Paganism and Magical Thinking

MAgic Drop
Hartwig HKD Flickr

(This post was originally published on Gods & Radicals)

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.

“Magical Thinking”

WikiMedia – Goya

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.

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Gods&Radicals is a site of Beautiful Resistance and a daily journal of Pagan anti-capitalist writing.
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