Monday, May 9, 2016

Revival of the Old Magick Doesn't Worry Me

Seven years ago, skeptic Phil Plait wrote an article for Discover magazine essentially arguing that paranormal investigation television programs would lead to angry mobs burning people alive. It's a ridiculous argument that has no grounding in reality, and I called it out as such back then in my response.

Capital-S Skeptics do this weird sort of splitting in their thought processes. They tend to assume that if you can do anything at all paranormal, it should follow that you can do anything they can possibly imagine by the same means. So the fact that you can't, say, levitate a building proves that you could never have possibly had a flash of psychic insight.

Plait's argument was built on the same fallacy. His idea seemed to be that if people had even one thought that he considered irrational, that was the exact same thing as said people being hopelessly insane. By this logic, anyone who likes Ghost Hunters wouldn't think twice about murdering the person standing next to them the moment they start feeling vaguely uncomfortable, because after all said person might be hexing them.

And just as a point, over the last seven years the popularity of paranormal investigation shows has exploded. They're everywhere - and still no witch-burnings!

So back in April, my fellow grimoire author Aaron Leitch posted an article on the Llewellyn magick blog stating his "worries" about the "revival of the old magick." I agree with Leitch's main point that it's great to live in the United States rather than parts of, say, Africa or India or Papau New Guinea where the fear of magick is widespread, and have been stating so for many years on this blog.

However, I disagree with the implied assertion that somehow, the "revival of the old magick" has any real chance of turning modern-day America into the sort of place where angry mobs routinely go around murdering practitioners. That's just silly. It's not as silly as Plait's "paranormal investigation shows will make us start burning people at the stake" argument, but it is essentially a contention of the same sort.

I try to make the point, over and over again, that anyone who doesn't understand statistics doesn't understand magick. I would go so far as to say such people don't understand life, period. The bottom line that statistically speaking, there are hardly any magical practitioners here in the United States. Even if our numbers doubled or tripled or quadrupled, we would remain little more than a drop in the bucket.

I assume anybody who tries to sell magical books knows this. Leitch publishes his books through a bigger publisher so they sell better than mine, but I can read Amazon sales ranks just like any other author and have a pretty good idea of how much better. To use a more popular example than his books or mine, Donald Michael Kraig's Modern Magick, the best-selling magick book of all time, has sold 300,000 copies or so since 1989 across three editions - and even so, statistically that's still not that many people.

Just do the math. Even if we're saying all those sales happened in the United States (population 300 million), and we assume that each person who bought the book only owns only one copy (when, in fact, most people I know who like it have more than one edition), and we assume that every single person who ever bought a copy is currently a serious magical practitioner (which most of them aren't)... you're still left with only about one person in a thousand.

That's just not enough magical practitioners to ever cultivate any sort of widespread fear. It means that statistically speaking, hardly anyone will come into contact with magick, let alone effective magick, and that even if they do, they most likely will fail to recognize it as such. Western culture has largely eliminated, or at least categorized as fictional, the sort of lore that contributes to widespread societal belief in magick.

I honestly don't see any scenario under which this is going to change. Belief in New-Age stuff like "The Secret" is far more widespread than belief in magick, and yet you don't see people obsessing over whether or not "Secret" practitioners are sending "bad thoughts" at them. Why would ceremonial magick be any different? People do tend to be somewhat superstitious at heart, but that's not the same thing as believing in magick. It's certainly not the same thing as being willing to engage in violent attacks on others.

By actively pushing a set of social values that deride superstition, Western culture has made it untenable for most people to feel justified in, say, killing someone over it. And even in a world with a lot more magical practitioners, curses and the like would still feel like bad luck rather than spiritual attacks. Nobody is going to blame magicians - even if our numbers doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, there would still be few enough of us that most people would never have even seen one, let alone met one.

Now I will grant that you probably can find a case somewhere in the United States where somebody was murdered because the killer thought that the victim was casting spells at them. I think I might have even covered one or two of them on this blog years ago. But we're talking about society as a whole here, not isolated counter-examples. I'm willing to bet that in the vast majority of those cases, the killer was flat-out delusional.

Fundamentalist Christians had their shot at making magick illegal, and they failed. Through their networks of specially-trained fraudulent therapists, they convinced a significant number of people in the 1980's that the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" phenomenon was real. But rather than Western civilization collapsing into anti-Satanist mobs, what really happened was a few hundred people were brought up on phony charges. Even with a massive media push behind it, that was the best they could do.

Now I don't mean to make light of any of the lives the SRA scare basically destroyed. But angry, widespread, murderous mobs are many, many steps beyond a small group of people being falsely convicted of imaginary crimes. And, to be clear, nobody outside fundamentalist Christianity cared about the "Satanist" angle. Society as a whole only cared because these alleged "Satanists" were supposed to be abusing kids and murdering people. Fundamentalists have been going on and on about Satantists doing "evil magick" for years and the fact is that hardly anyone cares, except to make fun of them.

I've been publicly "out" as a magician for many years. I blog and publish books under my real name, and I've never had any problems arising from that. I do live and work in Minneapolis, which is a very liberal city, and I imagine that I would have more problems if I lived in the middle of the Bible Belt or something like that. Still, if my experience is any indication, the fear of being "outed" as an occultist is largely overrated. Most people don't react badly to it because as far as I can tell, they have no idea what it is and don't care to find out.

Increased popularity of magick is not going to change that any time soon. Our numbers could double or triple or quadruple, and all that would happen is that we authors would make more in book royalties - which, of course, would be nice! Interest in magick needs to increase by an order of magnitude or more for it to become any sort of a social force that people start noticing. And even then, I doubt very many of those people would consider it dangerous.

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