Tag Archives: belief in god

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.