Magic Story Syndrome

Back in the good old days, I once watched an episode of Candid Camera in which Alan Funt gathered a bunch of people with a sub-par sense of humor, told them a joke, and then recorded them trying to re-tell the joke to other people. The bit was pretty comical, because the people tended to mangle the punch line so badly that you could tell they never really understood the joke in the first place. And yet they told the joke anyway, and expected people to laugh.

I’ve been reading some accounts recently of unbelievers trying to have a discussion with presuppositionalists (e.g. Russell Glasser and Aron Ra), and something about presuppositionalism reminds me of Candid Camera. It’s almost as though the presuppositionalists are just repeating a story, with no real understanding of how that story is supposed to work, in order to obtain an expected response. And in fact, I think for many believers, that’s exactly what is happening. The Gospel isn’t just a story, it’s a magic story. Maybe there are things about it that you don’t understand. Maybe there are things that don’t make sense. But never mind. Just tell the story, and sooner or later it’s going to produce a magical result, and people will be saved.

I think that’s why people like “Randy” seek out conversations with well-informed and capable unbelievers like Aron Ra. It doesn’t matter that, in purely intellectual terms, you’re going to lose badly. The story itself, despite its visible flaws, supposedly possesses an inner, supernatural virtue that bypasses the mind and works directly on the heart. All you have to do is get the story in front of people, and the Gospel itself will miraculously convert people for you. Randy was hoping, not for an intellectual victory, but for a spiritual one.

And unfortunately, there are a lot of gullible people out there who do indeed respond to the gospel despite the flaws and inconsistencies in the story itself. There are whole businesses out there that market “church growth” consulting services to congregations that want to attract more members, and these consultants will tell you that the real success factor is networking: one person drawing in another on the basis of the personal relationship between them. It’s a purely psychosocial phenomenon, as witnessed by the fact that it works equally well regardless of the religion being promoted. Yet somehow the Magic Story gets all the credit for the result.

Magic Story Syndrome is hard to fight, because it moves the focus of the conflict away from reason and evidence, and into the realm of invisible magic. You can try and show people the flaws in the Gospel, and they’ll assume that you’re sharing your own magic story, and that the details are irrelevant. The fact that they refuse to change their minds means that their magic story has more mojo than yours, and therefore theirs is the right story!

I haven’t got a good answer for this one, but I think it’s perhaps marginally useful to be able to describe what’s going on so we can at least think about it and discuss it.


  1. scrutationaryarchivist says

    It’s a purely psychosocial phenomenon…

    Which is why I wonder how effective it is to argue facts and evidence with such people. They believe in religion and dogma because of emotional connections to specific loved ones and to social groups seen as beneficial. I don’t think little children become religious because they were converted from accepting detailed scientific facts to rejecting them all for magic stories. The magic stories and the trusted storytellers came first, in the literal and figurative senses.

    Magic Story Syndrome is hard to fight, because it moves the focus of the conflict away from reason and evidence, and into the realm of invisible magic.

    But how much of the battleground is about reason and evidence? When is it effective to argue the scientific facts, and when is it not? How do you make inroads against an emotional identification, and a tribal identity, in which scientific facts don’t enter the equation?

    • kagekiri says

      As a former blinkered fundie Christian; yeah, sometimes standing up to their silly arguments and stories can at least help them realize their stories aren’t so magical after all.

      I know I was really scared of getting dismantled by atheist arguments, and tended to avoid them; I told myself it was because I didn’t want to fail and then end up making the atheist become more sure of God’s terribleness through my representation, but a lot was just plain fear of my faith being damaged. I did read tons of apologetics, but never the sources of the counter-Christian arguments.

      One of the biggest things that finally pushed me toward considering outside opinions was the existence of good people who had no religion. In high school, there were crappy Christians and crappy non Christians, but the non-Christians seemed more “immoral” (drinking, sex, cussing…yeah, I was a conservative prude).

      Then getting into college, there were people who were just as well-mannered, more chill, and generally happy without obscenities as I was, yet they were atheists. I was confused; sometimes I wanted to ask them why they’d be good without God. I’d taken the Bible’s take of atheists as evil and inherently foolish for their atheism at face value, and it was simply disproven by the reality of good atheists. That was at least a first step towards being able to hear counter-arguments.

      • scrutationaryarchivist says

        Thanks for the reply, kagekiri.

        Do you know if other ex-fundamentalists have had the same experience?

        I wonder if atheists will have more of an effect on society by having many good people “out of the closet” than we will by having a few specialists repeating known scientific facts. Maybe each approach gains from the other?

  2. mikespeir says

    There is a certain mystique to the story. Much of that is cultural. But remember that religion had been tweaked for millennia before it eventually morphed into Christianity. It has been polished up a lot in the ensuing years to impart a shine of concinnity and has been filled with a comforting emotional brew that can be psychologically palliative if certain givens are adopted. So there is some magic, but it’s all contrived.

  3. Coragyps says

    Jack Chick’s entire corpus of work is based on exactly what you are talking about. (Well, along with a little antisemite and antipapist window dressing.) Show baby-eating devil-worshippers that are just trying to take a crap in a public restroom a twenty-page comic book that refers to the Magic Story, and POW!!!, they will convert! Hallelujah!

      • BCat70 says

        Been there, done that. Sorry, but Chick tracts reputation still exceeds reality in EVERY category.

  4. Kazim says

    @scrutationaryarchivist: One of the primary reasons for arguing with this stuff is to start generating the proper memes so that they are easy to come across when people are confronting unfamiliar arguments for the first time. Sure, presuppositional apologetics probably “works” some percent of the time on people who don’t know how to answer it. But some people might search for answers and find Aron Ra’s videos, or my blog posts. If they learn from those responses, they’ll wrangle with them and hopefully be able to duplicate these arguments.

    And eventually, one would hope that every time a presuppositional apologist tries to trot out his argument in public, he’ll be very likely to get shut down by someone who knows what they’re talking about. It’s all about spreading memes to change the social environment.

    -Russell Glasser

  5. Tony says

    Great thoughts! I hope my comments will be seen as extensions of your thoughts rather than as criticisms. Apologies for its length.

    First, I’m grateful for this blog post because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what you call “Magical Story Syndrome” in conjunction with a book I’ve been reading titled “Dignity” by Donna Hicks. In particular I’ve been thinking about the message of the Gospel and its role in terms of Christians’ perception of their self-worth…their dignity.

    Second, I’m as frustrated as you are with the “Magical Story Syndrome”, especially in how it “moves the focus of the conflict away from reason and evidence”, making believers almost impervious to thoughtful counter arguments/evidence. It seems like many people just believe b/c they want the ‘better’ (i.e. the more emotionally satisfying) story!

    Third, I hear a lot of non-believers who are fed up with this sentimental mindset saying that we as non-believers need to understand is details x, y, and z about the specifics of their Christian values if we want to successfully counter their out-dated and demonstrably false beliefs.

    Fourth, in general, when we understand what it is that makes someone else feel valuable (and why), we can better understand and appreciate why it is they’re drawn to their specific values and worldview. Without that knowledge we cannot really expect to dialogue constructively about our disagreements, much less suggest any convincing reasons as to why they should consider changing their minds.

    Finally, rather than needing to dissect Christian values and arguments/apologetics, we need to understand and accept the depth of which the Christian narrative makes Christians FEEL VALUABLE, and that that’s why so many people stick with it (or are drawn to it). It’s especially persistent if they were raised in the faith.

    It’s easy to ignore/reject data and arguments when one feels that their very dignity is being challenged or violated. As such, evidential/logical rebuttals of the Christian narrative, no matter how seemingly devastating, will likely roll off; not because the rebuttals are irrelevant, but because the alternative narrative makes them feel devalued. It is FELT as an attack on their dignity, and the brain processes such attacks the same as it does physical attacks.

    In short, it’s not about value claims or evidence, but about dignity and self-worth claims. We need to VERY GENTLY show them that Christianity is not really about dignity, but about indignity and dehumanization, starting with the idea that humanity was once ‘Perfect’ and is now ‘Fallen’ and in need of a divine savior. This is perhaps the MOST pernicious idea in all of human history. We were never divinely perfect, but we were always HUMAN. As I like to say “We are perfectly human, and divinely imperfect.”

  6. JamesB says

    And in their minds they have an actual magician: the Holy Spirit.

    I remember feeling this way when “presenting the gospel”. I said the words and some magic had to happen afterwards to convince them. So long as I did my part, the culpability was on the listener at that point.

      • JamesB says

        1 Cor 2:14 was my mantra. If someone didn’t “get it” then they just weren’t listening to the Holy Spirit. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

  7. says

    Thank you Duncan, this is something I’ve been saying for years without really unpacking it.

    My version is that so many Christians put all the emphasis on spreading the Word and none on making it stick, because God takes care of that part Himself. In your terminology, they just want to put the magic story out there and let it do its work.

    As for solutions, I’m pretty much with Russell: disseminate the good reply memes for this kind of apologetic and, perhaps more importantly, popularise particular events where the magic story fails. Anything to make it look a bit less magical.

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