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Magical Thinking or Religious Thinking?

What is the difference between religious thinking and “religiosity.”

Or, what is the difference between faith and magical thinking?

When I worked at a state mental hospital during my CPE it seemed rather easy to tell the difference in the closed ward where patients spent the first stage of their admittance.

When a patient claimed to be Jesus Christ, it was easy to identify that as delusional thinking.

When a patient used religious language disconnected from the reality of their circumstance, it seemed easy to diagnose religiosity.

But what about most of us church-going, religiously committed (no pun intended) believers?

How do we distinguish authentic belief from magical thinking?

What distinguishes prayer from wishful thinking?


Most of us are comfortable with the rationalistic side of our religious beliefs.

We find assurance and derive considerable certitude in the solidity of doctrines and teachings informed by Tradition and reinforced by logic and rationality.

But in times of existential crises and the grips of acute anxiety from threat—physical, financial, psychological, or spiritual—we all tend to revert to some form of magical thinking.


In an old article in Psychology Today titled Magical Thinking, author Matthew Hutson writes,

Magical thinking springs up everywhere. Some irrational beliefs (Santa Claus?) are passed on to us. But others we find on our own. Survival requires recognizing patterns: night follows day, berries that color will make you ill. And because missing the obvious often hurts more than seeing the imaginary, our skills at inferring connections are overtuned. No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.


Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).