I note that in the religious circles emphasis is often put to distinguish between religion and practices such as esotericism, occultism or magic. I've been often told that there was a very substantial difference between the two.

On the other hand, from my experience, people from non-religious circles often claim that there is no substantial difference between these phenomena and Abrahamic religions are nothing more or nothing less than one example of esoteric/occult/magical practices. Such people will often put the following similarities to back up their claim:

  • Cross necklaces and devotional medals are amulets, no different than the ones worn by pagans or adherents to comtemporary esotericism;
  • Religious rites such as the Mass or sacraments, with their heavy emphasis on symbolism and ritual gestures and utterances are examples of ceremonial magic;
  • In particular, the Catholic Sacrament of Eucharist is an example of the magical practice of spirit summoning;
  • And other such similarities are noted.

When questioned about these similarities, religious people will, in my experience, note the following differences to back up their claim of dissimilarity between religion and esotericism:

  • Magic is best understood as an attempt to control supernatural forces and bind them do the bidding of the sorcerer; religion, on the contrary, is an attempt to follow the will of the deity.
  • Magic attributes power to external symbols and ritualized practices themselves, while religion places emphasis on the internal disposition and intention of the practicioner.
    • This difference seems to be claimed by the CCC: "Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition."

I only have experiences with Catholic circles. However, from my experience, when Catholic stress the difference between religion and esotericism they do not mean the difference between Christianity and any other religious tradition. Other religions - especially, but often not exclusively Abrahamic religions - are also accepted as "religions", as opposed to, for example, New Age, which is rejected as esoterism.

I checked the Wikipedia (a bad source, I know...) and here is what I found:

  • "These ideas [of Western esotericism] and currents are united by the fact that they are largely distinct both from orthodox Judeo-Christian religion and from Enlightenment rationalism." -- article Western esotericism
  • "The occult, in the broadest sense, is a category of supernatural beliefs and practices which generally fall outside the scope of religion and science" -- article Occult

From this it would seem that religion cannot be categorized as inherently esoteric or occultistic? However:

Are priests sorcerers? Are missals grimoires?

  • Monotheistic religions strongly disagree with the view of religion as "magic". Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 13:47
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA They do indeed; however, from my experience, many atheists still claim that monotheistic religions are an example of magic.
    – gaazkam
    Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 13:56
  • Maybe you van try with Weber's Sociology of religion Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 14:04
  • IMO, the key-point of your approach is the "supernatural". Religions do not reduce to supernatural and - at least in Western world - there were (Renaissance and Early Modern) a view of magic as "managing" the supernatural forces that do not reduce to religion. Commented Jun 3, 2021 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


The distinction here is a matter of locus of control/power:

  • Religions grant control/power to a deity or transcendent force, where the adherent is a supplicant. Neither the laity nor the clergy have any power as individuals. The laity strive to achieve an internal state of grace (through proper behavior and attitude); the clergy have (ostensibly) achieved some measure of that grace. The presumption is that the transcendent deity or force will recognize those efforts at achieving grace and grant blessings avccordingly
  • Magic practices assert that the individual has a measure of control or power over transcendental forces, which can be bent to serve the human will. Magicians are never supplicants. They either believe they command these forces directly, or that they can enter into contractual (binding) agreements with them.

Symbols, icons, liturgies, etc are simple assertions of faith in religion, or touchstones for proper behavior or attitude. But in magic they are tools or mechanisms to achieve certain ends, with concrete practical purposes.

Esotericism and occultism are more ambiguous terms. Esotericism merely points at difficult, subtle knowledge; occultism at knowledge which is obscured or hidden from plain sight. In religions they lead one towards mysticism, while more magically-inclined people think about arcana or other secret teachings.

If it makes things easier, the attitude behind magical thinking is more closely aligned with scientific thought than religious thought, which is part of why religion often fins itself at odds with both. Magic and science both put power in the hands of the self — natural or metaphysical forces brought into line with human intention through the manipulation of law-like principles — while religion explicitly asks us to out ourselves in line with some externality that is the actual source and purveyor of power.

  • 1
    "religion explicitly asks us to out ourselves in line with some externality that is the actual source and purveyor of power" I don't think that is true of Buddhism.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 8:24
  • @CriglCragl: What we experience int he West is the more mystical (philosophical) form of Buddhism. In the East, much of Buddhism focuses on the Buddha or Buddhas as transcendent entities who provide comfort and act as intercessors of a sort (they aren't divinities in the Western sense, but...). And in mystical Buddhism, practitioners do not seek power or control. Power and control are functions of the human mind that produce cravings and discontentment: weeds to be pulled on the path to realization and release. (cont...) Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 14:39
  • @CriglCragl: Ultimately, mystical Buddhism is merely ambiguous about what happens when the cravings and discontentments of the 'self' are dissolved away in enlightenment. Enlightened beings 'act', but they do not 'act' as self-bound individuals, and if you ask a Buddhist what is acting you'll generally be told to go find out for yourself. Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 14:44
  • True, I have no problem with that - Pureland ideas for instance, that if you can't live like a monk just chant mantras & cross your fingers for the very next life. But Buddhism is really agnostic: whatever beings are out there, focus on cultivating yourself above all. That may only be directed historically and mainly at monks, but that is Buddhist practice as Buddha taught it.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 16:07
  • 1
    @CriglCragl: Well, that is essentially what Jesus the Nazarene taught as well (and which is still carried over in certain types of Christian mysticism and monasticism). But I don't think it's fair to say that the bulk of mainstream liturgical Christians — who don't really understand or practice that original mystical insight — are not actually Christians by virtue of that lack. Organized religion entails a calcification of insight into dogma; mysticism implies the opposite movement. But I suspect both are necessary components of spiritual development. Commented Jun 4, 2021 at 16:50

I'd be wary of generalisations about 'religion' that only mean, practices of Abrahamic - and often exclude Islam, for lack of knowledge. Similarly with magic, it's a big topic, with many types of practice and framework.

Durkheim focused on the sociological role of religion in defining it: community-binding through sharing of attitudes to sacred things. I would look in this direction, for the distinction.

In it's broadest sense, a religion is about serving it's community. What is typically distinguished as magic, from say miracles, are practices not aimed at this.

Are there sharp lines and simple ways to distinguish categories? No. Kabbala, the abhijna of Buddhism & especially Vajryana Buddhism, and Indian Tantra, thoroughly blur the lines. Centralised churches oppose 'superstition' for various reasons usually pragmatic ones, but not generally in an objectively rational way that reflects on their own articles of faith.

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