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Here’s Why Christians Believe In Miracles – and Other Kinds of Magic

Sausage Roll Jesus (Image: Greggs)

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands. – Douglas Adams

Why do so many Christians believe in miracles? Former Evangelical minister, John Loftus—now author of skeptical books and founder of the website, Debunking Christianity—asked me to address this question as part of an upcoming anthology, The Case Against Miracles.

One obvious answer is that Christians believe because our ancestors did. Handed-down religious beliefs are remarkably powerful and change-resistant, and Christian belief in miracles dates all the way back to the beginnings of Jesus worship. In fact, it dates back even further, back into the beginnings of the Hebrew religion and the earlier religions of the Ancient Near East from which the Hebrew stories and beliefs emerged.

Christianity was born at a time in history when every religion included a belief in magic or miracles. Miraculous healings, natural “signs and wonders,” good things magically happening to good people and (even more satisfying) bad people magically getting what they deserve .

Belief in all of these was the norm, along with the conviction that we humans can draw magic to ourselves by attracting the attention of supernatural beings, engaging in certain rituals, eating or drinking special foods, touching objects with talismanic powers, and more. What would have been truly miraculous would have been the emergence of Christian texts and traditions that didn’t include magical thinking.

That would have been a real wonder.

You can tell from the language I just used, that I see the Christian belief in miracles as a subset of humanity’s broader belief in magic. Christians for centuries have claimed that what they call miracles are somehow different than magic. They have claimed this, typically, while believing in other kinds of magic. The Bible writers and Church fathers were no exception. The Bible and the traditional Christian worldview include all manner of supernatural beings with special powers. In the Bible itself, this includes disembodied spirits, angels, devils, unicorns, dragons, seers, human sorcerers and witches, enchanted animals, and a whole pantheon of deities.

Many modern fundamentalists, at least in their own minds, continue to inhabit this wonderland. They believe that an invisible ethereal plane underlies the physical world, and that our lives are part of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil which spills from the otherworldly plane into this one. Magic, for them, still exists. On the website, Got Answers, one believer tried to clarify the difference between magic and miracles. His answer reflects the thinking of many other Bible believers:

“Basically, magic and miracles differ in their source: magic has either a human or demonic source, but miracles are a supernatural work of God. . . . “Magic is an attempt to circumvent God in the acquisition of knowledge or power. . . . “Miracles and magic sometimes look the same, but their goals are different. Magic and illusion distract the eye from reality, while miracles draw the eye to reality. Miracles reveal; magic hides. Miracles are an expression of creative power; magic uses what already exists. Miracles are a gift; magic is a studied skill. Miracles do not glorify men; magic seeks to be noticed and bring glory to the magician. Jesus was not a magician. He was the Son of God, known for His many miracles.”

Got that? Miracles are the magical stuff done by the Christian God or his proxies. Magic is the magical stuff done by the competition. The latter is bad, bad, bad, because it might trick you into worshiping someone or something else. And it’s real! The Occult. The Dark Arts. Keep your kids away from Harry Potter.

For those of us who don’t believe that any supernatural stuff is done by either the Christian god or any other gods for that matter—the distinction is little more than a cloud of smoke from an illusionist’s mist-making machine. It is just one of the many tedious ways that Christianity claims to be different—not a religion but a relationship, not man-made like all the others, not polytheistic like Hinduism, not antiquated like the fairy tales of Pagan Europe, and definitely not a bundle of superstitious woo like New Age wonders involving crystals and incantations. I find Christian exceptionalism of this sort—philosophers call it special pleading—to be narcissistic and irksome, and I’m going to use the terms miracle and magic interchangeably.

But I digress. It is true that specific Christian beliefs about miracles and magic are products of a specific handed-down tradition, kept alive by the architecture of the Church and the flow of history. But Christians are not alone in their miracle belief. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans say they believe in miracles, including almost 20 percent of nonbelievers.

The fact is, most all of us find ourselves attracted to magic, even if we are firmly convinced it isn’t real. People flock by the thousands to marvel at tricks performed by illusionists. Viewers flock by the millions to watch movies about super-villains and superheroes with superpowers. Young Adult fiction is dominated by genres like fantasy and science fiction and even paranormal romance. We humans love us some magic!

So, to answer the question, Why do Christians believe in miracles? we really have to ask—Why do we all love magic so much, child and adult, skeptic and believer alike? Why does magic so delight and call to us that it emerges in a myriad of different forms when we are given the freedom to build worlds from the unconstrained raw material of the human imagination? And what are the habits of mind that make us so prone not only to create magical stories but to believe the ones that have been handed down by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them all the way back into the shadowy mists of prehistory?

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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Posted by on October 4, 2018. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION,HERESY. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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8 Responses to Here’s Why Christians Believe In Miracles – and Other Kinds of Magic

  1. Michael John Scott Reply

    October 4, 2018 at 11:43 am

    I was raised Catholic, and I readily confess, no pun intended, that I loved the pomp and circumstance, in particular, the whole “miracles” thing. I also like Stephen King.

  2. Bill Formby Reply

    October 4, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    While I am not sure about all of this miracle stuff I must admit that I love a really good magician. I have gotten to where I watch America’s Got Talent regularly now because it is amazing how much talent there is in this world. This year it was won by a magician, or illusionist, whichever you choose to call them. He is absolutely fantastic with close up magic. I also like Penn and Teller. I think I like them so much because, unlike miracle workers they are honest. At least they tell you that they are fooling us and not asking us to pray to them.

  3. jess Reply

    October 4, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    I thought I had no weed till I looked in back of my shoe closet and found enough to last me through the weekend. THAT is a miracle and the only type of miracle I believe in.

    • Joe Hagstrom Reply

      October 4, 2018 at 5:09 pm

      Loaves,fishes and weed. How much more proof do you heathens need around here?

      • Glenn R. Geist Reply

        October 5, 2018 at 9:12 am

        But sharing the bread was the point of the parable. Sharing, not Bogarting.

  4. Lyndon Probus Reply

    October 4, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    Here’s a miracle: Trump was elected president.

  5. Glenn R. Geist Reply

    October 5, 2018 at 9:29 am

    I think it’s hard for us to put ourselves into a history where virtually everything in our lives was inconceivable even to the most educated. A zippo lighter – a match would have made you seem a divine entity. “The world” wasn’t much bigger than New Jersey and the “heavens” could be reached by a tall building. People could be stunned by, influenced by and controlled by a few magic tricks.

    Nearly 100% of our knowledge is very recent and we still seem to long for the mystery days. Maybe because science limits the idea that we can change the world and gain power with secret words, we won’t give it up, but it becomes more embarrassing to maintain the ancient attitudes by using pseudo science with it’s amulets and pieces of quartz – talking about “the Universe” as a euphemism. It’s hard for a person to grow up – harder for a culture.

  6. Neil Bamforth Reply

    October 5, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    Colin Blunstone doesn’t….it’s a Blighty thing 😉

    Love the song….

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