Does Magic Have Power if Someone Doesn’t Believe?

Woman Putting Needles in Voodoo Doll
Volker Möhrke / Getty Images

Every once in a while, you're going to encounter someone who will tell you flat out that magic doesn't work on them. Why? Because they just don't believe in it, and therefore, magic is ineffective on them. But is that really true?

Just like so many other things discussed in the Pagan community, the answer is “it depends.” And what it depends on is who you ask. Obviously, there’s no scientific evidence for either side of the argument, so it’s strictly a matter of opinion.

Some traditions will tell you unequivocably that if an individual doesn’t believe in a concept or idea, it has no power over them. It’s why, for instance, many people claim that they’re not worried about being cursed or hexed - because they don’t believe in the power of negative magic (although one could argue that if you believe in the power of positive magic, you have to accept the existence of its opposite), therefore it can have no bearing on them.

There are other traditions that hold to the idea that magic is magic, and its efficacy has nothing to do at all with whether people believe in it or not. For example, if you create a poppet for protection of your non-magical, non-believing friend, and they indeed stay safe from harm despite their non-belief in the poppet’s power, then has the poppet worked? Or could they argue that they stayed safe because they didn’t jaywalk, wore their seatbelt, and stopped running with scissors?

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, there are people who believe in one type of magic but not others. We all have that Christian friend or family member who offers to pray for us when we’re ill or feeling down, and they are convinced that their prayers are helpful to us, even though we’re not Christians. However, if we offer to pray to our own gods for healing for them, they’ll often dismiss it with, “Well, I don’t believe in that god or goddess, so it’s not going to help.”

That said, it’s actually been scientifically proven that people who believe in luck tend to have better fortune than those who do not. In 2010 a professor at the University of Cologne that indicated that those who accepted the idea of good luck actually performed better in a test setting. Psychologist Lynn Damisch gave test subjects a golf ball, and told half of them it was a “lucky golf ball.” The other half of the participants were not told the ball was lucky, just that it was the same ball everyone else had been using.

The group which had been given a “lucky golf ball” actually scored far higher on their putts than the group that had just a plain old golf ball. The groundbreaking study, which included several other similar experiments, concluded that “Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

Natalie Wolchover at LiveScience says, "In a recent experiment, psychologists monitored people's perspiration levels as they cut up a photograph of a cherished childhood possession. Unsurprisingly, destroying a representation of their childhood made the participants sweat. One possible explanation for the clammy palms is that our brains have difficulty separating appearance with reality, Hutson said. A voodoo doll (or picture of your baby blanket) conjures in your head the thought of the actual person or object it represents, and so the mere thought of the person or object being harmed makes you feel like he or she, or it, really is being."

So as far as “does magic impact those who don’t believe in it or not” - well, it’s hard to tell which is the correct answer. Your best bet is to go with whatever seems the most sensible approach to you personally - and it’s perfectly okay if others disagree.