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Magical Thinking

What We Lose When We Lose Belief in God and the Supernatural

Why not just leave cherished beliefs alone, since they confer so much benefit?

Inna Desgardin | Dreamstime
Source: Inna Desgardin | Dreamstime

Did you believe in Santa Claus? Did you feel a loss of magic and wonder when at a certain age this enchanting belief was dispelled? While almost everyone copes just fine with this little loss of supernatural magic in their life, giving up on all supernatural belief leaves a much larger gaping hole.

Much has been written about why religion is natural to people and science is not. Belief in the supernatural and magical thinking are intuitive. Science, on the other hand, has to be learned. Science can be especially difficult sometimes, involving arduous critical thinking and requiring conscious over-riding of our many cognitive biases and intuitions. It is indisputable that science has delivered vast improvements to quality and quantity of life, and innumerable material comforts. But belief in the supernatural, for most people, provides emotional comfort and meaning.

“To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.”

While emotional factors, cognitive biases and magical thinking underlie many people’s beliefs in the supernatural, there are certainly also very rational reasons cited by highly educated believers to substantiate their religious belief. One of the main intellectual rationales for belief in a higher power is based on the assumption that the immense complexity of our world must have been intelligently designed and could not have formed spontaneously and unguided. Exemplifying this view, astronaut John Glenn on his second spaceflight marveled, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” But in fact, pivotal breakthroughs across many scientific fields have made exactly that possible, in the twenty-first century.

We are probably at a tipping point in the intellectual history of humankind in our understanding of how we, our world, and everything contained in it could indeed have come into existence entirely spontaneously and unguided.

Actually, the world looks precisely as you would expect it to, if it had emerged and evolved without an iota of planning, foresight, competence or caring. This is especially true of biological evolution. Educated religious believers with more than a superficial understanding of evolution understand this, and agree with Tennyson’s poetic observation “Nature, red in tooth and claw. . . . So careless of the single life.” But they would argue that the universe and its laws of physics seem fine-tuned to allow life and evolution to have arisen in the first place. Yet, even the supposed fine-tuned universe argument now has plausible non-supernatural explanations.

Purpose without God?

The scientific worldview of a random, purposeless, godless universe in which things just happen without a higher purpose can seem sterile, nihilistic and devoid of hope and meaning. Some ask: Is this all there is? Actually, there are very many compelling, motivating and inspiring responses to counter this nihilistic assumption, but that is not the main focus of this blog post (for a deeper dive into those questions, see Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even if the Universe Doesn’t).

The allure of magic

The scientific worldview dispels all forms of magical thinking. The list of beliefs that rest upon some form of magical thinking is extremely long, quite apart from religion and superstition.

Some people are surprisingly unselfconscious about their magical thinking, while others blush as they reluctantly admit to such, and explain that they just find these beliefs hard to relinquish. People are very attached to their magical beliefs, and for good reasons. Magical thinking and supernaturalism confer very many benefits, such as hope, comfort, solace, reassurance, security, certainty, predictability, control, meaning, a sense of mystery, enchantment, a feeling of transcendence, negation of death, and much more. Moreover, large groups organized around shared belief systems provide community, cohesion, belonging, identity, shared purpose, and often a strong social support system in times of adversity.

Why are skeptics such killjoys?

Vchalup | Dreamstime
Source: Vchalup | Dreamstime

Why do scientific skeptics insist on debunking supernatural and paranormal belief, dispelling the magic in the world? Is it really necessary to take that away from people, puncturing and deflating their beliefs? Why not just let people have their cherished beliefs if those beliefs confer so much psychological and social benefit to them?

Because when people are credulous and readily believe weird things, sooner or later someone gets hurt. Magical thinking and an inability to critically appraise evidence may initially be benign, but it easily leads to more consequential irrational decisions and poor judgement.

Beliefs are powerful modulators of motivation and purposive behavior. Depending on their content and context, they have the power to inspire or demoralize. They can also be dangerous: they have the power to lead some to deadly acts, such as choosing alternative ‘therapies’ over chemotherapy for a treatable cancer. Beliefs have the power to make people fly airplanes into buildings. History is replete with examples of powerful leaders taking their nations into war based on magical ‘signs’ or omens. As the great science popularizer Carl Sagan said, gullibility kills.1

Even moderate, liberal religious belief, while motivating charity and generosity, and conferring many psychological benefits to those who can buy into the underlying supernatural premise, has at least one very important negative impact on society: it enables and legitimizes extreme religious belief by making magical thinking and supernaturalism seem respectable and intellectually serious. It also perpetuates the myth that science and religion are compatible (such as the notion discussed earlier that evolution is purpose-driven, guided by God), which impedes people's understanding of science.

A spectrum of irrational beliefs

Irrational beliefs based on distorted reality can be tenacious and impervious to contradictory evidence. As a psychiatrist, I see these same irrational reasoning processes magnified ad absurdum in psychosis, but here we are considering irrationality and magical thinking in mentally healthy people.

There is no shortage of examples of widely held irrational beliefs, such as astrology, alien abduction, ESP, homeopathy, vaccines causing autism, and implausible conspiracy theories, to name just a few of the more blatant ones. Why and how so many thoroughly invalidated beliefs are confidently and without embarrassment shared by such large numbers of mentally healthy people has been the subject of an extensive literature. More than mere credulity and suggestibility are at play, but a lack of critical thinking skills is certainly a part of it.

Openness vs. credulity

Sagan, famous for the 1980 TV series Cosmos, was one of the founders of the modern scientific skepticism movement. He advocated a tolerant, generous approach to understanding why so many people adopt credulous beliefs. He suggested that credulity is not necessarily a matter of intelligence, and may actually stem from curiosity and openness to new ideas:

People who are curious, intelligent, dedicated to understanding the world, may nevertheless be enmired in superstition and pseudoscience.2

Sagan also emphasized human frailty and fallibility as contributing to people's susceptibility to believe in paranormal phenomena. Expressing his own emotional vulnerability in his longing for his beloved deceased parents, he gave the example of how easy it could be, after losing a loved one, to fall for the claims of a psychic medium “skilled” at “communicating” with the dead, concluding:

I could see being swept away emotionally. Would you think less of me if I fell for it? Imagine I was never educated about skepticism, had no idea that it’s a virtue, but instead believed that it was grumpy and negative and rejecting of everything that’s humane. Couldn’t you understand my openness to being conned by a medium or a channeler?2

Most of us who consider ourselves scientific skeptics have at some point had beliefs that we held dear but later realized were completely lacking in evidence.

Believing in a higher purpose is a double-edged sword

Believing that the universe is inherently purposeful and that everything happens for a reason, which is the assumption underlying supernatural belief, is a double-edged sword.3 It can be reassuring and comforting but it can also lead spiritual people experiencing cruel adversity to wonder why God wants them to suffer. “Why me?” "What did I do wrong?" "What is the intended lesson?" They may blame themselves and feel punished. They may feel abandoned by God. I work with many cancer patients and have too often seen such experiences result in a devastating shattering of faith, leaving a person lost in disillusionment and anguish.

The alternative belief, that life is random, is disquieting but can be emotionally liberating. It is ultimately more comforting to know that many kinds of misfortune are nobody’s fault. And paradoxically, it can be much more empowering.

When we let go of belief in the supernatural and cease to see magic in any form in the world, the world does become less enchanting, and in many ways scarier in being so real, and with no father figure in charge. But it also becomes a whole lot more rationally understandable, and we are freed from a multiplicity of neurotic torments.

And for those who are intrigued to learn what twenty-first century science actually knows about the true nature of reality, an immensely interesting world of knowledge and discovery awaits you.4


1. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 218.

2. Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 1995.

3. More nuanced theologies that portray a less interventionist God and don’t believe that specific events in our individual lives happen for intended reasons, still believe that the universe exists for a reason and that our lives have a higher purpose.

4. Parts of this article were adapted from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).

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