Magicians don’t believe in magic

What do magicians Penn and Teller have in common with many politicians, psychics and preachers? Well, they don’t really believe in the “magic” they are selling. The difference is that Penn and Teller have always told us exactly this upfront, and then fool us anyway.

The performances of Penn and Teller are an interesting contrast to those of illusionist and self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, of spoon-bending fame. Geller still maintains, despite credible debunking by magician James Randi and others, that he has supernatural abilities. Stage magic depends, however, not on the summoning of supernatural power at will, rather on a deep understanding of the limits of human perception. Real magicians are experts at exploiting the brain-based holes in our “seeing is believing” assumption, which is often false. Some magicians, like Geller, go further and incorporate common human belief in the supernatural into the stage act, which makes many people even easier to fool.

Preaching the magic

I have known many men and women over the years who have been ordained and credentialed in their respective religious organizations, and there is a similar split here as well in their role as pastors and preachers. While there is often more than a hint of supernatural belief in most clergy, my assertion is that most graduates of the “real schools” of religion and theology understand that there is a much more messy history behind their faith’s accepted scriptural writings than “the people in the pew” are often led to believe. Likewise, there a lot of demonstrable psychology, sociology and brain science going on in the “religious life” of faith communities that often explains beliefs and behaviors better than attribution to supernatural forces.

Many, if not most, Christian clergy and Jewish rabbis know these complications, but those explanations are largely left out of public religious services. Some denominations and religious movements are more open about this than others. A small number are religious versions of Penn and Teller, open about their own messy religious history and the “science of religion” with their congregants, but this remains a dangerous road for ministers to pursue in some denominations. [1]

A major problem here is that even if the preacher understands the idea of religious myth and allegory (I wrote about the “fightin’ words” of religious myth in an earlier post) and is careful about his or her language from the pulpit, those “people in the pew” often “hear literally.” For instance, in a reading of the story of Noah’s Ark, the preacher may know well the geological timeline issues and the many “flood stories” in other cultural traditions, but most people still likely “hear” this story as an actual historic and supernatural event. It is, for many clergy, a difficult line to walk.

Preaching the magic – politician-style

And where do you start with examples of politicians “preaching the gospel” of their political ideology knowing full well that they are often “sowing BS”? One of the most glaring examples currently is the Republican silence on trillion-dollar deficits under their watch when only four years ago “the world was ending” because of sizable-but-declining deficits during the Obama administration. Or “religious right” politicians openly embracing a President who flagrantly violates every one of the “seven deadly sins” by daily tweet. Or the embrace of dictators who were formerly “mortal enemies” of the United States.

Democrats have not been immune from this kind of hypocrisy, but the bar has clearly been raised in the last two years. And yet, across the political spectrum there remain “political Penn and Tellers” who will openly talk about the “political science” of bring diverse people together through advocacy and negotiation, and who have done a good job in living lives of personal moral probity, be they politically conservative or liberal. But as Republican Justin Amash, the very principled libertarian/conservative representative from Jerry Ford’s old district in Michigan (Ford himself being a master “politician in a good way” during his Congressional years) found out, after actually reading the Mueller Report, that “preaching the truth” can be a very lonely place to be when everybody else in your caucus is “preaching the magic.” [2]


  1. Neuroscientist/philosopher Daniel Dennett published an interesting study of this phenomenon, called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin Group 2006) , and co-founded “The Clergy Project,” which created an online “safe place” for clergy and religious workers who no longer accept all of their respective traditions’ supernatural beliefs.
  2. Recall that, during the Michael Cohen testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee, all Republicans “stuck to the script” of asking Cohen inane questions, except for Amash, who asked real and probative questions.

5 thoughts on “Magicians don’t believe in magic

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