In Defense of Magical Thinking

What if Magical Thinking is the Key to Spiritual Development?

In lecture #6 of the Great Courses series The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg discusses spiritual development. He starts by laying out the seven “stages of faith” defined by James W. Fowler in his 1981 book of that title, and follows with a description of close parallels he has observed in his own scientific research into the physical development of the brain.

Fowler numbers his seven stages of faith “stages zero through six” (so zero is the first stage, with one being the second, and so on). Stage zero occurs from birth through two years, and not a lot goes on there spiritually, so I won’t dwell on it. Of the remaining six stages, I want to look closely at only two.

From Wikipedia:

Stage 1 — “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
Stage 2 — “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children — [ages eight to eleven]), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.

Stages three through six map the process by which age and enculturation shape these early “raw” influences to match the conventional faith we are raised in, our breaking away from those conventions in mid-life (which not everybody does), and finally a “universalizing” of faith in old age, in which one comes to feel at home in the universe, and which often involves, if we rebelled at some point, a return to the family faith.

Does the physical development of the brain follow a similar structure?

Dr. Newberg says yes. During those stage one and two years, from ages three to eleven, a massive number of new neural connections are being forged in our brains. We are learning about the world for the first time, and our brains are weaving our newfound knowledge and experience into untold complex neural pathways that will shape how we understand ourselves and the world for the rest of our lives.

The remaining stages, from years 12 through old age, Dr. Newberg describes as a series of “prunings” of that explosion of neural connections made in early childhood. The brain is still capable of making new connections, but on nowhere near the scale it did when we had that early “unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.” Our brains, and the reality they allow us to perceive, now mostly follow a process of trimming away less useful neural connections, while those that show practical benefit are strengthened. The magical thinking of childhood is tamed into one brand or another of religious orthodoxy, maybe even all the way to atheism if our individual life path makes that “beneficial” to us.

Based on Newberg’s comparison of the stages of spiritual development with brain science, one clear implication I see is that if “experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with” during a child’s formative years don’t actively support and encourage magical thinking, a child’s brain will likely never develop the neural connections necessary to consider reality in terms of beings and forces beyond the level immediately available to our five senses.

The child will never learn to “believe in God,” or in supernatural dimensions of reality in general. That part of his brain won’t develop at all, or at least not to its fullest.

When the “pruning” begins around age 12, there won’t be a lot of religious/spiritual cutting back to do.

Which sounds like an argument public advocates of atheism like Richard Dawkins might make in favor of abolishing childhood religious education altogether.

Some people just seem to hate magical thinking.

I come at the question from a totally different angle than those guys, though.

I look at the facts presented and ask:

What if “beings and forces beyond the level immediately available to our five senses” are real?

The Hidden God


In my first essay inspired by Dr. Newberg’s The Spiritual Brain lecture series, I told you about a study in which Rorschach-like altered photographs were presented to religious believers and to atheist, to see if they could identify certain images hidden inside. Believers overwhelmingly found the concealed images but a lot of them also spotted other things not really in the pictures, but merely suggested by colors and patterns in the background. Atheist did not “imagine” anything not concretely included in the photos, but they sometimes failed to find the hidden image that actually existed in the pictures. Believers saw more than was really there, while atheists saw less than was really there.

Okay, hold that thought in your mind, because I want to juxtapose it with this:

In 1974, the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick had a mystical encounter with a spiritual super-intelligence he (at least sometimes — read all about it here) identified as God. But not the God they told you about in Sunday school. Phil’s God, which he named Zebra, exists in (or as) the background of everything, hidden within reality itself, unnoticed for its sheer ubiquity. In writing about the encounter, Phil picked the image of a zebra to represent his experience of God because of the way it’s just about impossible to pick one zebra out of a moving herd. All the zebras blend together to the eye, and their undulating stripes (in motion because they are running) camouflage one another so well it becomes very difficult for a predator to single one zebra out for attack.

What matters here are not zebras, per se, but the idea of camouflage.

For Philip K. Dick, God is real and ubiquitous, but for unexplained reasons, hiding from our perception. Hiding in plain sight, but hiding nonetheless.


What if he’s right? What if the presence of God is not part of our ordinary, everyday human experience because God is so successfully camouflaged? What if God blends so perfectly with the backdrop of the tiny slice of reality we are capable of perceiving with our five senses that, under normal circumstances, we simply don’t notice?

In this scenario, God is there, all the time, in the background of our everyday lives. It’s our vision that’s faulty. If we knew how to look, there would be no denying God’s real presence in the world.

So how does one learn to look?

The Magical Difference


Switch back in your mind to the Believer/Atheist hidden image study. What was the main difference observed between the two groups? They both mis-perceived the images according to the rules of the study. But where the atheist test subjects sometimes failed to identify what was concretely in the picture, believers always saw what was “really there,” and a little bit more. Believers tended to identify suggestive background shapes and colors as real objects.

Kind of like Phil Dick does when he describes Zebra in this excerpt from his “exegesis”:

Shy and merry and mischievous, half hiding in the forest at the far edge of the Heide, the sun shining, and Zebra playfully advancing and then just when you think he’s going to emerge fully and separate himself from the trees — suddenly and unexpectedly he retreats and absolutely vanishes. You can’t coax him out, or lure him; you can’t get your hands on him. His white is the dazzle of the sun; his dark stripes the shadows in the glade and forest…

Kind of like just about every religious, spiritual, and mystical experience I’ve ever read about, or experienced myself, for that matter. They all have that element of a hidden reality being revealed. Of a concealed “something” in the background of ordinary experience stepping forward. Of the self-revelation of God, or an angel, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, or other deities, or even an intelligent pink light streaming pure information into our brains, as Phil Dick encountered in a 1974 vision that changed the whole direction of his life.

What if the difference between someone who experiences the presence of God (the presence of Divinity, however you define it), and someone who never experiences that presence, is that the experiencer was encouraged between the ages of three and eleven to believe that reality could include “beings and forces beyond the level immediately available to our five senses?” What if our ability as adults to perceive “real realities” beyond the gross material level depends on the quality and quantity of magical thinking we’re allowed/encouraged to participate in as children?


And if, in fact, God, angels, the Blessed Virgin, pagan deities, and even spooky things like extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials, demons, ghosts, fairies, etc. are real camouflaged components of our environment, capable of meaningfully impacting our world and our lives, shouldn’t we all want to be aware of that? Shouldn’t we help our children develop sensitivity to these unseen dimensions?

What price do individuals and societies pay when we stop teaching our children religion? When we discourage kids from believing in Santa Clause? Or guardian angels? Or their own immortal souls?

What if magical thinking is the key to spiritual development, and a critical factor in our successful evolution as a species?

Thanks for reading!

This is an excerpt from In Defense of Magical Thinking: Essays in Defiance of Conformity to Reason:

Do arrogant Twitter atheists make your blood boil? When Richard Dawkins, the Amazing Randi, or Bill Nye the Science Guy smugly tell you how stupid you are for believing in God, or psychic powers, or ghosts, or the afterlife, or even your own immortal soul, do you want to just reach through the screen and strangle them?

You’re going to love this book.

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