In which I provoke a domestic disagreement about magic

I do my best to be honest and straightforward with my boys, and also to respect their ability to answer question for themselves. In religion, as in most things, it’s more important to me that they think, evaluate the evidence and reach their own considered conclusions than that they reach the same answer as me.

Magic Wand

No, you can’t have my miracle wand

So when my elder son wanted to know what a miracle was, I tried to give him a fair and balanced explanation that a six-year-old would be able to understand. A brief run through some basic details, claims and understandings wasn’t too bad, but when he asked how it worked, I briefly hesitated and then said it was a bit like magic.

This was a mistake.

I know that calling such things magic is often considered pejorative and even insulting, so I generally try to avoid the word in this context unless I have a very good reason for using it. But I couldn’t think of a better explanation that was appropriate for his age and attention span. It might upset some, but in the context, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable description.

The problem is that he knows magic isn’t real.

We told him that, but only when he’d more or less discovered it for himself. He got a magic wand for Christmas, and was upset that it didn’t work because he couldn’t turn his little brother into a frog. Simply telling him that it doesn’t work like that and there’s no such thing as real magic isn’t exactly the Socratic method, but Socrates was never woken up at 6am on Christmas morning.


Younger son, yesterday

I’ve mentioned before that he’s obsessed with differentiating between what’s real and what isn’t, and now that he has this piece of information stored in his brain, it has the status of holy writ: Magic Is Not Real. I should probably have remembered this and watched my step, but I think I just screwed up.

Although strangely, he didn’t retort with his new favourite fact about the non-reality of magic, he just accepted what I said and wandered off to play with some Lego. It was my wife who later pointed out what I’d done, and mildly objected to her beliefs being associated with something permanently filed as Not Real.

She was right, of course – if I’d been thinking clearly, or if I’d had more time to consider my response, I wouldn’t have used those words. But I’m still not sure what I should have said instead.

I think Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” offers some justification for my words, but let’s say the “M” word is totally out of the question – leaving aside “some people think” formulations which more or less dodge the question, is there any way of explaining the supernatural in simple, meaningful terms that respect both those beliefs and my doubts?

I’m not sure if there is, which is interesting in itself, but I’d be interested in any suggestions.

Photos by Caro’H and Fayes4Art, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

4 responses to “In which I provoke a domestic disagreement about magic”

  1. Invisible Mikey says :

    This is a fun challenge, since it isn’t my child 😉

    A miracle is something that happens, even though what happens is supposed to be completely impossible. If you CAN figure out something about how it happens, then it isn’t a miracle. Lots of things in the past were considered miracles, but then some one figured out how they happen, so they aren’t called miracles any more.

    People sometimes use the word “miracle” incorrectly, as if anything that is remarkable or unusual is a “miracle”. For example, a baby being born is a wonderful thing, but it’s also something that happens often, and is completely natural. Birth is not a miracle. We know all about it. That doesn’t make it any less wonderful and cool, though. Love is not a miracle either. It’s available to everyone. You don’t have to know everything about how something happens for it to not be a miracle. Knowing anything about how is enough to disqualify a miracle.

    We sometimes have come up with medicines for diseases by trying different things, not knowing how or if they would work. Sometimes we get lucky and discover a medicine for curing a sickness that had no effective treatment before, illnesses that lots of people used to die from. Guess what we call those medicines? Miracle drugs!

  2. unkleE says :

    I think we can define miracle either by the source (i.e. God) or by the result (i.e. something that couldn’t have happened by natural processes).

    I think the source is the best. For example, suppose I pray for my friend to be healed from a virulant cancer, and he is healed. It is possible that it was a natural process, but also possible that God intervened, especially since the cure occurred after I prayed. One cause would be supernatural, one would be natural, we couldn’t tell the difference. So I don’t think defining by the result, as Invisible Mikey suggests, is the best in principle. Another example: God could decide to miraculously plant a seed that grows into a tree in my garden. This would be a miracle (the natural course of events was interrupted) but no-one could ever know, because seeds grow into trees in our garden all the time.

    So I think the best definition of a miracle is God doing something in the natural world that wouldn’t have occurred in the natural course of events.

    But the trouble is, we don’t have any reliable means of knowing when God does something to interrupt the natural course of events, so while that is a good definition, it isn’t very useful practically. That is where our assessment must be based on the result – if the event is unlikely naturally, and especially if it follows prayer for that result, we may say that it is probably a miracle. Of course we will get some false positives and false negatives, but statistically we’ll get it right overall.

    So that is my conclusion. A miracle is something God does in the natural world that wouldn’t have occurred in the natural course of events, but we can only know this to be a miracle if it is statistically unlikely any other way.

    • Invisible Mikey says :

      Much as I truly do like to believe in divine intervention, the order of two events is not evidence of a causal relationship. Saying prayer might provide a miracle because healing followed prayer doesn’t prove a relationship between the two events. Suppose you have a plane that crashes, on which you can safely assume most people are praying to survive as it’s going down. A few do survive. Are you going to tell me God provided a miracle for only those few, and the rest are deemed unworthy? Miracles must be entirely inexplicable, impossible events. Like a virgin having a baby, or a man rising again three days after dying.

      Spontaneous healing doesn’t count, because the expected outcome of even “terminal” diseases and injuries is inexact, an educated guess. Nobody in medicine knows the full limits of what bodies are capable of. I work in health care. I see cases of unexpected recovery and folks exceeding the prognosis every week. They aren’t all praying for it. They aren’t even all religious.

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