Sometimes the difference between religion and magic is very blurry and the two seem to go hand in hand. After all, what’s the difference between Moses making a snake out of a stick and the Egyptian court magician performing the same deed? Wasn’t also the plague and various curses brought down upon Egypt an act of sorcery by Moses?
What about Jesus and his “miracles”? How is Jesus walking on water not magic(al)? And to mention a more recent example: Isn’t the act of transubstantiation in Catholic Mass also an act of magic?
There are many other religious examples that can be interpreted as magic. And perhaps they are. I’ve always been fascinated by the distinction between the two because of the Medieval Inquisition. But also because of some religious figures and intellectuals who’ve voiced their negative opinion about magic in recent times, most notably Roger Scruton.
So this question is as relevant as ever. I’ve read some excellent academic papers and books on this subject (sources are linked below), and these are the five most important differences according to anthropologists, religious writers and magicians:
1. Religion is a public, magic a private affair
Religions are designed for a broader community. It doesn’t require any special skill or knowledge to be part of Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Only the elite members (priests) are required to have more in-depth knowledge of the religious rites. Furthermore the aims (or at least proclaimed aims) of religions concern the overall public good.
Religious rituals “work” regardless of the level of piety of those involved. All it takes is for someone to listen to a priest and pray along in order for a Mass to be considered successful.
In comparison, magic requires special skills and knowledge from every person that participates in a magic ritual. That’s because the efficacy of magic depends on it.Magic rituals on the other hand require much more from everyone involved. This alone makes any esoteric spiritual path an elitist endeavor.
There is also the question of morality. The self-proclaimed desire of all religions is the salvation or happiness of the community at large. For example, a Catholic Mass is not performed only for the benefit of the participants but for all humanity.
That’s not necessarily the case with magic. Most magical rituals are performed by those wishing to obtain some private goal. This can be at the detriment of other people or not. But the point stands that in the case of magic, the individual takes precedence over the collective, while in religion it’s the other way around.
This is why the Church was especially wary of any forms of magic and esotericism, considering it a selfish spiritual endeavor that could potentially damage the broader community that isn’t involved in these private rituals.
2. Religious miracles are acts of God
The power of magic relies on the power of the magician. There are multiple traits that have to be developed by a magic user in order for his magic to be effective:
- visualization powers
- power of intent
- physical strength and endurance (yes, just like chess players)
- knowledge and experience
None of this strenuous training is required by a prophet chosen by God. Moses didn’t meditate for ten hours a day in order to swarm Egypt with locusts. None of this “magic” required any of his own power. He was merely a vessel through which God’s powers manifested because God willed it, not Moses himself. In fact, Moses was not all too happy with the role he received, but he submitted to God’s Will. A magician WANTS to perform the act of magic and HAS TO work hard to become good at it. Otherwise it simply won’t happen.
The situation with Jesus is a bit different because he claimed to be God incarnate. Which is why many Gnostic teachings consider Jesus to be a representation of the innate abilities we have to transcend our humanity and become gods.
This could well be the case. Here the difference between miracle and magic is not as clear as it is in the case of Moses. We have to either believe that Jesus was the only Son of God, or that all of us can become like him. This will ultimately depend on how we interpret the New Testament.
3. Religion is selfless, magic is selfish
There is white magic and black magic. White magic has to do with helping others or oneself without causing any harm to others. In comparison, black magic is performed for selfish goals, and can be used to harm others.
Religions don’t have these moral ambiguities, at least not on a doctrinal level. All major religions teach goodness, selflessness and love as the ultimate goals. No religion preaches violence of any kind, especially not for achieving material wealth or social status. But magic can be directed at these goals.
Magic is therefore morally neutral, while religion is inherently good. That’s not to say that religion hasn’t caused suffering, but it was never explicitly intended to cause harm for selfish goals. Even in the case of Crusades and Jihads, the violence is performed for the Glory of God.
Sure, it can be argued that this is a semantic manipulation, as the end result is still violence and bloodshed. But from the doctrinal standpoint, it shows that religions have a selfless core even when performing deeds that can be interpreted as morally evil. While magic is at its core usually a selfish endeavor, even when performing deeds that are morally good or neutral.
4. Magic bends natural laws at will
The purpose of any magic ritual is to bend natural laws. Religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism preach that only God has supernatural abilities because God stands outside of Nature.
Therefore God is unconditioned, while man, being conditioned by natural laws can’t influence them in any way. Man can only submit to these laws and work with them. But most magicians believe that they have a divine essence which if developed through spiritual work, allows them to acts like gods.
In other words, by transcending their humanity and becoming living gods, magicians gain the ability to bend natural laws in their favor at will. Unlike Moses who received his powers from God, a magician like Faust believes that he has these powers in himself. It’s only a matter of tapping into this inner potential and manifesting it in reality.
However I have to mention that traditional Jewish magic is different, because it relies completely on God’s powers. The magician in that case aligns himself with the power of God (or evil spirits), but he himself doesn’t have any special powers. He always depends on other spiritual entities or the Creator himself.
In any case the difference between religious miracles and magic remains clear. Magic provides a clear set of instructions for producing a specific result. A magician who is powerful and knowledgeable enough can achieve these results at any time. In comparison, religious miracles are acts of God, so a saint or a prophet can perform them only when God blesses them with this power.
5. Magic includes devotional and non-devotional rituals
Religions are mostly constrained to devotional spiritual practices such as prayers and mantras aimed at pleasing a deity. All of these practices are used to connect with the desired deity on a spiritual and emotional level in order to receive some benefit from the connection. Whether that’s love, contentedness or healing.
Devotional practice can be found in magic as well. However, there are many other magical practices, like tantric sex, divination, astrology, necromancy, cartomancy, telepathy, telekinesis… and the list goes on. Some of the goals that are part of these practices may also depend on a devotional approach, but it’s not considered to be the only one available.
For example, invoking the demon Astaroth to provide knowledge of future things, as opposed to using astrology or some other divination method. Or worshiping goddess Aphrodite in order to become a more sought for lover.
Final Word: Difference between religion and magic
While I’ve mentioned the main differences between religion and magic, these are not always clear in practice. We have to keep in mind that both of these spiritual paths develop and assimilate various influences through time.
While Catholics accuse Harry Potter books for contaminating the youth of today with magic, Protestants accused Catholics of doing magic only a few centuries ago due to many “mechanical” constraints and rules placed on God (transubstantiation, sacraments etc.).
Nevertheless we can acknowledge that religion signifies a public community, while magical paths signify a private community with private goals that can be in opposition to public welfare. We can also separate miracles from magic. Miracles depend on God’s will and blessing, while magical spells depend on the user’s own magical capabilities.
Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckefer (link to Amazon)
A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss (link to Amazon)