Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 3 – What is Religion?


See Magic, Religion, and Reality Part 1 – The ‘Big’ Questions for context to the following essay. If you decide to skip it, however, please still take a moment to jot down your own answer to the following: What is religion?

Some (False) Assumptions About Religion

There are three commonly held assumptions about religion in most industrialized nations:

  1. “religion” means Christianity, Judaism, or Islam (in that order);
  2. these three religious ‘lanes’ are rigid; and
  3. an individual’s religion doesn’t change.

As far as I can tell, none of these reflects any kind of reality (outside a few folk’s very narrow world views, I suppose).  Happily, most people realize the world is a much bigger and more complex place than these three assumptions would permit. So let’s dig in and explore the nature of religion in a broader way. 

Abraxas, seu Apistopistus. Joannis Macarii (1657)
Abraxas, seu Apistopistus. Joannis Macarii(1657)

Nothing is Certain but Death, Taxes, and That Religious Ideas Change

If you’re reading this blog post, you already know that #3 doesn’t hold at all. Odds are, you, dear reader, were raised in one belief system [1] and your beliefs changed over time. 

As I’ve discussed in Origin Story Part 3 – The Great American Agnosticism, I was raised a militant atheist. As a teen, I recognized that my dad was feeding me a dogma and rejected atheism for a vague and moderately open-minded agnosticism. And as I got older, I began to acknowledge the enchantment[2] of the world around me, recognizing it as both pervasive and independent of my recognition of it. After the death of my mother, the ‘discovery’ of Wicca rather late in life led to a full-brown conversion experience (in an academic definition of the thing, anyway).

Today, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what my exact religion is. I’m Wiccan, sure, but that definition is both too sloppy and too rigid at the same time. My practices, beliefs, and ideas about the world extend well past what you might read about Wicca in any given book (including my Book of Shadows). So what to do?

I’ve accepted that beliefs, practices, and ideas change our entire lives, and as something shifting and ever in flux, it’s easier to identify and name things after the fact. Trying to describe them at the moment is like trying to look at the back of one’s own eyes. But distance offers clarity, and that distance may be weeks or years, or decades.

Here’s another writing exercise: What is your religion right now? For some of you, this may be pretty easy, actually. But for others, this may prove challenging, perhaps because things are in very active flux. Anyway, just try. Now, write down a list of all the religions you’ve ever been to, starting with whatever you were born into, even if it was “we didn’t talk about religion”. That counts too. After writing this list, would you change how you described your current religion? What are you more sure of and what are you less sure of?

Painting of the Conversion of St. Paul by Palma il Giovane (~1590)
Conversion of St. Paul. Palma il Giovane (~1590)

Going Off the Rails (Because Rails Are a Consensual Hallucination)

The thing that is a little more challenging, and impacts contemporary Pagans and Magicians alike, is the idea of religious ‘lanes.’ For example, let’s take the idea that if you are Christian, you can’t also be Muslim. [3] Most of us would probably say, “Well, yeah. Duh. (Hello, hundreds of years of wars….)” But the history of religious practices and beliefs suggests that both individuals and communities are much more flexible about these things than one would suppose.  There are tons of fairly common examples all around us.

Consider families where one parent is Jewish and the other is Christian, so the kids have a menorah for Chanukah and go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. For one, the parents are flexible enough with their ‘lanes’ to marry someone of another faith. This is no small thing! Then they agree that the kids will be exposed to both religious traditions – also quite flexible.  Will those kids then have to ‘choose’ at some point? It really depends on that kid’s own understanding of things, but not really, no. They’ll likely gravitate more to one religion over the other, or they may move to something else entirely, or form their own remix of practices and beliefs.

Or consider the atheist who is also a Buddhist.  Now, you might say, “but atheism isn’t a religion.” Isn’t it though?  What is religion? If religion is simply your thoughts on god and what happens after we die (which isn’t a good working definition of religion but let’s run with that for a second), then even being an atheist is a religion.  The atheist is taking a stand on those questions by saying, “There is no god, there is no afterlife.” That is, the atheist has an answer to “what do you believe about God”? Now, some atheists are quite offended by this (including long-ago, pre-teen me, and certainly my dad), but this emotional response often has more to do with personal animosity towards organized religions than any functional working definition of religion itself. In fact, an atheist may be just as likely as a Christian to define religion as “Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.”

However, the atheist who is Buddhist (or Wiccan, or Jewish, or fill-in-the-blank] may have a slightly more flexible understanding and definition of religion.  And many atheists I’ve known are quite happy to nuance their answers to the Big Questions about life and death and are eager to engage in debates over the nature of good and evil, free will, etc.

So those ‘rigid lanes’ – they really don’t exist on a practical level. People believe and practice many complex layered things, and these generally evolve and change over the course of an individual’s life.  This happens at both a personal level and on a community level and these are closely interwoven. 

Do the practices and beliefs of my HPS and HP influence my own? Absolutely. I respect them, and their own magico-religious explorations inspire me and make me curious about things I might not have considered otherwise. Is this deliberate? Heck no. In fact, just the opposite. They work very hard to keep their own experiences and practices private in order to assure their initiates have the flexibility and ‘room’ to explore on their own.  But a coven is a curious little community.  When my game design students obsessed over Hades last year, did I obsess too, as a member of our academic and disciplinary community? No. I was super busy and didn’t have time. But with the semester wrapping right now, what’s the first game I downloaded as my end-of-semester treat? Hades. Will my experience of the game be the same as theirs? Probably not – but as a practice, it is likely to be very similar, and what I do with that experience in terms of game design and development will be informed by both my own experiences and what my students conveyed to me about their own. [4]

Pages from the 6th and 7th books of moses.
Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, from “Powwowing in Pennsylvania: healing rituals of the dutch country”

The Totes M’Goats Dope Remix

This brings us to the French term bricolage which, as magical practitioners, is definitely a thing, even if you still don’t believe what you’re doing is a religion. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss first brought up the concept of bricolage in 1962 [5] to describe the way people construct their own religious beliefs and practices.  ‘Bricolage’ is often defined as ‘do-it-yourself’ but concepts like remixing and sampling get at the idea better in English. (And props to you, DJ Kool Herc!)

In the context of magical practices, I think bricolage sometimes gets conflated with cultural appropriation, but it’s not the same thing. Bricolage happens on a very subtle, slow time scale, and is something that occurs on both an individual and a communal level.  My understanding is that this process may be easier for an anthropologist or sociologist to identify after a practice has solidified, rather than as it is happening.

Here’s an example: Growing up, my town was evenly split between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  During the holidays the Jewish kids would joke about having a “Chanukah Bush” for Christmas.  On one hand, they didn’t seem to take it too seriously – it wasn’t part of their primary religious belief system – it was very tongue-in-cheek. But on the other hand, they were pretty serious about keeping up that practice. It was a way for them to participate in the ‘Christmas spirit’ of the Christian holiday. And it became something more as time went on. For many, setting up and decorating the Chanukah bush was an important marker of the holidays, perhaps just as much as lighting the menorah on the first night of Chanukah. That is, at some point, it became part of the practice. [6]

So, is religion a set of beliefs or is it a set of practices? Um, both? Neither? It depends?

Comic illustration of 1970s DJ.
“The origins of hip hop: inside Kool Herc’s parties” by Michele Ragno

Over 4,200 Religions Served and Counting!

This finally takes us to fallacy #1, that religion equals the three major monotheisms, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Most readers of this blog would probably be uncomfortable suggesting that Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, etc. are not religions. So you quickly lose ‘belief in one god’ as a major defining quality of religion pretty quickly.  And from there you rapidly lose other ‘defining’ factors: afterlife beliefs, explanations for good and evil, the presence or absence of eschatology (that is, the idea that human history ends at some point), ideas about the dead and spirits, correct and incorrect practices (including taboos), correct and incorrect ideas, correct and incorrect beliefs, and on and on.

In fact, the Wikipedia page on ‘Definition of Religion’ gloomily states,

The definition of religion is a controversial and complicated subject in religious studies with scholars failing to agree on any one definition. Oxford Dictionaries defines religion as the belief in and/or worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Others, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, have tried to correct a perceived Judeo-Christian and Western bias in the definition and study of religion. Thinkers such as Daniel Dubuisson have doubted that the term religion has any meaning outside of western cultures, while others, such as Ernst Feil even doubt that it has any specific, universal meaning even there.

Wikipedia [7]

However, just like trying to define magic, it might be impossible to have a truly universal definition, but a lot can be gleaned about our own practices and beliefs from trying. The Wikipedia page on “Religion” is much braver and does a heroic job of, well, trying:

Religion is usually defined as a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, beliefs, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that generally relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements;  however, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion.

Wikipedia [8]

And the Wikipedia page “Outline of Religion” does a good job trying as well:

Religion – organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.

Wikipedia [9]

For better or worse, it’s sort of impossible to define religion without digging into where the idea of ‘religion’ even came from (hint: it’s surprisingly new and very Western). That’s way beyond my scope and knowledge, but I highly recommend everyone read a Religious Studies 101 textbook at some point, or take a class if possible. I’ve listed a few options in the endnotes at [10],[11],[12], but there are certainly others!

At any rate, by most definitions, Wicca is definitely a religion. So, yay! But what does that mean on a practical level?

To some extent, not much.  I don’t walk around contemplating my human-ness (although perhaps I should). And as I performed my Beltane ritual last night, I wasn’t thinking about my Wiccan-ness, or about the religiousness of what I was doing. I was focused on my gods, the spirits, my community of Wiccans, and the Sabbat.

For me, the value of recognizing my practice as a religion is a practical one. I acknowledge the damage and harm perpetrated by different religions throughout human history. And while Wicca may be a lovely, nature-oriented religion, that doesn’t make it immune from the same challenges as other religions.

Religions may be divinely inspired, but they’re nevertheless performed by human beings, with all our flaws and foibles. Any individual within any religion can become dogmatic, abusive, bigoted, or violent. And any group of individuals within any religion can perform this on a larger scale. Wicca is no different. 

But this isn’t just a flaw of religion. Do you know where else we see this?

Industry and business, education, government, families — and it goes on and on.

It’s much more emotionally painful to leave an abusive religion, for example, than to leave an abusive job. So it’s no wonder that people who’ve suffered from an abusive religious individual or community would rather just reject all of religion and shield themselves from future pain.  Alas, we must eat to live, and we mostly need income to eat.  So while we readily leave one unsavory job for a better one, we tend to not do the same thing with religious organizations. Larger social structures help us believe we can simply live without religion. But I’m not sure that’s true. 

Two women holding torches at 2022 Ediburgh Beltane fire festival.
2022 Beltane was finally back in Edinburgh. Photo by J.L. Preece.

Filing Taxes As a Religious Ritual

Friday was my kid’s birthday, an event rich in ritual. Some of these rituals have grown from the fertile soil of my goofy family: Every year, we tape streamers across his bedroom door while he sleeps, so he has to ‘break through’ when he gets up in the morning. (I think the symbolism is pretty obvious.) Even at fourteen, he still loves this quirky homegrown tradition and reminds us to perform it. And when we light the candles on his birthday cake, we sing ‘Happy Birthday’. This is a larger cultural tradition within the United States broadly and has been adopted in other countries, as well.

At what point are the cake, candles, and song secular traditions, and at what point are they magical? Or religious? And I bury the candle stubs each year, feeling it’s inappropriate to reuse such sacred objects again. Is this religious, magical, or even a superstition? (And superstition is a whole other can of worms, y’all. I’ll skip it.)

That is, where is the line between secular tradition and religious tradition?

I’m not sure there is one, anymore, but that’s in part because I’ve made my peace with ‘religion’ and fully adore and am fascinated by its myriad manifestations in human societies. It’s beautiful and amazing, just like art, literature, languages, dance, music, architecture – and just as terrible and horrible at times.  As a Wiccan, taking the grim with the lovely is my bread and butter. So, of course, I’d adore the messy humanity of it all.

At one point in the pandemic, I got a wild hair to take a religious studies class online. In the very first class, the professor showed us a series of photos from the recent presidential inauguration.  She asked us to consider: Is this a religious or a secular ritual?

My knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘secular, of course.’ But as I studied the photos of processions and performances, fireworks and symbolisms, poetry and liturgies, I realized it wasn’t so obvious. The U.S. flag seems to have its very own egregore, and there seemed to be a consensual agreement of the powerful magic of the Stars and Stripes.  I eventually decided that, shit, the inauguration was more religious than some weddings I’ve attended.

Katy Perry singing in front of fireworks at the 2021 U.S. presidential inauguration.
Katy Perry, January 2021 (Handout/Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images)

Grace and WitchTok

I think it is useful to have a working definition of religion and to draw some lines between what’s religious and what’s secular.  But I’m not sure I could define those lines myself. 

Some folks in some magical communities get pretty worked up about WitchTok. Some even get downright offended.  But why? If we all had a flexible definition of religion, and basic religious literacy, would seemingly secular things seem so polarizing at times?

Some folks are offended by teen girls on WitchTok giving instructions on making prosperity spells, but (as in any moment when you feel ‘triggered’) it’s critical to analyze where that’s coming from. Some folks seem to be offended simply because these young women are doing something that does not look like what they’re doing, but are using the same language and symbols and they feel intruded upon. Perhaps others feel it challenges their own understanding and definition of magic and ritual by stretching it into spaces that are uncomfortable for them.  Others are upset by the lack of gods. And still, others are upset by the fact that these women are young and pronouncing expertise.  Whatever the reasons – I’ve always found this illuminates more about the world view of those who object, than the WitchTokers themselves. Compound upon onto this the damaging gamification of communication in online spaces, and it’s no wonder there’s no real conversation happening. [13]

Maybe the next evolution in the tradition of magic is what we’re seeing on WitchTok and Instagram — and why exactly is that so terrible? Who does that threaten and why?  I think the evolution of witchcraft and magic right now is utterly amazing and fascinating and rich.  New technologies have added to this (despite the challenges they also present).

Is this new steam of magical practices and ideas also a set of new religions? Ultimately, it’s whatever the practitioners themselves decide to call it. There’s a terrible history of one group calling another group’s religion ‘magic’ as a derogatory term. Witches and Occultists aren’t immune to these same human tendencies, so we need to tread thoughtfully and with care for the other, perhaps especially when we don’t quite understand it.

But we can also use religious studies and religious literacy to help us get some distance and perspective on our own beliefs and practices. [14] There’s room enough for all of it, as long as it makes room for others. And when your world starts to feel small and threatened, it can be useful  — and deeply comforting — to step back and consider the vastness of human experience, in all its horror and glory combined.

Screen grabs from three TikTok witches.
From “What is WitchTokm and why is it trending? – TikTok Explained” from GoSocial.co.

[1] This is my catch-all substitute phrase for ‘religion’ until I know the person I’m speaking with has an equivalently broad understanding of religion.  This can include atheism, agnosticism, and nontheistic belief systems such as Buddhism, for example.

[2] Josephson-Storm, Jason Ānanda. (2017). The myth of disenchantment: Magic, modernity, and the birth of the human sciences. The University of Chicago Press.

[3] Recommended fictional reading on this: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I don’t want to give spoilers, but there’s an amazing section at the beginning where teenage Pi (the title character) is an adherent of three different faiths, and one day his three spiritual teachers run into each other in the street and are like, ‘Pi, you literally can’t be a member of three different faiths’ and Pi is, like, ‘Um, why not? I’ve been doing this for a while with no problems,’ and they’re basically stumped but try to argue about it anyway. It’s gold. Also, the rest of the book is hauntingly beautiful, I highly recommend it. Best CG tiger ever in the film version. You can tell the real tiger from the CG one because the CG one is a better actor.

[4] I’m obsessed lately with the relationship between video games and magic. Homo Ludens explores the nature of play as an integral part of being human.  Once I read C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art, I imagine I’ll revisit it in a blog post.

[5] Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966). The Savage Mind. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

[6] There are lots of great episodes here, but check out this discussion on the Religious Studies Project podcast between Véronique Altglas and Christopher Cotter regarding bricolage https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/an-interview-with-veronique-altglas-on-bricolage/

[7] “Definition of Religion.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 February 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition_of_religion.

[8] “Religion.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 April 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion.

[9] “Outline of Religion.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 April 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_religion.

[10] Gallagher, E. V., & Robinson, J. M. (2019). The Religious Studies Skills Book: Close reading, critical thinking, and comparison. Bloomsbury Academic.

[11] Religion today: Themes and Issues https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/religious-studies/religion-today-themes-and-issues/content-section-0?active-tab=content-tab Note: Free online course offered through Open.edu.

[12] Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures https://pll.harvard.edu/course/religious-literacy-traditions-and-scriptures?delta=2 Note: Free online course offered through Harvard University and edX.

[13] RoyIntPhilosophy. (2019, December 5). C. Thi Nguyen: The gamification of public discourse (Royal Institute of Philosophy). YouTube. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LpbGW3qLVg

[14] Religious literacy is a whole other topic and it’s enlightening to take a religious literacy test to see how you score – and have a cold hard look at ones own ignorance, ha. While most religious literacy tests focus on ‘the big three’, they’re still illuminating. https://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/u-s-religious-knowledge-quiz/


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