Paganism and Magical Thinking
In my day to day life (setting aside the world of the internet) I travel more in academic than pagan or occult circles and as such I am more likely to interact with, say, a Marxist professor than a druid. This has made me acutely aware of a challenge to the unification of Paganism and radical anti-capitalist politics that might be less pressing to those more fully engaged in the unification from the side of convincing and motivating other pagans. I more frequently face, and can anticipate resistance from, those fully identified with various brands of radical anti-capitalist politics from Marxism through to anarchism than from anyone associated with Paganism or occultism.
In such a crowd the challenge is not to convince anyone of the problem of capitalism, that work is well over, but rather to answer their confusion when attempting to establish solidarity between a pagan perspective and their own. Of course many of my more strictly activist friends don’t much care either way, their attitude is largely that you can believe what you want just so long as you fight for the right things, but the rather high theoretical level of debate that often occurs with those who are both professional academic and political companions raises some serious challenges. These challenges have often hovered in the back of my mind as I have written my previous posts, and many answers to them have been embedded in those posts though they have not always been overtly discussed as such.
I think the time has come, however, for me to attempt to directly address at least one type of criticism of Paganism and magical practices from the standpoint of radical theory and practice. This challenge takes the form of a criticism of pagans and occultists as stuck in a counterproductive idealogical illusion. At the simplest level it shows up as a criticism of us as trapped in “magical thinking” which distracts, limits, or misdirects our potential for real political action.
For now I will not be concerned with the question of what actual type or mode of thought we could accurately call magical. Rather I will simply be relying upon various standard formulations of the idea of “magical thinking” as found in political theory, anthropology, and psychology in order to assess whether the application of this term to pagan anti-capitalism is fair. For this purpose we should note that “magical thinking” as I intend to use it is almost universally considered a bad thing, sometimes it is even considered the fatal illness that keeps people from coming to meaningful political consciousness. In a nonpolitical context I was recently talking with a pagan priest who was seeking psychological counseling for concerns unrelated to Paganism or the occult but who found it impossible to get his therapist to discuss anything other than a diagnosis and treatment of “magical thinking” based on nothing more than the fact that my friend was a pagan priest! Clearly this was a bad therapist, but the general attitude is not an anomaly especially in much of the radical anti-capitalist community.
So, what is “magical thinking”? The most direct formulation of it is not very useful, as it is too question-begging to withstand the slightest criticism. This would understand “magical thinking” as you might expect, the belief in “false causes” such as spells and so on. I say that this formulation is not useful because it simply shifts the conversation to the question of whether or not magic is actually real and effective. Theoretically this is an interminable question and anyone with a grounding in philosophy of science should see it can’t at all be the start of a criticism but rather an endlessly postponed potential conclusion. Arguing with a Marxist over the reality of magic when they accuse you of “magical thinking” is not a productive endeavor. It is a criticism just as naive as it assumes the fault it claims to diagnose is. Plus, ultimately, it is purely a practical question of strategy no different in kind from “does peaceful protest or participation in mainstream politics work or is revolution necessary”. So I will put aside any question as to the reality or efficacy of magic and feel justified in doing so because I think this isn’t really the meaningful content of a criticism of “magical thinking”.
Rather than focus on the practical and empirical questions associated with magic we can instead consider “magical thinking” as an epistemic criticism. In fact, engaging in “magical thinking” can be understood as being victim to a type of ideology in the Marxist sense in which the concrete relation between people and social classes is mystified. This would also associate it closely with the idea of religion as the “opium of the masses”. I would like to focus, then, on a few different approaches to understanding the ideological illusion known as “magical thinking” and then ask whether Paganism 1. necessarily falls prey to this ideological illusion or 2. tends towards this ideological illusion.
Rather than engage with the frequently racist and culturally imperialist origins of the concept of “magical thinking” in anthropology, I shall instead focus on its appearance in radical political theory. My two main theoretical resources will be the work of Paulo Friere (and the influence of Erich Fromm upon it) as found in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the discussion by Marx of ideology and religion as the opium of the masses.
Loving Death and Loving Life
Friere was a Brazilian philosopher and educator with a particular concern for the ways in which education disempowers or politically empowers disenfranchised members of a community. Through extensive work with the illiterate poor in Brazil he developed a distinction between two different types of eduction. The first, and most traditional method, he terms the “banking method of education” which sees the student as a passive and obedient receptacle into which the active and authoritarian teacher deposits information and skills. The second method, which he implemented with great success, was termed the problem-posing method. It is unnecessary to go into too many details about the philosophy of education here, though I encourage any of you to check out Friere’s excellent work, but the key point for us is the unification of the banking method of education with a certain perspective it engenders in its students that Friere frequently refers to as a “magical” view of the world.
Whereas the banking method directly or indirectly reinforces men’s fatalistic perception of their situation, the problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their cognition, the naive or magical perception which produced their fatalism gives way to perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and can thus be critically objective about that reality.
(Paulo Friere Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2)
Using a distinction derived from Erich Fromm, Friere describes the banking method as necrophily, or the love of death, versus the biophily, or love of life, found in the problem posing method. A necrophily perspective is death loving to the extent that it embraces those things that characterize death and rejects those things that characterize life. Specifically, life is always growing and changing while those things that are dead are unchanging. Necrophily is primarily characterized, then, by a view of the world as stable and unchanging. Whether this applies to “laws of nature” or mathematical truths or economics or the laws of grammar the key effect of this “death loving” rejection of change is that it presents social and historical relations as fixed and only unrealistically resisted. Necrophilic education inspires one, then, to “wisely” and “practically” adjust oneself to the powers-that-be and learn how to get along while sticking to your place and accommodating your superiors. Biophily, on the other hand, recognizes that whatever is currently the case has come to be and both can and will inevitably change. What is more, it recognizes that each person has an active role to play in those changes. If one adjusts oneself to the current social formulation one is actively contributing to its maintenance and if one works to change it one is actively contributing to the continual growth and change of society. There is no passive option since inaction is an active choice contributing to the structure of the whole.
We are rather familiar with a naive necrophilic perspective in the guise of those who not only cannot imagine a world without capitalism but actually think the idea of such a world is unrealistic and utopian. Such a perspective is naive because capitalism is far from the standard social formation throughout history and came about through various rather unexpected events, actions, and changes in history. Capitalism’s specific contemporary formations are a rather young thing and the dogmatic adherence to it as the only possible way of life is just as naive as assuming that any other current aspect of our situation is somehow historically prioritized or ordain and can’t or won’t change. Of one thing we can be certain, all will change eventually and frequently rather sooner than we suspect. This unquestionability of the present is connected to a key aspect of ideology in general, specifically ideology consists of a process of naturalization in which it is assumed that something is right and unchanging because it is presented as natural and universal (check out Judith Butler on the ideological naturalization of gender to see some excellent discussions of how this works).
The necrophilic perspective is the one termed “magical” and is clearly conjoined with fatalism. The necrophilic mistake is to assume that the current formulation of reality is ordained and maintained by some ultimate force – for many it has been God though more recently it is just as likely to be Nature. Capitalism, one hears, derives from “human nature” which we don’t choose or form and which we cannot change. Communism, socialism, anarchism, etc. are all lovely ideas but they are fantasies because they do not accommodate themselves to the unchanging dictates of Nature (or God and so on). We see clearly here the fatalism to which Friere refers.
The “magical” aspect of this worldview is related to the fatalism. It is magical to the extent that it takes social and economic facts to be symbols of deeper metaphysical truths or forces. One of the easiest examples of this shows up in the influence of Protestantism on the early formation of capitalism (and its remaining influence in contemporary American Prosperity Theology). As Max Weber made clear in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, early capitalism was fundamentally influenced by the reliance of some Protestant religious views on worldly success as a sign of having been chosen and saved by God. Success in business was a symbol of having been blessed by God and granted both grace and salvation. Worldly power and success are symbols of spiritual blessedness in the same way that being a member of the aristocracy was seen as a sign of having been chosen by God for power during the medieval period or membership in a given caste was representative of the Karmic state of the soul in Hinduism. This ideological equation of worldly status with otherworldly merit is clearly fatalistic and overlaps with one of the earliest understandings of “magical thinking” in terms of an associative thinking that sees symbolic meaning behind everyday objects and events.
It is important to note that the symbolic view of the universe is not, in and of itself, the problem but rather the specific claims of what symbolizes what and the related assumption that this symbolic connection (for example of wealth with holiness) underwrites the justice of the economic situation and its stability. The view is “magical” in a negative sense because it assumes a magical force endorses the current social configuration and it would be wrong, or impossible, to change it. It should be clear that there are much more common and equally “superstitious” or “magical” views of wealth and “success” floating around which we might be more familiar with, for example the simple equation of wealth with merit so common in capitalistic thinking. The idea that hard work, intelligence, virtue, talent etc. has primarily resulted in the status of the wealthy “mystifies” a very real collection of concrete relations of historical dominance, violence, theft, and privilege all grounded in luck (including accidents of birth such as race, sex, family, social class, global location, community membership, inborn mental and bodily characteristics and so on). Such views, whether of the “god given” or “self-made” variety, both inspire a type of paralysis because they make clear that things are as they should, and must, be.
Keeping in view the concrete matrix of forces and accidents that have given rise to the contemporary moment does not, however, foreclose at the same time reading this matrix in terms of symbols or as expressions of other levels of reality. A Marxist may remain at the level of the determining force of material economic factors but others, some pagans for instance, can accept the reality of this level while at the same time seeing it as an expression of a complex of forces at another level; for example a conflict amongst different gods or metaphysical principles. This doesn’t dismiss or foreclose the necessity of acting on the worldly level, rather the reverse. It hallows the profane with a sacred purpose in a way that is exceptionally foreign to religions focused on transcendental salvation in overt rejection of natural daily life. Within the domain of some universal all-powerful perfect monotheist creator God worldly welfare for others or for oneself tends to collapse into one of two categories; it is either a gift from God or to be dismissed in preference to God.
Our discussion has brought us into contact with a general criticism of religion for its penchant for “magical thinking” with hints that paganism may be able to avoid some key aspects of this criticism. Before we attempt to expand upon these hints, let us look at one of the most famous criticisms of religion from the stance of radical politics.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
The idea of religion as an opium of the masses has two senses here and the most overt one is not the one most commonly discussed. The most common understanding of the opium of the masses is that it is used to pacify the masses and make them tractable. This is what Christianity did when it justified monarchy via the authority of the Divine Tyrant just as much as when it counseled the poor to tolerate their lot and patiently wait for heavenly reward or counseled the slave to obey the master. All world-hating religions, intentionally or not, serve to prop up the status quo by directing people away from worldly action and concerns.
The above sense of “opium” does not, however, seem to be Marx’s main target here. Indeed, his discussion of religion is more ambiguous than that. Instead, religion is a sigh of the suffering and a heart in a heartless world. As the image of the chain covered in flowers makes clear, religion is also a beautification of a rather ugly situation. Insofar as it brings some grace to a graceless world and some comfort to those in pain it is not to be despised, but to the extent that this grace and comfort keep people from changing the world in which they suffer it is indeed a malevolent force of seduction.
Many forms of paganism are decidedly this-worldly, as I have often enough stressed in my previous posts, and as such do not inspire transcendental dreams of escaping the world of nature and political/economic struggle. Indeed, this world of nature is frequently enough understood either as identical with the object of worship or a particularly important manifestation or expression of the gods. We see this as well in some pagan visions of the afterlife (though it is worth noting that nowhere is the history of pagan religions so diverse as in views of what happens after death – every position from the achievement of a paradise to entirely ceasing to exist can be found). In some traditions death represents an increased identification with nature, in others we find the idea that the dead join together to continue to fight for their community, family, values and concerns in this world – the revolution continues after death, only the strategies have changed. Sometimes life is to be preferred to death, as in the shade of Achilles’ haunting words to Odysseus: “…don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” Whatever the fate of the dead, the focus is most often on this world, this life, and what we can and must do with it.
When religion is opium it provides comfort, but it is comfort by way of reassurance, by way of promises. Most Paganism makes no promises, indeed we can even find highly nihilistic forms of paganism. Opiate religion counsels the slave to be a good slave and, later, the master shall suffer and the slave shall be king. Opiate religion counsels the servant that real riches are found Beyond, or that the ruler is ruler by divine right and so deserves the service of those who are inferior. Paganism, often enough, counsels not to trust the promises of the gods. Nothing is assured, each and every god faces challenges, opposition, potential downfall and even death. Yes, in most forms of Paganism even the gods might die. What is has come about through struggle, through the conflicts amongst gods and conflicts amongst people. What is can change and will change, whether the grand cosmic order or the specific contours of our life. The pagan world is one of conflicting forces, a conflict we might hope and strive to make more a dance than a brawl, but a shifting and growing one nonetheless. When I speak with my gods, though of course I cannot speak for any of you, they do not tell me “Have faith, all will be well,” they tell me “Struggle, and we will struggle with you.”
There are, then, several aspects of Paganism as generally conceived that resist any accusations of “magical thinking”. First, Paganisms tend to see reality as too complex and pluralistic a collection to suggest that things are the way they aught or must be. Second, Paganisms tend to rely upon a view of history as the story (whether the story of gods, nature, or humanity) of how the current world has been crafted piece by piece through work and struggle, cooperation and accident. Nature and humanity, together with the many divinities, have all played off of each other as a restless changing community that continues to craft itself. Third, Paganisms tend to imply that gods and people alike are subject to a fate or chance that is, at least in part and sometimes very largely, a mystery. Zeus is as confused by the inevitable fall of Troy as anyone, and Odin cannot avoid Ragnarok. But this fate, as mysterious, is not a divine dictate or ordained order. There is the necessary, but humanity and the gods rarely know what is necessary or why. Fourth, more often than not the Otherworld of Paganism is an aspect of this world and the struggles that take place there are often focused on this world. There is very rarely any implication that the Otherworld, however it is conceived, is the real focus of this life when the gods themselves are bent upon this world from their own abodes. Most often the Otherworld is a neighborhood just adjacent to our own and not another reality in any robust sense. Worldly concerns and struggles pour back and forth across these vague boundaries almost constantly.
None of this is to say that pagans or Paganism can’t fall into “magical thinking” in any of the ways it has been discussed here. It certainly can, and it has at various points in history. Indeed, Hinduism is arguably a pagan religion and its view of social caste and reincarnation has clearly at times acted as a primary example of “magical” opium. But, I would suggest, Paganism is clearly not equatable to “magical thinking” and its inherent tendency as manifest repeatedly throughout different pagan cultures and religions is in opposition to “magical thinking”. This is not the case, I would argue, with any transcendental religion insofar as true value in these is always to be located somewhere and somewhen else than here and now. It is also not the case with monotheistic religions insofar as omnipotence precludes the possibility of any real conflict, productive activity, or accident at the ultimate level of reality. The battles within a monotheistic myth cycle are always staged affairs aimed more at enforcing obedience than co-creating reality.
Finally, many types of Paganism offer something that a stark political materialism such as that commonly found in Marxist and anarchist thought can not. It offers a view of the struggle that goes beyond the purely humanist. Marx’ criticism of religion clearly has a humanist ring as he calls for man to become his own sun. For most Paganisms this can’t but ring false. We fight not only for ourselves, but also for and along side of the forces of nature. The world is neither a creation of human consciousness alone nor raw material for our productive capabilities, these views are the failed remnants of a Modernism much radical politics has failed to get beyond. In the maintenance of a thoroughly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of nature, it is largely the adherents of radical political theory who have fallen into a mystifying ideological illusion that ignores the real community in which we find ourselves engaged as companions to all the other aspects of nature. Far from diverting our political action, this instead strengthens and motivates it in a way that other forms of radical politics can often fail to do. There is, all things considered, plenty of “magical thinking” involved in the very technological triumphalism and scientism that many radical anticapitalist agendas believe can save us.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to Paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem
His essay, “Nature’s Rights” is available in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are