People Love Miracle Stories. Why Not Play Along?

So why not live with the magic? Be a kid again and believe in the fantastical. Life is more fun with a little smoke and mirrors.” ― L.H. Cosway, Six of Hearts

wizard-of-oz behind the magic curtainThe Conclusion of a 7-Part Series – Why People Believe in Miracles and Other Kinds of Magic

Superhero comics, Arthurian legends, fantasy, fairy tales, fables, folklore, science fiction, horror films, paranormal romance, ghost stories, trick-or-treating, haunted house tours, video games, cosplay, costume parties, themed amusement parks, illusionist stage shows . . . life is definitely more fun with a little smoke and mirrors.

Almost 80 percent of Americans, including young adults, believe in miracles; and if anything, this belief is on the increase as organized religion declines. In the Baylor Religion Survey of 2007, over 70 percent of respondents said that God “often performs miracles which defy the laws of nature.” Twenty-three percent said that they had witnessed a miraculous healing, and 16 percent said they had received one. Television talk shows like Oprah and dramas like Touched by an Angel seem to affirm that such occurrences are normal.

Doctor Eben Alexander has made a full-time career out of talking about the near-death experience described in his bestselling book, Proof of Heaven. He once made a revealing comment about his mindset: “I’d always believed that when you’re under the burden of a potentially fatal illness, softening the truth is fine. To prevent a terminal patient from trying to grab on to a little fantasy to help them deal with the possibility of death is like withholding painkilling medication.”

We desperately want to believe that our lives have some transcendent meaning. We want to believe that every coincidence hints at some current of supernatural power rippling just beneath the surface of space-time and that this power occasionally—miraculously—breaks through. In the words of writer Cody Delistraty, “Longwinding, Dickensian stories of interconnected coincidences leading to a cathartic conclusion can provide us with a sense of meaning, of life holding subtler, unseen mysteries that make even our suffering worthwhile — as if our lives were really a series of sophisticated, interconnecting puzzle pieces.”

Miracles are the proof that it’s all real!

For many people this brings wonder into the world, and grounds for faith in every sense of the word.  Brandon Sanderson expresses this beautifully in his novel, Hero of the Ages. “Why did they believe? Because they saw miracles. Things one man took as chance, a man of faith took as a sign. A loved one recovering from disease, a fortunate business deal, a chance meeting with a long lost friend. It wasn’t the grand doctrines or the sweeping ideals that seemed to make believers out of men. It was the simple magic in the world around them.”

Besides, which, magic is delightful. The power to do, effect, or create is a pleasure, and magic takes that pleasure to its logical extremes. We humans don’t just seek pleasure, we play with it. We refine our experiences to heighten the fun. We refine sugar into candy and ferment grain into hard liquor. We write orchestral music to delight parts of our brain that were designed to process the sounds of language. We paint pictures and pen poetry so poignant that they bring us to tears. We bungie jump and quiver deliciously at horror films. We have turned sexual arousal into an art form—from the crumbling pages of the Kama Sutra to the billions of bits that make up modern porn. The thrill of magic, including miracles, fits this pattern.

So why not simply go along with miracle stories? Why expose the man behind the curtain by talking about how magical thinking emerges from the structure of human information thinking and social dynamics?

Matthew Hutson, in explaining why he wrote Seven Rules of Magical Thinking, says it better than I can.

“I’m dissecting the sacred because the same magical thinking that leads to sentimentality, altruism, and self-efficacy can also lead to vilification, fatalism, irrational exuberance, or even depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psychosis. By tearing down everything holy and pointing out the sand it was built on, I’m hoping we can learn how to build meaning back up in constructive ways. I don’t want to eradicate magical thinking. I want to harness it.”

One of the most fundamental things I learned in my years as a therapist is that understanding why you think, feel, and behave the way you do can be wonderfully freeing. It opens up choices. Saber is poder. Knowledge is power, and magical thinking plays such a huge part in our lives that understanding what’s going on has the potential to be hugely powerful. Freed from the constraints imposed by dogma and tradition—freed from the assumption that magic comes from somewhere out there instead of somewhere in here—who knows where the human imagination may take us.

Like this? Part 1 through Part 6 of this series can be found at

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  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

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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9 Responses to People Love Miracle Stories. Why Not Play Along?

  1. “It feels like an unkind thing to do, to attack religious people. It just feels rude. If you’re at a party and you get into a conversation with someone who says, “Oh, I’m a Christian” or, “I’m a Muslim” or, “I’m a Jew”, it’s very rude to say, “Oh, how ridiculous!”

    I feel at this point we have to treat people with kindness, love and respect in the same way you treat a child running around the party saying, “I’m a helicopter.” Good for you, we’re all having fun; I’m a choo-choo train.”
    Simon Amstell

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Doug Wadeson says:

    To me the main problem with miracle believers is when they believe that someone performed miracles in the name of God, therefore they must speak for God, so we should obey what they said, even if it means discriminating against people or excluding them from those we consider “right” in the eyes of that God. Or in extreme cases, drinking the koolaid in Jonestown, or flying two jets into the twin towers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul J Ryan says:

    Surgeon says: “Mr. Ryan, it’s a miracle you survived.” I respond, “Don’t let on that lack of self-confidence to your next heart patient.” I suspect he, as many do, attributed my miraculous recovery in part to divine intervention. “Aw, shucks, doc, you’re the miracle worker.” It’s probably what he wanted to hear, so I give his ego a little stroke. Sleight of hand performance, magic, is great entertainment. Suspending all reasonable belief in reality while viewing the extraordinary acts of a super hero on the big screen can be a great escape from present reality. Then there’s the, “miracle I was delayed, missed that doomed flight…”, mysterious acts of a deity who helps, hinders, saves or enslaves a vast population that hold it dear. I crashed a motorcycle on the Interstate. Three adults in the car following rushed to my aid. One asked, “Are you at peace with your lord and savior Jesus Christ?” Despite the extreme pain of non-life threatening injuries I could’t resist, “I never thought we were at odds.” Torn flesh, broken bones, a $25,000 Harley-Davidson Touring Bike destroyed – some miracle…?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Swarn Gill says:

      And the rub is that the implied judgment by assuming you were spared because of a miracle, which means that all those who weren’t spared were somehow defective. Of course the good Christians will go, “God wanted to bring them home”. I mean it’s all according to God’s plan. It’s not just that motorcycle accidents happen and some people die while others live, because accidents just happen and there really is no rhyme or reason to it other than you know, things like bad road conditions, driving too fast, being distracted, etc. It’s so easy to attribute false cause to events.


  4. Steve says:

    What blindered, narrow-minded bigoted illogic. You’ve clearly never had the experience of watching a young girl’s maimed foot straighten and lengthen to match her good one right in front of your eyes as a man of faith prayed for her healing. The wonder and amazement and humble gratitude on her face and the faces of her parents is something I’ll never forget. I sit here and read the uber-sophistication of your theophobic rants and can only think of how impoverished and bleak you’ve made your worldview. Sad that you cling so lovingly to your hate and cynicism, as apparently do many of your readers.


    • One needn’t believe in supernaturalism to have a rich, beautiful experience of life and love.


      • Anthony says:

        Let’s be honest Valerie. Your experience of life is not rich and beautiful. Being honest with ourselves is the first step in Christ revealing Himself to you. You can’t experience true Life without Him. The everlasting Word of God says He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. As you come to the end of yourself, if you submit and call on Jesus your Saviour, He will reveal Himself to you and you will from that second forward have what all other non-believers including yourself now lack, the experience of the one true God. Praise God that the true Christian Life is not based on story or fable but an experience of Him. Revelation directly from God is what allows a true Christian to claim Him. For your sake, I beg you to read the following carefully:
        13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” 15 He *said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
        I pray that you find true Life!


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