Guest Post: Magical Thinking

Faith is viewed dramatically differently by the many different types of nontheists. There’s no one philosophy of thought held by nontheists in a group – we’re a disparate bunch – since we are largely unified merely by lack of belief in a god or gods. Some see faith and religion as not being such a bad thing at all. On message boards and blogs, you will often hear cries for moderation in our discourse, saying that we can all coexist with our many and myriad beliefs, and we should all live and let live. What’s the harm in that?

The harm is in what James Randi calls “magical thinking”. This is a product of faith, as I see it. Magical thinking is, at its most basic, allowing one’s self to accept arguments without any logic, evidence, or reasoning. Religious people accept that their god exists, miracles occurred, and any number of extraordinary things. The more educated theists will put forth arguments born of their faith-based logic, but when these are torn down by competent nontheists, all that is left is faith. “I just know.”

When asked if religion does any harm, therefore, I must emphatically say "yes." Even the most moderate of religions require, by their very definition, magical thinking. It is bad enough to see this in adults who refuse strong evidence which conflicts with their beliefs. I find it more abhorrent still that this magical thinking is then taught to their children. This can only stymie their intellectual growth, by providing logical dead-ends to their questions. Worse, the parents would then go on to glorify that same willful ignorance - faith is a virtue, after all.
A person who cites faith as a reason for believing something is proudly claiming they hold their belief with no supporting evidence asked for or given.

Again and again through history we've seen that sort of magical thinking be harmful. Consider the anti-vaccination movement: A group of people led by a vocal spokesperson, Jenny McCarthy, whose claims are dubious at best. However, they've "seen" it happen, or they know someone who has had it happen to them - their child or their friend's child or their aunt's first cousin twice removed had a friend who definitely caught autism from their MMR shots. A facetious example, to be sure, but this is how the “evidence” is presented. As an example, take one of Jenny McCarthy’s own blog posts. “I know children regress after vaccination because it happened to my own son.”

Prior to this statement, McCarthy quoted the parent of one of the 12 patients in Andrew Wakefield’s original study (more on this in a moment), who makes the other side of this claim.
“To hear that my son's gastrointestinal condition has been extensively refuted, by unqualified and ill-informed individuals who have never laid eyes on him, looking at and mis-interpreting scanty medical notes without the courtesy to ask for our version of our son's early childhood, flies in the face of everything that the medical community and its professional bodies seek to represent.”
This person may have legitimate issues with the studies done that concluded, of course, that there was no link between her child’s gastrointestinal disorder and autism. However, she is attempting to reach a hypothesis from an already defined conclusion, which flies in the face of the scientific method. In other words, she has seen this happen, and “knows” what must have caused it; therefore it must be shoddy science that refutes her particular claim.

The research, the evidence, and the scientific community is overwhelmingly against them. The first one to propose a vaccine-autism link was Andrew Wakefield, and his work was recently (finally!) discredited by prominent UK medical journalist Brian Deer. It was proven that Wakefield accepted upwards of $800,000 from lawyers who wanted him to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The scientific journal that originally published Wakefield’s work has since retracted it, publically and finally refuting the pseudoscience once and for all.

In response to all this, of course, Jenny McCarthy was not deterred. Here’s a rebuttal to this blog post by “Orac” of, which contains citations, links, and a lot more science than I’m capable of producing.

This is nothing short of willful, deliberate ignorance, despite overwhelming evidence against this vaccination-autism link. The original promoter of the idea has been debunked as a fraud. Not a single shred of evidence has ever turned up in favor of the idea. But still the idea persists, because McCarthy and those who follow her “believe” it to be true. They “know” that their child is afflicted by autism because of vaccines, and it seems like nothing will change their minds.

Children are dying because
people trust her more than
medical professionals
This brings me back to my original point. What’s the harm? They’re welcome to their own crazy ideas, so why get so worked up about it? As of 2008, measles have become endemic in the UK. The reason? Low MMR coverage – the same vaccine that McCarthy and other anti-vax types rail against the hardest. Whether this was caused directly by anti-vax efforts is irrelevant. It shows us that there is a pressing need for vaccinating our children, and it’s not to line pharmaceutical company’s pockets. It’s to maintain immunity as a species to diseases that should have been wiped out. A compendium of other examples from right here in the USA, check out the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website, which catalogues death and hospital reports from the CDC concerning illnesses in people who were never immunized, and more on Jenny McCarthy’s role in the anti-vax movement.

Religion is not the root cause of this sort of willful ignorance that can lead to serious harm. Religion is just a symptom of magical thinking; taking things on faith, or anecdotal evidence, or just “feeling” something to be so. Religion does, however, reinforce that faith is a good thing, to be prized and rewarded.

Instead, I say, question everything. Check your sources and cross your references; be a skeptic. Read up on What’s the Harm to hear sobering stories about the specific dangers of neglecting critical thinking. Only when we all think critically can we surmount the dangers posed by magical thinking.

Living in reality,



  1. Faith and reason have two, inseperable thot processes which, ummm, I thot you knew. Apparently you didn't. No problem. If you think of it in this perspective, you’ll swiftly come to the conclusion we all have a short time to live: ALL of U.S. will croak at some point in our lifelong demise, thus, our indelible spirit rises-up to meet our Maker - absolutely nuthin we can do bout that: our soul wants to be loved, nourished, enveloped, return-to-her-maker-thing. Jesus doesn't have a sign outside of Heaven saying, 'Those who don't believe? C’est la guerre. C'mon in. Guess I wasn’t as forthright as Marvel Comix'. Be on the pro-LIFE-eration side, don't be on the side which'll swiftly LET/LEAD you down. I’m a small 'peAce-de-resistance' of a Larger Picture: give your soul that final chance. Repent and believe. God bless you with discernment.

  2. I disagree that faith and reason are in any way inseparable. And what does that have to do with having a short time to live? The fact that we are going to eventually die does not mean we need to spend our lives in ignorance. In fact, I should think that it would make us prefer to live our lives as enlightened as possible - doing what we can to be happy, bring happiness to our loved ones, and relieve suffering where we can.

    I do not believe in any sort of immortal spirit that needs care provided by some otherworldly presence. I therefore don't need to prove myself so that your "loving god" will not choose to, instead, cast me down into a fiery pit of suffering for all eternity.

    The side of reason is the side of life - THIS life, the only one we have. I choose to do everything I can to make this a good one for me and those around me, and if I'm wrong, if there really is something out there judging me, if that's not enough for them - then that's not a very loving god, is it?

  3. Thank you all for these steaming piles of regurgitated pseudo-intellectual blather, you Hitchens-Dawkins parroting basement dwelling neck bearded megadouchers. Yours is a petty, trivial, localized, earth bound philosophy, unworthy of the universe.


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