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
The 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 ValerieTarico.com.)
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.