Magical beliefs are robust and rising in America—including inside American churches, where magical beliefs that once would have been roundly pooh-poohed are now mainstream. Across the country, among the poorly educated and the most highly educated, in the cities and the suburbs, I have found magical ideas thriving. The magnitude of it, the widespread, often unconscious acceptance of it, astonishes me.

I recently heard an articulate, polished, well-educated minister at a prosperous suburban mega-church mention almost casually that he had no idea whether a demon was sitting in his Sunday school class. Millions of American children, whose parents where raised in devout Christian families that never questioned whether they could trick or treat, won’t be trick-or-treating this Halloween because their parents have become so convinced that witchcraft is a real danger that they resist anything having to do with Halloween. Paradoxically, perhaps, these Christians’ fear of the occult has given new validity to magical ideas that were once dismissed out of hand.

The increase in magical thought and practice isn’t only among the fervently opinionated, but more amazingly, it’s happening among mainstream people. In the past few years, I’ve talked to many people--my neighbors in Wisconsin, for instance--who deny having magical belief. Then we would keep talking and they would say something like, "When I see a cardinal, I know my grandmother’s spirit is around,'"or "When I see a hawk, I know I’m on the spiritual path I ought to be." Forty percent of Americans think ghosts and haunted houses exist, up from 27 percent in 2000. Sixty-six percent believe demons can possess humans, up from 40 percent. That would mean that almost 200 million people in the world’s most technologically advanced, scientifically sophisticated culture believe bizarre, even murderous, behavior might be the result of possession by evil spirits.

I’m constantly amazed at how often Christo-magic is employed and always has been, even in early American history among Puritans. Magical practitioners and Christians, for instance, both employ the practice of opening the Bible at random, putting their finger on a passage and believing that whatever they hit upon was a message from God. Some scholars note that magical practice was likely to have been more common in early America than church attendance.

The notion of calling upon Jesus for magic is still widespread. As one of the country’s most knowledgeable hoodoo practitioners, a Jewish woman named Cat Yronwode, told me, “If you can’t get along with Jesus, you can’t do hoodoo.” Hoodoo, which began among African slaves brought to America, is a combination of African magical and healing traditions melded with Christian beliefs. Magic that calls upon saints or uses the images of saints is common in Louisiana hoodoo and voodoo. Using the Bible or verses from the Bible is common in hoodoo from more Protestant areas.

The hoodoo doctor I have dealt with most was a former Pentecostal preacher, who still wears a ring on his finger that said, “Jesus.” His name, given to him in a vision, is Christos Kioni.

Is there a difference between magic and religious practice? Those who say such a difference exists point out that magic does not require a community. Many witches, for instance, are solitaries. Magic has less firm doctrine than organized religion. It requires no conversion experience and--perhaps most marked--it requires no humility or repentance. The magical practitioner may worship, but he is likely to see himself as summoning the gods or evoking powers through actions rather than through any purity of heart or righteousness of petition.

I have found far less bad or black magic being performed than I expected. Western magical traditions and Wicca seem to hew pretty close to Christian ideas about pursuing good and eschewing evil. As Cat Yronwode put it, “Wicca is just Christianity with a goddess.”

A difference, however, is that magical beliefs don’t dichotomize good and evil in the way that Christianity does. Magical people are inclined to see good and evil as part of a necessary balance.

One of the greatest increases in magical thought among whites is centered on African-based magical systems, such as hoodoo, and Afro-magical religions, such a Voodoo and Santeria. Houston, for instance, has a largely middle-class, predominately gay or lesbian community of Santeria converts.