2016-06-30
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.

What’s causing the surge in converts? It’s hard to say, but converts to magical religions do seem to be following the religion-wide trend toward seeking more experiential religious experience. I think that’s because we don’t trust authority in the way we used to. So we rely on our own feelings and experiences to tell us what’s true.

In my research, I have not found evil intention to be nearly the force I expected. Few magical people talked of wanting to do evil or thinking about it. They were almost uniformly interested in doing good for themselves, those around them and the community. Even hoodoo practitioners, who aren’t always adverse to black magic that might exact revenge or deliver punishment, are wary of doing anything to harm others. Several hoodoo workers told me in their first conversations that they would not do any black magic.

“It would come back on me and my family,” said such workers, who are sometimes referred to as lady-hearted, because of their qualms about doing anything mean. The real baddies--and there are some out there who hire on for drug dealers and other criminals--probably won’t have anything to do with ordinary people and rarely let outsiders know who they are.

Three-fourths of U.S. teens have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity during their teen years (not including reading horoscopes), according to a recent George Barna study. These young people are often written off by sociologists as being engaged in fads that they outgrow.

Often that’s true, but not as uniformly as one might expect. I met many people who are lifers in the magical community and are raising their children with magical ideas. In fact, a relatively large third-generation of magical people, mainly Wiccans and neo-pagans, is busily practicing their rites and passing along their beliefs.

Why is magical thought increasing throughout society in large ways and small? The Internet might be one factor. A kid in Muleshoe, Texas, who suspected he might be a vampire or wanted to be one was pretty much out of luck before theWeb. Now he can find all sorts of information to confirm his suspicions and an international community of people to support him. Along those lines, many people most avidly engaged in magical practice are computer specialists.

That such scientifically inclined people would study an art as ancient as magic puzzled me. The best answer I got as to why was from a computer geek who studied high magic. He said that computers sent information into the ether, and magic did likewise. Both produce marvels in a void that no one completely understands. Add to that new theories in physics that seem to confirm ancient religious and magical ideas, and you have a pretty potent elixir.

Some magical people also bring past experiences of being Christian with them, and the experiences are often negative. Former Catholics seem especially apt to recount stories of having been misunderstood and punished by church authorities when they were precocious children asking questions or challenging dogma. One former Pentecostal talked of having gone up into a heavenly realm while speaking in tongues. There, he said, he found many gods and realized that the most mean-spirited of them was the one he worshiped.

He, like some other pagans, believes that gods rise and fall in power according to how many people believe in them. His rejection of Jehovah and embrace of other gods and goddesses is his way of “voting” for those he believes are most benign.

I met a guy who thinks of himself as a werewolf. He’s among a group who call themselves otherkin, to denote that they aren’t quite human like ordinary mortals. While some of these mostly young people freely admit that they have psychological diagnoses of one sort or another, and others question their own sanity, they aren’t generally crazy. They often are quite smart, well-read, well able to discuss the oddities of their beliefs, and quite scientifically savvy. They generally approach their strangeness with a good deal of humor.

Humor is a good sign, said my neighbor the psychiatrist, when I asked what he thought about the mental health of these magical people. If they can also make a living, keep friends, and are reasonably happy with themselves, they’re doing better than lots of folks.

So I guess it is as true as it was when the words were first written--for magical or muggle, whatever gets you through the night is just all right.

more from beliefnet and our partners