A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 5

This is the final installment of my five-part series on Magical Thinking, which began on Monday to elaborate on the themes of my talk at  Skepticamp Toronto last weekend. Previous installments: Part 1Part 2Part 3 Part 4.

Engaging the Non-Skeptic

Hang around the skeptical community long enough, and you’ll inevitably hear the term “magical thinking.”  Typically, it’s used as a pejorative, to dismiss a certain belief simply because its underpinnings are magical.  If you’ve read the other articles in this series, you’ll surely understand why I feel that such a dismissal is just a bit too glib.

The fact is, we all think magically – it’s a fundamental part of our mind design.  Without it, we’d lack the ability to love, do business, appreciate art, or relate to the symbols that give our society meaning.  Rather than dismiss it, we need to embrace our ability to think magically as one of our species’ greatest strengths.

But that doesn’t mean embracing every magical belief – clearly some are more valuable than others.  I think the species could get by without a Sauna-Ray, for example.  Additionally, some magical beliefs are objectively harmful – the thousands of wars fought in the name of religion come immediately to mind.  Looked at this way, a reasonable personal objective might be to limit one’s magical beliefs to those that have both high utility and a low capacity for harm.  Given our mind design, that’s no mean feat, and will take an awful lot of metacognitive effort, but I think it a worthy goal for anyone aspiring to clearer thought.

So much for the personal, what about the interpersonal?  As skeptics, we’re often engaged in something of a battle for hearts and minds, and so we also have to figure out the best way to approach those whose beliefs don’t always meet this standard.  If low-harm / high-utility magical beliefs are OK, how should we approach low-harm / low-utility beliefs?  Or beliefs that are harmful yet provide high utility?  The matrix at the right summarizes the answers I would give to those questions:


Much of the work we do on sites like Skeptic North is simply educational, and targeted at the type of magical thinking that provides limited direct harm.  For example, though I’ve expressed my frustration in these pages at the ongoing legitimization of homeopathy, I’m forced to admit that it generally results in limited harm from a societal standpoint.  Certainly I buy the argument that degrading the trust in our medical establishment is bad for society in the long term, and that there are individual cases where direct harm has occurred.  But in the grand scheme of things, this harm is relatively minor, and both concerns are best combated by education, as opposed to more draconian tactics like, say, banning homeopathic products outright.  Beyond homeopathy, the same can be said about the bulk of magical beliefs that skeptics typically take up, most of which are indeed low-harm / low-utility, e.g. astrology and other forms of divination, acupuncture, energy healing, ghosts, etc.

This educational mandate for skeptics goes beyond the individuals we encounter – we need to continue to focus educational resources on pressing governments to remain neutral on such beliefs and practices as well.  As skeptics, we must value a free market in ideas – even when we disagree with them, providing they result in limited harm.  But when a government puts a label on a homeopathic product calling it effective or funds acupuncture treatments with public dollars, it constitutes an intervention in that free market without sufficient public interest (e.g. harm reduction).  Skeptics should continue to remain vigilant in educating the public, and our lawmakers, on the dangers of such an intervention.

No yellow card? That's a red card.


Education isn’t enough for the beliefs and practices in the lower right quadrant, which contains the most pernicious of all magical beliefs, and the ones that we should use the full force of an enlightened government (yeah, I said it) to combat.

These are beliefs that provide little or no benefit, but have a high capacity for harm.  Top of my list here is vaccination for the most virulent infectious diseases, and I think we’re taking far too accommodationist a stance today – for example, allowing religious waivers to the otherwise mandatory vaccinations required prior to enrolment in public school.  I’d also put on this list willfully fraudulent marketing of cures for the most deadly health conditions – e.g fake cancer remedies.  And it’s hard to argue that certain religious and cultural practices – I’m thinking female genital mutilation here, not headscarves – shouldn’t be outright forbidden as the human rights violations they are.  As skeptics, we should continue to actively campaign for stricter protective legislation and much better enforcement of existing laws.


The magical beliefs in the upper right quadrant are somewhat more complex, and the response requires considerable more nuance.  It’s largely encompassed by what I’ll call The Problem of Religion.

[DISCLAIMER – I should state up front that what follows is intended to be a non-normative discussion of how skeptics should approach religious beliefs, and not an argument for or against religion or any specific belief.  You’ll recall from the first article in this series that I define the term “magical thinking” simply as any non-science based explanation for an event or experience, and have pointed out that calling a belief magical under such a definition is not the same thing as calling it false.  And that anyway, the term “true” should be viewed in a scientific context, meaning probably true subject to such-and-such confidence interval].

[APPENDIX TO DISCLAIMER – Also, I plan to draw no cartoons of anyone’s god.]

Whether you believe or not, there’s no disputing that many religions provide significant value to their adherents.  Even beyond so-called “good works” like charity, which are taken up by the non-religious as well, religion provides certain comforts that cannot easily be gotten elsewhere.  A belief in an ordained purpose to life, in a god who has our interest at heart, in a death that’s not final – these are ideas that help people get through an existence that can be spirit-crushingly difficult for many.  And while I’ve heard the atheist argument that self-delusion is not the best way to deal with those difficulties, the pervasiveness of magical beliefs in our mind design simply belies that notion.  After all, how different is this than our delusion of love, or of free will?  If we can admit that those things are valuable, then we can certainly admit the comforts of religion into the same camp.

Military magic

Yet it’s also hard to argue that religion has not been the cause of staggering harm in the world.  The most dominant world religions all contain a notion of god’s revealed truth, and woe be to those that deny it.  Wars of religion may be a thing for the history books in Europe and the Americas, but not so in much of the rest of the world.  And even without outright war, religious persecution and human rights abuses persist even in otherwise enlightened places.  Indeed, perhaps the most harmful of all magical beliefs is “us” vs. “them”.

So religion is complex…I didn’t need a week’s worth of posts to convince many people of that.  The question for skeptics is how to deal with it.

I think the first thing we need to do is stop being such purists.  The skeptical community includes a disproportionate number of atheists, and let’s face it, it’s not just PZ Myers that gets prickly when religion intrudes in the public sphere.  Skeptics need to accept that religious belief isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that they will continue to be confronted with the magical thinking that underlies it.  We need to remember that everyone thinks magically about  some things and that’s not necessarily so bad.  And we need to focus on the a more important objective, which is reducing the harm religion can do when left unchecked.   In short, we need to focus on ways to encourage religious moderation.

For example, as much as I may not agree with publicly funding the Catholic school system in Ontario, I’m at pains to point out any material societal harm that’s caused by it.  The fact is that Catholocism in Canada, and in the west generally, is pretty moderate.  That wasn’t always the case (see: “Inquisition, Spanish”), but it certainly is today.  And that moderation pushes Catholicism westward on our matrix.

The same is true of most of the established religions in Canada  – and the reason that it’s true is also, I think, instructive for skeptics.  After all, there’s nothing inherently more moderate in the revealed texts of Christianity and Judaism than there is in the texts of religions we may view as less moderate like Islam.  All of their books contain sufficient examples of warmongering and intolerance to give a zealot a foothold.  Plus there are places in the world where the Jews and Christians are far more zealous than in Canada, and places where Muslims far more moderate than the stereotype.

The pattern as I see it is that religions tend to be more moderate in places where freedom of belief is protected, and more extreme in places where it’s not.  It’s a simple group dynamic, a bunker mentality – members of a religion that’s persecuted, outlawed, or otherwise insecure will identify more strongly with the religion and become more extreme.  Without that pressure, other aspects of one’s personality can balance the magical beliefs.

And thus what I’ll call The Problem of Religion for Skeptics – which is that the best way to moderate religion and reduce its potential for harm may simply be to let it flourish.  Protect religious freedoms, debate the beliefs honestly in an open marketplace of ideas, and focus most of our efforts on curbing the worst abuses.  If the Ontario Catholic school system survives, but everyone in it must get vaccinated no matter what their beliefs, I’d say the skeptics win.

3 Responses to “A Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking – Part 5”

  1. John Greg says:

    “The fact is, we all think magically – it’s a fundamental part of our mind design. Without it, we’d lack the ability to love, do business, appreciate art, or relate to the symbols that give our society meaning. Rather than dismiss it, we need to embrace our ability to think magically as one of our species’ greatest strengths.”

    Dang it all! You just might be right. I’ve never though of it that way before.

    “If we can admit that those things are valuable, then we can certainly admit the comforts of religion into the same camp.”

    But I must admit I’m having a lot of trouble with that one.

    Anyway, thanks for a really interesting and informative series of articles. I really looked forward to each installment.

    Gonna be some serious rethinks going on around my home.

  2. TomWS says:

    As a fundamentalist Christian zealot-wacko, I’ve enjoyed your series and especially this last suggestion as to how “your side” should deal with “my side”. Good assessment and I appreciate it. Interestingly, I took a similar view when I was still a disbeliever – that some aspects of religion can be useful and that those parts should not be impeded.


  1. [...] fuzzies aside, I’m having problems with Skeptic North’s final installment in their otherwise excellent Skeptic’s Guide to Magical Thinking series. Specifically, [...]

  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis