Friday, August 1, 2014

Magick, Religion, and "Reality"

Personally, I call that middle point "Thelema"

Two recent studies have been going around the Internet supposedly showing that children raised in religious households "have trouble distinguishing between magic and reality," whereas children raised in secular homes do not. The studies, published in the journal Cognitive Science, have been seized on by the anti-religious crowd, who argue that they show a religious upbringing is harmful to children's mental health.

However, a closer reading of the data tells a different story. The studies were performed by presenting children with three versions of an anecdote. The first was a realistic narrative, the second a miraculous narrative attributing its events to God, and the third was a miraculous narrative with no mention of a deity. The children were then asked whether they believed each of the three versions could be a true account. The religious children tended to believe the miraculous stories could be true, with or without mention of God. The secular children rejected both miraculous narratives.

Every child believed that the protagonist of the realistic stories was a real person. But when asked about the stories featuring biblically inspired or non-biblical but magical events, the children disagreed. Children raised with religion thought the protagonists of the miraculous stories were real people, and they seemed to interpret the narratives—both biblical and magical—as true accounts.

Secular children, on the other hand, were quick to perceive that these stories were fictitious, construing them as fairy tales rather than real-life narratives. They had a far keener sense of reality than religious children, who failed to understand that magic does not exist and believed that stories describing magical details such as “invisible sails” could be real. Secular kids generally understood that any story featuring magic could not take place in the world they inhabit.

To the researchers behind the study, this division in perceptions of reality was striking. “Religious teaching,” they wrote, “especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.”

The study, in fact, shows nothing of the sort. Rather, it shows that kids don't distinguish between religion and magick. The religious kids thought that both the religious stories and magical stories could be realistic, and the secular kids thought that neither could be. And there's a good reason for that - religious and magical miracles are the same thing. Whether you use your own power to produce a magical effect or call upon a spirit or deity, magick is just magick. It's producing change in conformity with will, whether or not it's done with outside assistance.

Religions that prohibit magick don't prohibit their own methods of working, or prohibit it for their own clergy. They don't really think magick is evil or wrong, they just want a monopoly on it that they can exploit for their own benefit. In fact, believing in religious miracles but rejecting magical ones makes no sense at all, but apparently that was the result experimenters would have considered "healthy" for the religious children. In fact, I would argue that such a worldview would be more indicative of psychological problems than what was observed because it's completely incoherent.

Also, the secular bias of the researchers comes through loud and clear. Apparently, according to them, the only healthy worldview is one in which children know that magic cannot exist. As a ritual magician, I suppose my worldview is "unhealthy" as far as they're concerned. But I've done my own experiments with magick and it works, again and again. While the effects I've produced don't rise to the level of Biblical miracles, they also are not imaginary. Personally, I can't see how healthy it is to indoctrinate one's children to completely reject the possibility of such effects.

Viewed this way, the results of the studies were complete no-brainers. Secular kids reject the miraculous, while religious kids accept it as a real possibility. Both results are far more likely to be the result of indoctrination rather than actual critical thinking, as they show a black-and-white divide with little consideration of the specific circumstances of each story. Rejection of the apparently miraculous out of hand is no more discerning than blind acceptance.

Speaking from my own experiences, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Magick can influence physical reality in measurable, meaningful, and powerful ways, but at the same time the miracles found in Bible stories and reproduced in these studies would require probability shifts far beyond the usual limits of magical effects.

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Nerd said...

If these people have a unified field theory, they're welcome to publish it and become instantly world famous.

Until then, they cannot tell me what is "possible" and what is not "possible."

Aside from the innumerable superstitions and faulty logic upon which "empirical science" is based.

Scott Stenwick said...

You don't even need to go that far. I personally think it's kind of silly to imply that science is faulty because it's incomplete. By definition science will always be incomplete, and that applies equally to ether physics or whatever alternative paradigm you would propose to replace the prevailing model.

The thing is, you don't need to go outside the scientific paradigm to show that the "secular" kids' perspective is wrong regarding what is or isn't possible. One of the Bible stories used in the study was Moses parting the Red Sea, and you know what? Near Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula seas really do part and such an event might have inspired the Biblical narrative. It depends on whether or not you translate the body of water involved as "Red Sea" or "sea of reeds," but most experts now think the correct translation probably is the latter.

Matt Van de Ven said...

Links between magic and the ability to control your inner world make me concerned that these kids have no imagination. Where's the wonder in that sort of a childhood? How can science hope to create new solutions to problems without imagination on the part of scientists to reject the current ideas on how solutions should be found. Where are the ideas for new technology going to come from?

SeekInfinity-ICTX said...

Where does the idea that anyone has any sort of responsibility to regulate what people do or don't believe come from? Yet another form of social control that only has one ethical purpose, that being an emetic agent in any antiauthoritarian... which is ironic, considering a certain subset of atheists consider themselves the 'free thinkers'. Heh

Scott Stenwick said...

I find myself wondering about how imaginative the "secular" kids will turn out to be as well.

I don't necessarily think that they need to believe in magick or religion in order to develop their imaginations. Maybe they'll wind up as science fiction fans and imagine new technologies along more scientific lines.

Still, I don't think it's a healthy mindset to dismiss anything unusual just because it hasn't been scientifically validated. With the limitations of this study, I think it's hard to generalize. A better survey might include more options - say, present the parting of the sea and ask the kids why it's written that way.

If the only explanation they can offer is "because it's totally made up" with no further elaboration, that's when I would start to question the openness of their thinking processes.