America's 'magical faith' and its tragic consequences

A recent study of religion in America, the Baylor Religious Survey published by Baylor University and conducted by Gallup in the fall of 2010, reveals nearly three out of four Americans “know," not just believe, that God has a plan for them.

More than 80 percent of political conservatives affirm an “ultimate truth” operating in the world that has God’s “invisible hand” in control of the economy. Government is, they believe, a secular obstacle that gets in the way of the Almighty. Less government, according to this conservative belief, would make room for God to truly bless the United States.

Along with this belief that God is intimately involved in worldly affairs and in everyone’s personal life, there is the Calvinist assumption those who succeed do so because God personally blesses them. It is a thread of religiosity that goes back to the pilgrims, and continues to operates below the surface inflating both a national and a personal sense of self-worth.

Personal wealth is a sign of divine blessing, according to this theology. National success is because God has blessed America. If one is not a success, it is because they have not worked hard enough and because they have put their faith in things other than God. Only a turning back to God, for individuals and for the nation as a whole, will truly make us all blessed, they believe.

The religious phenomenon being portrayed has been described as "magical thinking," or, more precisely, associative thinking, which is defined as seeing a correlation between what one does or says and the outcome of particular events.

A magical faith, or magical religion, exists when there is the belief that in the performance of certain behaviors, or in the saying of particular words, the result of an event or circumstance can be controlled. The belief that a limited government will open a door for God to make the United States more prosperous and powerful in the world is magical thinking. The assumption that if one just believes more strongly in God and practice one’s faith more dutifully, God will make one wealthy is a magical faith. The gospel of prosperity that so dominates much of the religious right is based in this magical thought and belief process.

The theology of a magical faith has two very unhealthy characteristics that can operate independently or in accord with one another.

The first is a belief that God, being all-knowing and all-powerful, arbitrarily chooses one person or nation over others for blessing. People, in the face of such arbitrariness, must accept one’s fate, for better or for worse.

The second alternative is the belief that one can influence the Divine choice. The latter option leads to the magical belief that through the right actions or incantations, God’s behavior can be manipulated. This result is, from a traditional understanding of the religious life, idolatry. It is idolatrous because one makes oneself the power broker in the Divine/human relationship. Magical behavior magically controls the behavior of God in this belief system.

There is another, non-magical, way of relating to God, and to life in the world. It is not necessary to become totally secular to be free from the idolatrous outcome of magical thinking and faith.

Rather than believing in a deity that is arbitrarily all-powerful, or one who is diminished by human manipulation, the mystery of God could be understood in other ways. God can be appreciated to be moving within all of creation, including human beings and their social structures, to bring well-being, peace, compassionate love and beauty to fruition.

Rather than viewing life in the world as one of winners and losers, with the winners blessed by God’s favor; we could imagine life as a cooperative and harmonious unfolding, with shifts and starts and setbacks, that is a beautiful expression of the ongoing creative enterprise that requires the participation of all. Blessing is not the capturing of wealth or power for oneself. To be blessed is to participate in the wonder of life’s unfolding.

The world we live in, a world dominated by magical thinking and a magical faith, creates an atmosphere of conflict. It is a world perceived as us versus them. It is a world of winners and losers and of the haves and the have-nots. We find ourselves desperately attempting to be a winner and one of the haves.

A strategy of defense is to believe that God is on our side. It is a way of life that encourages the winners to be arrogantly self-righteous and the losers to believe that they are to blame for their loss. The poor become, at best, an embarrassment and an unwanted burden. They might be worthy of charity, but there should be little corporate social obligation for their care. At worst, they are seen as undesirable sinners rejected by God and by society. If you haven’t succeeded, if you happened to have been born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, the prophetic implications of our magical faith offers the least among us little hope. With few exceptions, their future is bleak.

The arrogant voices of those who succeed declare that if they were able to make it anybody can. They believe that they “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” The self-proclaimed Christian conservative candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Herman Cain, castigated the Occupy Wall Street protests saying: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

A prophetic voice can also be heard in answer to such arrogance. Elizabeth Warren, the candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts replied to Cain, and to all the other self-righteous, magically thinking proponents of their own success: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers ther rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for…. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific…? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

In the light of the gross inequities of America’s current social structure, perhaps we will be guided to let go of our destructive belief system. Maybe we will open our hearts and minds to a new way forward, a way characterized by a cooperative spirit, one that desires to be in harmony with one another, with the environment and with the Sacred Spark that beckons us into a more beautiful future.

All three Abrahamic faiths, at foundation, understand the life of faith not as a magical engagement with the world and with the Divine, but one of compassionate love and the unfolding of a beautiful creation.

In Christianity, the beauty of compassionate love is expressed in the definition of the very character of God. John the Evangelist proclaims that, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s very nature, in whose image humanity was create according to the Christianity, implies that it is love that should guide the Christian’s life.

The Psalms, which informs both Christians and Jews alike, says that, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made (Psalm 145:8-9)." Because the Lord is good and compassionate over all of creation, so also should human beings live such compassion.

Islam also urges the believer to a life of compassionate love. The Koran says: "O mankind! We created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you should despise one another). Indeed the most honorable of you in the sight of God is the most righteous" (Chapter 49, Verse 13).

Similar sentiments can be found in all of the world’s religions. The magical faith structures that too often dominate the practice of religion, leads us away from the compassion that is at the heart of these faiths. Arrogant self-righteousness is the result, and it is a tragedy for the various faiths, for society, and for all who suffer because of it.

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