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A few weeks ago, I listened to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast hosted by Seth Andrews with Dr. Chrissy Stroop called “I Left Because…” It was a call-in show where people shared their stories about why and how they left organized religion to become atheists. Some were dramatic, but the majority were comprised of gradually drifting away as they learned more about about the religion itself and the world around them. My own deconversion was likewise a gradual process as I realized how little sense religious doctrine made. I went from being Christian (specifically Lutheran Protestant) to Deism (the clockmaker god), flirted briefly with Wicca and paganism, stayed agnostic for a while, and finally embraced the label of atheist and humanist (in part to help destigmatize the word “atheist” and to help show that you can be “good without god.”)
However, when I was telling this to a friend, I told them that I stopped being Wiccan because it was so anti-climactic compared to the fantasy novels I was used to reading. My friend expressed surprise that fantasy actually helped me leave religion rather than encouraging me to stay, since magical thinking is required to accept a lot of religious tenants. I hadn’t actually thought about this and decided to examine this idea further.
First, what is “magical thinking”? It’s the idea that you can influence events or the material world just by thinking about it, or that certain, often ritualistic, actions create an unrelated effect. Things like wishing on a star, knocking on wood to ward off bad luck, talking to your car or computer in the hopes it will start up or work faster, “don’t step on a crack or you’ll fall and break your back,” etc. These are usually harmless and are indulged in by young children who are supposed to grow out of it. But during those vulnerable years when it is harder to link and understand cause and effect or differentiate causation from correlation, or even what reality is, religion has a fertile ground to take hold of. That’s why kids are sent to Sunday School (if you are a Christian in the United States) and why religions are adamant about parents instilling religious beliefs and doctrines into their children as young as possible. The parents don’t mean to cause harm, but blurring the lines between reality and fantasy that early can have devastating consequences as they grow older.
When I was a kid, I had a copy of The Children’s Bible Storybook right next to my books of fairy tales. I read both with equal enjoyment and at the time both seemed entirely plausible, although I usually found the bible stories a bit more boring. For an almighty, all-powerful god, he didn’t seem to do anything nearly as impressive as the witches and wizards in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. The only major difference was that the adults in my life didn’t believe there were fairies in the forest, but did believe a man was killed and rose three days later.
I didn’t draw a distinction. If a man could walk on water and rise from the dead, and there was a place called Heaven we went when we died, why couldn’t there be dragons and fairies and portals to other worlds? So I looked for dragons in the clouds, explored every ring of rocks or oddly-shaped tree, and patiently waited for my letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I firmly believed in magic and these fantasy creatures. They were firmly incorporated into my worldview, alongside Jesus and his disciples. All of it seemed perfectly rational, perfectly real.
When my aunt died of breast cancer at the age of 47, my faith in religion started to topple. I hadn’t been seriously worried about her because God only made bad people die early and my aunt was the best person I knew. All I had to do was pray and God would heal her. That’s what all the stories said. So I said my child-prayers and trusted that God would take care of everything.
It wasn’t enough. She still died. It was only later that I learned she’d been battling this cancer for eleven years. The senselessness shook me. The claims that “It’s all part of God’s plan” or “She’s in a better place” only angered and confused me. What sane plan from a loving, benevolent god involved taking a beloved family member away? God would have had her eventually, so why didn’t he heal her and let her stay longer, playing games with us and making art? I was a child and my religion taught me that God loved little children and answered prayers, but he hadn’t answered the ones where I asked him, not for something selfish, but to spare my aunt’s life. It took another decade to completely shake off religion, but that event was the first major crack in the foundations.
While I waited for real magic to be revealed to me, I kept reading fantasy novels. But as the years passed and I saw no sign of dragons in spite of fervent belief, my faith in magic began to slip. The magic in these stories was real and powerful but there was no sign of it in daily life. Clerics could call on their gods to heal their allies, but in reality people addressed prayers to a god that was supposedly creator of the universe and still had their loved ones died of injuries and disease. Despite claiming to love humanity and having Jesus die for our sins, there was still staggering amounts of unalleviated suffering in the world. The power of the Christian god looked mighty pale and feeble in comparison to the pantheons of Toril in The Forgotten Realms, or of Krynn in Dragonlance. Their gods and magical thinking actually had real impacts on their worlds, both for good and ill. The claims of Christianity looked weak and incoherent in comparison.
One might think that Wicca or some other form of paganism would appeal to me because of the similarities to magic rituals in the fantasy novels I loved so much. But it was that very similarity that kept me from believing in the Lord and Lady of Wicca or taking their rituals seriously. While I do think that the tenants of Wicca that are based more in the rhythms of nature are less harmful than those of other faiths, it still doesn’t have any effect on the material world. I can see how the rituals can give comfort to people and help with focus or meditation practices (something I am not good at), and I enjoy a lot of the symbolism. But after reading about mages chanting spells to throw fireballs and summon familiars to their side, chanting over a scented candle and dipping your fingers in a bowl of water to craft a blessing seems far more silly than magical. I tried it for a while, but found Wiccan spells no more convincing or effective than I had Christian prayers.
And so I finally ended with atheism, not believing in any god or gods, although I remain open to the possibility that perhaps one day we may find evidence of a creator of some kind. However, I think it far more likely that if such a thing exists, it will be akin to the Deistic clockmaker who set everything in motion and does not intercede through prayers, or that it’s some connective life energy like the Force from Star Wars or the Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII. The deities humans worship are far less likely to exist for numerous reasons explained and expounded upon by people with far better credentials than I. Suffice to say that I no longer find the claims of religion to be compelling and I feel much happier and better off for it.
I will say that it does make it a little harder to have gods or religion in my stories unless they have direct interactions with the world or are elemental in nature, like the spirits that inhabit all things in Shintoism. I also tend to have more deistic, agnostic, or atheistic characters, or at least ones for whom religion is not a large or important part of their lives. But that’s okay. We need representation of those views in fiction. Maybe that combination of fantasy and nonreligious attitudes in my characters will help someone else shake off the shackles of magical, religious thinking.