?’ Peter said to Him, ‘From strangers.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.’”

        • Debilis

          When did I mention this?

          There are dozens, if not hundreds of answers that could be given to this comment. I’m not talking about any of those. I’ve been discussing natural theology, which is a different subject altogether.

          And, in any case, this is a little like the uneducated tribesman loudly demanding that a plane is magic because this thing called science, with strange jargon like “aerodynamics” and “lift” strike him as pointless babbling.

          The fact that some don’t understand the subject well enough to know what the difference is doesn’t remotely mean that these are the same thing.

        • john zande

          You didn’t mention this, but i am as an example of why the word “magic” is perfectly meaningful.

          Do you accept, then, that the cash-machine Jesus was an act of magic?

        • Debilis

          Okay, I know I’ve said I try to avoid psychologizing, but indulge me a moment:

          I’m aware that mockery, memes, and describing theistic concepts in purposely silly terms is probably all you’ve had modeled for you by the New Atheist leadership. I realize that you really don’t have much help doing anything else–not from the popular books, anyway.

          In that sense, I can sympathize with why someone would resort to little jabs like “cash-machine Jesus”. When the whole movement is centered around trying to be punchy, and make the other guy sound silly, it’s very hard to not join in. And I’m sure it feels like this is somehow making a point that wouldn’t have equally been made by simply asking the question:

          “What is the difference between the New Testament miracles and magic?”

          So, I do understand. Still, you ought to think about why you asked it the way you did, rather than in the calmer way.

          But, to answer:

          1. Reread the opening post. I run through some definitions of magic there. Which one do you think applies to this particular act?

          2. Why have we, once again, sidestepped the entire point? Are you not more interested in whether or not God exists than whether or not this one scene describes magic?

          I’m willing to be corrected on the psychologizing above (a courtesy I’d love to have returned), but it’s hard to see any rational reason why you’d ignore natural theology and fixate on calling certain passages “magic”. It seems a lot more like the desire to make fun is stronger than the desire to understand.

        • john zande

          Oh, Cash Machine Jesus surfaced in my post, “Jesus: just not worth a sheet of paper.” The context was, as many apologists present, that the reason there exists no contemporary accounts of Jesus is because 1) most people were illiterate (which is false), and 2) paper was just too damn expensive (which is also false). I pointed out that if Jesus could conjure an ATM fish to spew forth gold coins then the economics of paper really didn’t matter.

          Wouldn’t you agree?

        • Debilis

          No. I don’t agree with the strange arguments you list, nor do I agree with your response.

          Mostly, I don’t agree that this is relevant to the question at hand.

          “What is the difference between your beliefs and magic?” That is relevant.

          “How well do you think that economic theory applies to a country housing a person who can find a coin in a fish?”
          That’s rather a non-sequitur.

        • john zande

          Not at all! It’s a perfect example. Housing wouldn’t be a problem for anyone who could conjure gold coins with a click of a finger. Market economics would surely flounder and housing prices would go through the roof, but the example is there. Jesus, after all, performed just this trick, didn’t he?

        • Debilis

          How, exactly, is this a perfect example of the idea that the arguments of natural theology are indistinguishable from referencing the unknown?

          It’s a completely different point, and a poorly reasoned one. If we were to write it out a syllogism, that should become fairly obvious:

          P1: Jesus is said to have found a coin in a fish–knowing it would be there before hand.
          P2: Jesus, therefore, is said to be able to perform this feat limitless times.
          P3: Jesus (therefore?) would have no reason not to perform this feat limitless times.
          P4: Therefore, if this passage were true, people in ancient Palestine would have an ample supply of paper.
          P5: Therefore, written records of Jesus, older than those we have, would not have been destroyed over the centuries, and would also have been found by now.
          P6: We have no such records
          P7: There is no other way to understand this passage.
          P8: Therefore, the entire Bible is false.
          P9: Therefore, every form of theism is false.

          Conclusion: Therefore, theism requires appeals to brute facts.

          That strikes me as something less than air-tight logic. But, if you think I’ve misunderstood a step, could you write out the syllogism as you understand the reasoning?

        • Debilis

          I specifically asked you for a correction.
          I’m not saying that this is what you’ve claimed; I’m telling you how it is coming across.

          So, if this is a strawman, explain your actual argument. Give me the real steps.

        • john zande

          Ah, but i see we may have made some progress here. You say “miracle.”

          Would “miracle” be a better word, for you, than “magic”? I can work with that, but first i’d like a reasonable explanation for how and why a miracle is different to magic… specifically if we could deal here with the case of the ATM fish.

        • Debilis

          Perhaps I should be more clear:

          I reject neither to the word miracle nor the word magic when we are actually talking about those things. The point has always been that I’m talking about neither of those things.

          But, just because it’s already getting repetitive: what is the reason for the constant use of the phrase “ATM fish”? Why not a calmer, more standard phrase?

          There is this odd coincidence that the particular words you choose always happen to be the mocking ones, rather than the calm ones. You may want to think about the reasons why that is.

        • john zande

          OK, how else would you describe a fish that spits out money if not an ATM Fish?

        • Debilis

          I would describe it as off topic.

          I’m trying to explain the basics of natural theology, and the explanatory advantages it has over alternative metaphysics (particularly materialism), and you’re responding with “but what about ATM fish?”.

          There is no non-emotional reason to be so hung up on this single passage that one completely ignores what it is I’ve actually claimed.

        • john zande

          It’s not at all off topic. It’s an act of magic… Unless you can identify it as something else.

        • Debilis

          As I’ve been pointing out, “magic” is not the topic. I’ve been discussing natural theology.

          You’ve been discussing things other than natural theology, and calling that magic.

          Whether it is or not, it’s off topic.

        • john zande

          Here, this is the part from the post:

          “Simply put, literacy levels don’t support the ear-spitting silence, and the price of paper can only be considered a mildly feasible explanation if the Christian apologist first concedes that something as trivial as a pedestrian business letter was tremendously more important and massively more meaningful (and therefore significantly more worthy of the expense) than absolutely E V E R Y T H I N G the character, Jesus, did or said in his entire life. And even if the cost of paper was an issue and papyrus, vellum, stone and wood slabs were so preposterously priced that even Emperors couldn’t afford a single sheet then the 24hr Cash-Machine Jesus descrbed in Matthew 17:24-27 could surely have magically conjured up enough gold coins to cover any bill, no matter how outlandish: “Go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin.”

          Voilà! Enough paper to fill eight Alexandria Libraries… and that’s before we even begin to ask why Jesus himself didn’t jot down a word of two.”

        • Debilis

          So… what on Earth does this have to do with my post?

          I ran through some definitions of magic, and pointed out that none of them fit anything claimed in natural theology.

          Your response here is to argue against a literacy argument I never gave, on a topic I wasn’t addressing, then to mock a scarcity argument I didn’t present by using extrapolations from a text I’ve never mentioned.

          In short, this has nothing whatsoever to do with what I said. Are you aware of that?

        • john zande

          What is natural theology?

        • Debilis

          This, however, is very much on topic.
          Natural theology is the subject of what we can know about God without any reference to revelation.

          That is, sans scripture, sans visions, and sans miracle claims, what does basic everyday experience and study of the natural world tell us about God? This is why bringing up passages of the Bible is off-topic.

          I’ve pointed out that natural theology, whether one accepts theism or not, is a mode of explanation. True or false, it simply isn’t magic.

          Once one sees the difference, the claims of theists become much easier to understand.

        • john zande

          OK, i’m with you here, but you are, unfortunately, tied to Christianity. It’s why i asked if you were a deist. if you were then we could have a very different conversation. As you’re not, we will always come back to the bible, as the bible is the *only* source you have for your god and Christian worldview.

          Perfect example: You don’t like Jesus’ fish magic trick as it drags you back into the realm of nonsense. I can appreciate your wish to lift the conversation above that, but that simply isn’t possible for just as long as your worldview is hogtied to the bible.

          My advice: jettison Christianity and adopt pantheism, or even penetheism. I think you’d be a lot happier in that tent.

        • Debilis

          Yes, Christianity is definitely part of my personal philosophy.

          But, first, “part” is a key word here. Not everything I think is based on the Bible. This is actually traditional in Christianity. Natural theology has been a significant part of it since antiquity.

          Second, even when we get around to discussing the Bible, we need to discuss my understanding of it. So far, nothing you’ve mentioned fits within my understanding of it–so it isn’t relevant even from this outside angle.

          Third, if my being Christian means that we must discuss Christianity, then your being a materialist means that we must discuss materialism. I’ve pointed out that materialism has a need to appeal to brute facts (another term for magic) in certain areas. You’ll need to address these if it is to make any sense to insist that I address every question raised about the Bible.

    • paarsurrey

      I think one could just say it never happened.

      • john zande

        I agree, it didn’t, but Debilis believes it did, so i’m asking him for a word to describe this magic that might make him feel more comfortable. If it’s applicable, then i’ll happily use that word instead of “magic,” but I really don’t see the point in whinging about something then not being able to offer a solution. Childish tantrums don’t advance any argument.

        • paarsurrey

          You get me wrong; I just told that instead of using the word magic what alternative words should be used in a discussion. Debilis does not believe in magic; so using such words is just impolite and does not benefit the other party.

          I also believe that Moses Crossed the sea conveniently while Pharaoh could not.

          One should focus on the reason and argument instead of looking out for a pretext to ridicule the challenger.

          The Neo Atheists need to reform themselves.

        • john zande

          Then, if not magic, what word would you use, Paar?

  • paarsurrey

    Neither you nor Debilis believes in magic.

    Do you?

    Then what is the benefit of using this word?

    Just concentrate on your reasonable argument; if there is any.

  • what’s wrong with magic? | violetwisp

    […] of the innocuous, perhaps even flattering, term ‘magic’. My best blogging apologist pal Fide, has dedicated a whole post to this perceived inaccuracy and […]

    • Debilis

      I thought I’d interject that my main issue isn’t that the term is rude (I take it that it depends on the speaker), but that it is inaccurate.

      For the Christian, the events do have explanations. As such, they are not magical in the sense that your view of the mind and the origin of the universe are.

      In fact, one of my consistent themes is that “I don’t have an explanation” isn’t much of a response to those of us who do have one. One would have to, specifically, show how my explanation is invalid before a lack of explanation could be seen as superior.

  • Frank Morris

    Is gravity magic?

    Descartes style existentialism asks “Why is there not nothing?” Theoretically, there should be nothing, and thus everything is “magic” if you want to use a useless word. To me there are only things we know exist and things we know do not exist. There is no point in designating anything “magic” nor any other arbitrary term.

    Teleology exists whether you apply a bogus word to describe it or not. So does gravity. We clearly observe the effects of both.

    I’m not sure if this was Debilis’ original point or not, but here is how I see the illogic as posed by New Atheist frauds:

    1. Anything that goes against my religious beliefs in atheism is “magic”.
    2. Magic, as we all know, is not real.
    3. Hence, I have just proven scientifically that theism is not real.

    The premise (#1) is false and that is what Debilis seems to be exposing here.

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