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Letters to the editors

Vol. 4, NO. 3 / March 2019

To the editors:

As the author of The Myth of Disenchantment, I was delighted to read Egil Asprem’s review, which does an excellent job of communicating most of the book’s main arguments and is thorough, thoughtful, and balanced in its coverage. This is perhaps not surprising since Asprem is an expert in relevant areas and is the author of a first-rate monograph, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900–1939, which I view as an allied project. All that is to say, while we may differ in nuance here and there, my sense is that we largely seem to agree.

Asprem brings up an issue in the final paragraphs of his essay that I think is important and worth exploring more. The question, as he puts it, is “Are we really bereft of enchantment?” He goes on to point out that even if we grant the importance of spiritualism, theosophy, and the occult in the lives of the various theorists of disenchantment, as we both show, this still leaves open an interpretative question about the present.

For those who have not read my book, let me set the scene:

We live in a world in which Walmart sells Sage Spirit Smudge Wands and clothing chains such as Urban Outfitters sell healing crystals and tarot cards.1 You can go on eBay right now and pay an Australian white witch to perform a ritual to summon a djinn and bind it to an object of your choice.2 Celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith and Bobby Brown have publicly described having sex with ghosts.3 Meanwhile, coffee shops and co-ops throughout the United States display flyers advertising palm readers, energy balancing, and chakra work. Even if you ignore the Harry Potter craze and other fictionalized depictions of wizards, ghosts, and witches, studies of American reading habits suggest that New Age print culture is incredibly lucrative, with supposedly non-fiction books about magic, guardian angels, and near-death experiences frequently appearing in the upper echelons of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Furthermore, the last ten years have seen a proliferation of reality television series that claim to report evidence for ghosts, psychics, extraterrestrials, monsters, curses, and even miracles.4 Contemporary consumers are at least willing to flirt with the existence of spirits and psychical powers.

Other sociological evidence seems to substantiate this intuition. According to several large-scale surveys, the majority of people living in Europe and North America believe in ghosts, witches, psychical powers, magic, astrology, or demons. According to a Gallup survey from 2005, an amazing 73% of those responding stated their belief in at least one of the poll’s ten paranormal categories.5 But despite a decade of theorizing that conflated secularization with disenchantment, the oddity is that the two trends are not correlated. If anything, de-churching and mounting identification as “spiritual but not religious” seem to coincide with an increased openness to the New Age and the like.6

All that is to say, if you equate disenchantment with widespread belief in a de-animated nature, then it might seem that, à la Bruno Latour, “we have never been disenchanted.”

As Asprem notes in his review:

The statistics suggest that certain ideas are fascinating, but tell us little about their subjective meaning, or their practical significance. It is far from evident that those who believe in extrasensory perception see it as a magical or enchanted phenomenon … The same can be said for much of New Age beliefs.

Asprem brings up a number of important issues here.

First, the inherent limitations of surveys. I agree with Asprem that surveys alone do not tell us much. I would add that surveys have methodological limitations insofar as they mask the dialogue between surveyor and surveyed. My guess would be that insofar as paranormal belief is often seen as stigmatized by institutional elites, including pollsters, it might be understated rather than overstated in surveys.

Second, importance. It is hard to tell from the data I presented in the book how important belief in spirits and astrology is to the lives of people today. When a 2017 survey suggested that 52.3% of Americans believe that “places can be haunted by spirits,” it does not tell us how many of those people take haunting seriously as opposed to those that understand haunted houses to be metaphorical.7

Taken together these two issues around survey data suggest that quantitative data needs to be nuanced by fieldwork. Since my main concern in The Myth of Disenchantment was historical rather than contemporary, it lacks an ethnography. There have been some ethnographies of contemporary enchantment, which seem to demonstrate its broad importance, but I think there is room for a lot more scholarship on the subject.8

Third, there is a larger issue around the notion of belief itself. In the book, I reference changing notions of belief. I note that the classification of entities like ghosts as beliefs is a contemporary shift that in some respects tends to privatize them. But I also think of belief as an idealized notion that often fails to describe the human psyche. Let me explain.

Many scholars tend to assume that belief is binary: either you believe in ghosts or you do not. But that does not fit the anthropological evidence. In a classic ethnography of French witchcraft belief, Jeanne Favret-Saada provides examples of French farmers repeatedly stating things like “I don’t believe in witches, but …”, and then going on to act in every way as if witches exist.9 When I was doing fieldwork in Japan for another project, I encountered a contemporary Japanese expression, hanshin-hangi (半信半疑; half-belief, half-doubt), employed to describe a common attitude toward the supernatural that is neither fully believing nor fully doubting. The expression captures this ambiguity nicely. If I ask my students if they believe in talismans, they often answer in the negative, but if I ask them if they have good luck charms, they often say that they do and that these charms are very important to them. Hence, it would seem they have talismans that they do not believe in, but they act like they do—limited ethnographic work on this subject suggests my students are not alone in this regard.10 So in all these ways we have to recognize that a binary notion of belief does not map very well onto our data. If we look at the long history of the concepts of belief or faith, we can see how both evolved significantly over the last five hundred years.11 One might hazard the guess that this notion of belief itself is the product of recent history.

Fourth, we should not measure the present against an exaggerated other. One of the ways that various narratives of modernity are often staged is by presenting contemporary Euro-American thought as if it is in some way radically different than that of so-called primitive people, or even medieval Europeans. This construction leads to two sorts of exaggerations: it tends to overstate the rationality of the contemporary industrialized world, and it tends to overstate the irrationality or faith of people in other times and places. Inventing the Enlightenment as a radical break involved, at least in part, imagining a totally fictitious and irrational Dark Ages. We have inherited this fabrication. Indeed, most non-specialists falsely believe that medieval Christians thought that the earth was flat and were otherwise backward, irrational, and superstitious. This notion of the Dark Ages was invented by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures and then projected into the past.12 If you look through the historical archive, you can find skeptics and believers in virtually all epochs.13 To be clear, I am not saying that they were present in the same ratio as they are today, but that it would be a mistake to imagine the previous peoples as wholly irrational.

Finally, while I think Asprem would not disagree with the above, he suggests that some of those who profess belief in magic or ghosts today often see their beliefs as scientific or natural; thus, they stage their beliefs in a disenchanted realm.

Again, I completely agree that contemporary beliefs have changed in significant ways and that the rise of an idea of the scientific worldview has been crucial. One of the book’s leitmotifs is the increased importance of science as a cultural category. I trace the genealogy of the myth of a conflict between religion and science and how this gave shape to both categories. I argue that concepts of religion and science both came into existence by being distinguished from superstition or magic, understood as the false double of religion and later as the false double of science or scientific knowledge—in both humanistic and naturalistic modes. But the rejection of superstition was necessarily incomplete, and hence it was always possible to partially transform it into a site of resistance. Indeed, most of what gets classified as contemporary esotericism or occultism came into being as an attempt to repair the rupture between religion and science. One of the main shifts I discuss is the changing cultural background that meant that certain beliefs and practices passed from being categorized as religious or scientific to magical and sometimes back.

One might think that the rise of scientific authority—perhaps framed in terms of the ascent of scientific naturalism that Asprem discusses in his book—must have fundamentally changed the essential background to beliefs in spirits and other animating forces, and that we might therefore want to think of contemporary believers as necessarily disenchanted insofar as they frame their beliefs in naturalistic terms either as the paranormal or as anomalies.14 While I agree with the first part, I am not so sure about the second.

Perhaps my main disagreement with Asprem is about the importance of the supernatural in constructing a scholarly notion of enchantment. Simply put, the supernatural is a theological category with a short half-life, and as such its relationship to enchantment should not be overemphasized.

To provide a very broad historical overview, the supernatural (Latin supranaturalis) really only became an important theological category in the thirteenth century. The recovery of Aristotle in the preceding century had resulted in a merger of two notions of nature (φύσις and naturalis). This produced a new problem: if God was identified as prime nature (prima natura), then the question became how to make sense of miracles. In the broadest of brushstrokes, if miracles were natural, it seemed to imply that they were not very special, and this might seem to blasphemously weaken their importance. But if miracles were against nature (contra naturum), then it would seem God was going against his own natural laws, which were now understood as divine. To navigate this thorny thicket, thirteenth-century theologians came to define divine miracles as above nature (supranaturalis). The supernatural referred to a special divine state of exception. This categorization has the side effect of relegating demonic wonders (mira) and magic to the realm of the natural. Sometimes they further characterized magic and demons as praeter naturam, praeternaturalis, or preternatural. This literally meant “beyond nature,” but it was often characterized as an amplification of natural powers and therefore a violation of ordinary causation, but not a violation of natural laws.15

Until the category of the preternatural collapsed in the eighteenth century, magic was less supernatural than natural. This had the side effect of making the devil into a kind of proto-scientist and demonic magic into the discovery of occult qualities in nature. As the seventeenth-century polymath Thomas Browne put it in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, “Being a natural magician[, the Devil] may perform many acts in ways above our knowledge, though not transcending our natural power … Many secrets there are in Nature of difficult discovery unto man, of easy knowledge unto Satan.”16 Browne was not alone. A number of medieval Europeans understood magic and technology to be fundamentally related.17 All that is to say, current notions of the paranormal are closer to medieval conceptions of magic than we might think.

This is a long way of saying that a notion of the supernatural is not necessary to a definition of enchantment or magic. To provide another example, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486)—widely regarded as the central text in launching the European persecution of witches—explicitly denied that witchcraft was supernatural even as it cautioned against what it described as the real powers of demons and curses.

This critique of the focus on the supernatural is especially important because almost no non-European languages had terms for the supernatural before the modern period. The vast majority of traditions that anthropologists and historians have described as non-Western forms of sorcery, witchcraft, and magic were practiced without a notion of the supernatural.18 While a messy supernatural–natural binary was exported to the globe in the nineteenth century, it has rarely seemed to fit well with local conceptual categories.

Asprem makes the case for the importance of tensions between natural and supernatural in the history of modern esotericism, especially in the period that is the focus of his book (1900­–1939). Scientific naturalism did come to dominance in a number of academic disciplines, and there were serious attempts to ground ethics and meaning naturalistically. But it would be a mistake to presume the natural–supernatural distinction in all other arenas.

Asprem asks, “Who gets decide what is magic and what is science?” I think this is a really important question. We tend to assume when we see the same term over different periods of history that the same concepts are implied. But a word can have radically different meanings in different historical moments, and its reoccurrence in different periods can mask fractures, ruptures, and important shifts. On the converse, changing terminology can obscure continuities and disguise commonalities. Similarities can vanish under a parade of shifting euphemisms.

In both of my books, I have attempted to trace some of the ways that people have historically defined the categories science, magic, and religion, as well as various beliefs and practices that have shifted from one category to another.19 My research thus far suggests that it is important to take seriously the language of our informants while also questioning the cohesiveness of their categories. We must look for both continuities and discontinuities. I hope that The Myth of Disenchantment puts pressure on the distinctions between these categories, demonstrating the contingency of their usage in different times and places, and encourages us to keep questioning our scholarly usage of these categories and what they mean today.

Jason Josephson-Storm

Egil Asprem replies:

Jason Josephson-Storm’s response confirms that our two projects are essentially aligned. In this spirit, I wish to pick up on two of the points he mentions which might take us further along the same path.

First, Josephson-Storm suggests that our main disagreement concerns the category of the supernatural. I don’t think this is a genuine disagreement. The confusion here seems to stem from a table in my own book, The Problem of Disenchantment, where I contrasted naturalistic views on the supernatural with an idealized picture of disenchantment in order to map what sort of empirical claims become problematic under each model.20 The outcome of this contrast is not one of enchantment as supernatural causal commerce with a natural world, but rather one of incalculable immanent power at work inside nature’s bounds. The upshot of my book was that such immanent powers have been reconceptualized in a wide variety of ways, even within the modern natural sciences: for example, as vital forces, emergent properties, quantum indeterminacy, or even radioactivity. It would seem that we are not in disagreement on this point.

Second, Josephson-Storm discusses the problem that I raised concerning survey data on enchanted beliefs. That such beliefs are common is well-known; the question is what it means for how people live their lives. I see potential for a continued constructive discussion in the details of how such data are to be interpreted and, more importantly, how we might design better research methods to test our hypotheses about contemporary enchantment.

Josephson-Storm’s clarification that belief is an idealized notion that fails to describe human motivations and attitudes is a great point of departure. As he points out with reference to anthropological evidence, motivated actions often depart from explicitly stated beliefs. Speech acts and professed beliefs do more to tell us about a projected identity than to clarify deep-seated motivations for decision making. Josephson-Storm is absolutely right that individuals who signal rational, disenchanted selves through their expressed beliefs may nevertheless rely on good luck charms and other enchanted objects in their daily lives. But, as I noted in my review, we must also account for individuals who signal enchanted identities by expressing magical beliefs or making consumer choices that favor products marketed as occult. Josephson-Storm may be right that there is still some stigma on enchanted beliefs; however, stigmatized knowledge also affords edgy identity statements that confer (sub)cultural capital in certain scenes. And it comes cheap. This is why we need to pay attention not only to what people say about themselves, but also where, relative to mainstream alternatives, they invest their time and their money.

  1. Nadra Nittle, “The Occult Is Having a Moment. Companies Want In, but Not if Witches Can Help It,” VOX, October 31, 2018. 
  2. Invoke Marid Jinn to You or Own Vessel Summon Jinn White Wiccan Power Safe Cast, eBay item number 142378416391, eBay.com, last updated August 9, 2018. 
  3. Brantley Bardin, “Interview with Anna Nicole Smith,” FHM Magazine 46 (July 2004); “Bobby Brown Says He Had Sex with a Ghost,” ABC News, June 7, 2016. 
  4. Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2017), 24. 
  5. Discussed in Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2017), 24–37. 
  6. At the least, as a recent Pew Research Survey (2017) suggested, “‘New Age’ Beliefs Common among Both Religious and Nonreligious Americans,” (Claire Gecewicz, October 1, 2018). 
  7. Paranormal America 2017: Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2017,” Chapman University, October 11, 2017. 
  8. See T. M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), and Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2010). 
  9. Jeanne Favret-Saada, Les Mots, la mort, les sorts (Paris: Gallimard, 1977). 
  10. For research on similar issues, see George Gmelch and Richard Felson, “Can a Lucky Charm Get You through Organic Chemistry?” Psychology Today (December 1980): 75–78. 
  11. See Michel de Certeau, “What We Do When We Believe,” in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1985), 192–202. 
  12. Lesley Cormack, “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat,” in Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 28–34. 
  13. For instance, there were skeptical materialists in both Indian and Greek antiquity (e.g., Ajita Kesakambali and Democritus). 
  14. See Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900–1939 (Boston: Brill, 2014), esp. 66–78. 
  15. For a history of the construction of the supernatural and the fate of the preternatural see Robert Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages: The Wiles Lectures Given at the Queen’s University of Belfast, 2006 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Lorraine Daston, “Preternatural Philosophy,” in Biographies of Scientific Objects, ed. Lorraine Daston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 15–41. For an account of the persistence of belief in miracles, see Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). 
  16. Thomas Browne, Sir Thomas Browne’s Works: Including His Life and Correspondence, vol. 2, ed. Simon Wilkin (London: William Pickering, 1835), 253–54. 
  17. William Eamon, “Technology as Magic in the Late Middle Ages,” Janus 70 (1983): 171–212. 
  18. To be sure, many languages have ways of talking about the exceptional or the surprising; much of what later gets translated as magic or witchcraft fits into these categories. 
  19. In addition to the book reviewed by above, see Jason Ānanda Josephson[-Storm], The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). 
  20. Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900–1939 (Boston: Brill, 2014), 77–79. 

Jason Josephson-Storm is Chair and Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of Science & Technology Studies at Williams College.

Egil Asprem is Associate Professor in the History of Religions at Stockholm University.

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