Magic Talk in the Classroom

The terminology we choose in our study of religion can block us from looking closely into the various topics we are hoping to investigate. Uncritical and wonted use of words like ‘magic’,  ‘superstition’ and ‘pagan’ consistently send us off in the wrong direction.


The most familiar of these words is the term ‘spiritual’. We sometimes use the term spiritual as synonymous with ‘religious’ and at other times to indicate ‘ethereal’ or ‘non-material’ and at other times to indicate ‘mind and emotion’. Often we wander through these various meanings without taking much care.

As an instructor, I simply did not use the term ‘spiritual’ or the term ‘spirituality’ in the classroom. In addition to the term ‘spiritual’ there are a number of terms which may need to be clarified and redeployed. One such term better left to the student of experience is ‘magic’.

The Term Magic

The short history of the science of sociology is muddled with assumptions concerning the analysis of the term ‘magic’. Distinctions between magical practices and religious practices should be left to higher interpretative investigations. A diligent student should question any presumptuous description of magic when studying religion.

I encourage the student to simply avoid using the word unless they are referring to the entertainment industry.

Differentiating magic from religion serves only to propose that one or more of the world’s religions have different origins or a different purpose than earlier versions of our religions.

The very concept of progression here implies that one religion can be more developed – or worse – more evolved than another. This is simply untenable. And I would continue to defend my intellectual position even while exploring the role of human sacrifice in the indigenous and ancient religions.


The application of incantation, or willing changes through ritual and sacrifice, or endowing chosen members of the community with special powers, or sustaining stories of past heroic members of the community, or preserving teachings on lifestyle, diet and hygiene, are at the heart of all religion.

The attempt to isolate or remove any of these elements from our living traditions can only come from the misguided endeavor to portray one’s own religion as having evolved beyond them.

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