I Want to Believe . . . But I Don’t Have To

A commenter raised the common interpretation of magic: that it relies strongly upon belief. I say this is common because it’s an idea I’ve run into before, either in the form that it only works if you believe in it, or belief somehow “powers” it. I do not subscribe to this view.

First, if magic only worked if you believed in it, why does it work for people who don’t even know it’s being done on their behalf (or to them?) I have seen this many times. People who don’t even believe in magic can benefit from its effects.

Second, if belief was the engine that changed reality, why aren’t the delusional the most powerful magicians of all. Yet they’re not: they live difficult lives and cannot easily function. One rebuttal is that perhaps they’re counteracted by the democratic union of all sane beliefs. But if that were the case, then all we need to do is point to a time in history when the vast majority strongly believed something untrue. That’s not hard.

Finally, if belief was the driving force of magic, all it would take is plenty of confidence. I know people who are extremely confident in their abilities — yet can’t manage to achieve even basic magical goals.

No, there is a real, absolute truth. It isn’t an easy truth to perceive (in fact, we can never be certain that we have perceived it; we must always leave open the possibility of being convinced otherwise). People don’t like to hear that, especially in magical circles where a sort of naive relativism is the norm. But there is truth, and belief does not change truth.


16 Responses to “I Want to Believe . . . But I Don’t Have To”

  1. Here is another example, early in my magical career, I did a couple of spells purely for laughs, goofing around. “Oh, this grimoire says that if you say these words, then this will happen. Oh yeah, right…” How many people did their first spells as non-believers? I know that I did.

  2. Thanks for your answer.
    To begin with, let me say that I am not so sure of the belief-interpretation of magic anymore – partly because of the experiences shared by other commenters in the last post (regards to inominandum).

    The first argument you bring up just proves IMHO, that magic works and that it is more than just self-delusion. I cannot see why that fact should disprove the belief-paradigm. When I belief that (my) magic helps or influences another person and thereby works in that way, there is no real problem in it. One could also argue that in Mr. Ecksteins example an unconscious fear or anxiety could have triggered the effect of the spell. I am unsure about it, but I believe that at this point both explanations are valid.

    The second argument on the other hand is a very strong one and albeit there are explanations (special forms or ways of belief) by the hard belief-believers, I don´t think they are good ones.

    The third one is an argument I cannot say much about, because I don´t know that special kind of person.

    Let me add that I do not think that there´s no absolute truth, even the so called chaos-magicians believe in the absolute truth that belief forms the world (or don´t they?). The main reason I like the belief-theory is that it explains why incompatible paradigms of magic work, although there is no way both could be true in an absolute sense. Secondly, my first experiences with (active) magic came to pass without any knowledge about established systems of magic and are – in retrospect – best described as a kind of random belief.

    So, in a nutshell:
    – I do not believe that the belief-does-magic-theory is entirely correct, mainly because of considerations similar to your second argument and because of empirical evidence hinted at in this forum.

    – because of my personal experiences I cannot believe most classical theorys of magic to be true.

    That´s why I liked “postmodern magic”, because it seems to me that your explanation is not affected by both problems. I do not fully understand it (yet), but I do have a good feeling that it´s a step in the right direction.
    The reason I wrote the last comment was that I always thought the belief-paradigm to acquire the status of a sub theory, incorporated into your information-model. Because of that, your answer to Marco´s Question seemed unneccesary complicated. That´s clarified now.

    I would like to know if you – or anybody else reading this – have some ideas about why magic works without any knowledge of established magical theory or religion – without resorting to the belief-paradigm.

    best regards


    • inominandum Says:

      Hi, sorry I didnt get a chance to post the specifics on each example yet. I have been away from the PC for most of the weekend.

      The answer to this question though is easy: Magic works without any knowlege of magical theory or religion for the same reason that your car works without any knowlege of mechanical or electrical engineering. You follow the instructions and it works. That simple.

      Spirits are real. Magical force that often gets described as energy is real (on a number of levels). God are real. The power of the mind is even more real than any of that. So why wouldnt magic work?

      What specifically incompatible paradigms are you talking about?

      • Hi,
        It seems to me that most of you have had this discussion a hundred times now, so thanks for your patience to do it a 101th time. I really appreciate that.

        You wrote: “Magic works without any knowlege of magical theory or religion for the same reason that your car works without any knowlege of mechanical or electrical engineering. You follow the instructions and it works. That simple.”

        In my case sometimes I didn´t know the instructions (or had even wrong instructions) – and unless there is an entity (god, spirit, force, principle or anything like it) who likes to do favors for dumb fools who have no idea of said instructions, I can´t see the reason for it.

        “What specifically incompatible paradigms are you talking about?” – well, for example, in my childhood I had a rather simple monotheistic world view of christian flavor and with a kind of prayer I have had favourable results. Later I had a more kind of pantheistic world view with the belief-paradigm incorporated and had even better results. Also I dabbled in some polytheistic paradigms (e.g. use of old-egyptian gods and principles) which I used in a most likely wrong way and had a bit of success.

        Said monotheistic world view seems to me quite incompatible with anything else. Another example could be all those different interpretations of elements in different cultures. Or the interpretation of certain concepts (e.g. the symbol “devil” is sometimes interpreted as a form of pure violence and totally opposed to anything living and sometimes as a pure force of live and lust) comes to mind. Another specific example would be the use of egyptian gods in magical theory which is very much opposed to what egyptologists have found out in the last years about that religion (a friend of mine is an egyptologist).

        So, provided that not all of my experiences with magic are based on self-delusion and that there is a kind of absolute truth, I cannot yet see a way how two incompatible belief-systems could work, unless either the act of believing itself is the trigger of it, or they are more compatible than I think, or my way of thinking is faulty on a very basic level.

      • pomomagic Says:

        The things symbols signify, the signifieds, are not discrete entities. They’re more like a range of spaces that symbols stake out, like lines on a map. We can say “this is Germany,” and draw a line, but that line has been very fluid and flexible over time. Similarly, the divine is pretty complicated; is it one or many? (Yes). Is Horus to be propitiated in this way or that way? (Possibly both) The absolute truth of Germany aren’t the lines on the map, or the names of her cities, or the names of her rivers. It’s the environment staked out by those lines — and not just that, but the cultures implied by the name. In other words, a symbol points to a rich and complex web of other symbols, in a nearly infinite regression. So of course there’s a lot of complexity and flexibility. But that doesn’t mean anything goes: I can’t declare my house a part of Germany just cause I like schnitzel.

  3. I think the problem with the “belief powers magick” idea is that people figure out that doubts can get in the way of doing it successfully and then generalize from there. But once you’ve put your doubts aside you can’t really “believe more” to get a better result. It’s not a power thing, it’s a consciousness thing.

    How doubt inhibits magick can be explained well using your information model, belief = power not so much. Doubt in effect divides consciousness against itself so when you communicate your state of consciousness to the target it’s muddled and confused – a bad signal. So your spell won’t work as well.

    The other point related to this is that doubt only needs to be put aside while you’re doing the ritual, or if you will, sending your signal. Once that’s done and your mind is back into mundane consciousness mode skepticism isn’t going to affect your spell because you already sent it out. Folks who are invested in the belief = power model call this “flexibility of belief” but I’m convinced that in reality it’s just operating from a doubt-free perspective for a limited period of time.

  4. Weirdly I viscerally react to the notion that “belief powers magic” for political reasons. It’s a cop-out, foisted upon us by a materialist orthodox… Their “concession” to our funny little ideas. It sounds like a line from a Disney movie.

    Also it simply, patently doesn’t. And anyone who THINKS it does hasn’t had any success with magic. Ever. They should take up knitting.

    Which is my way of saying I really like this post and you’re awesome.

    • pomomagic Says:

      Thanks, Gordon. I appreciate that. And if they do take up knitting, I hope they make me a scarf. A man never have too many magical scarves.

  5. I think we might be on the same wavelenght because I posted about this a couple weeks ago 🙂

    What I have found is that the power of magick revolves around the will power, that ability of the magician to direct the entirety of his focus and power upon the malleable and subtle stuff that forms our reality. It is also the will that allows us to clearly communicate with the spirit movers of that reality.

    Belief has nothing to do with this ability. However having an unshakable conviction can help support that will. This isn’t to say you have to believe in order to do magick, but you have to have some measure of faith in your own ability.

    This is supported by the fact that the greatest results seem to result from people who are able to clearly communicate what they want to happen either via ritual/spell or able to clearly communicate to the spirit they are working with.

  6. That belief isn’t the be-all-end-all to magic I fully believe, but I think it plays a large part in it because I once did something that I can’t explain beyond pure belief. I was *extremely* deluded (in the crazy, “I’m a god” sort of way that psychologically unstable occultists get sometimes) at the time, whole-heartedly believed in my ability to do something that shouldn’t have been possible and actually, somehow, accomplished it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to have conjured gold or anything. I was playing a trading catrd game with a cousin and he was utterly creaming me. He used a card that allowed him to arrange the top five cards of the deck in any order, provided he showed me what they were. And I told him he wasn’t getting those cards, and concentrated, willed that he get nothing but a specific type of useless (at the time) card instead.

    I took my turn. Nobody touched his deck at all. And when his turn came up he drew a card, and it wasn’t any of the cards that should’ve been on top. He refused to continue the game (can’t imagine why, lol) and instead started laying out cards off the top of his deck. Every single copy of the card I was willing him to draw instead was piled, somehow, on top of the deck. Fourteen of them. The cards that *should* have been on top of the deck were scattered throughout the rest of the deck, seperated from one another.

    I’ve never managed to do anything like that since, and especially since (with a lot of time) I managed to get stabliized and grounded again. But I don’t know how to explain (beyond pure belief) how through sheer force of will the order of a deck two people already knew got changed without anyone touching it. It’s not even like it was shuffled; in a deck of 60 cards, all 14 of the same card came directly to the top from being scattered through the deck and the ones that we *knew* were on top disappeard throughout.

    I mean, I’m open to suggestions, if you don’t think I’m full of cr*p by this point 😛 I would probably think that if I were reading what I just wrote without having lived it. My point was, I sort of have to believe that belief in what one can do is a prime factor for accomplishing magickal/psychic feats. I don’t think it’s THE factor, but a major factor nonetheless.

    • Rodrigo Says:

      You know Zeta, I find your point to be quite interesting. Personally I think that the belief element must only be used as an experiment in order to get a result, repeat the experiment many times, compare results and from those results make a solid spell. What happened you that time probably was that you where ACTUALLY doing some magic without even knowing, you should try to remember what was your complete mental status at that time, maybe you wherent just “believing”; maybe you subconsciously KNEW something and put it in practice. Magic and science are the same thing basically, there is something stronger than to believe and that is to know, experiment many times so you can know what you´re working on so then you can use your energy with a way more confidence and power.

      Thats my humble magic apprentice advice!

  7. […] isn’t a model at all, because it doesn’t predict much of anything. I’ll refer to Patrick Dunn’s post on this, and get back to your […]

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