In response to “Dialectics of Darkness” (Vol. 4, No. 2).
To the editors:
As a sociologist of religion heavily influenced by the writing of Max Weber, I studied Theosophy and the New Age spiritualities of the 1990s to discover what I assumed to be a push for the re-enchantment of secular and Western societies. In a postindustrial world dominated by science, and in which institutional religion is in decline, social actors are more and more interested in practicing their spirituality by themselves for themselves. This involves returning to the realm of magical beliefs. Absorbed and blinded by the writings of Weber, my vision was so focused within a specific frame that I interpreted the well-established Theosophical Society, created by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in the nineteenth century, as the avant-garde of the re-enchantment process. Continuing my various studies on popular religion, over the years, I started to question this assumption that the world was being re-enchanted. What if it had never been fully disenchanted? Sociologists of religion have in large majority admitted, especially since 9/11, that de-secularization, although it had an impact, never fully happened. If Nietzsche can kill God, religion cannot disappear. But what about magic?
In his classic work on magic, science, and religion, Bronislaw Malinowski argued that the primitive person uses a type of scientific reasoning. As Malinowski states,
Magic is akin to science in that it always has a definite aim intimately associated with human instincts, needs, and pursuits. The magic art is directed towards the attainment of practical aims. Like the other arts and crafts, it is also governed by a theory, by a system of principles which dictate the manner in which the act has to be performed in order to be effective.1
By science, Malinowski was not referring to the scientific methods developed during the Enlightenment, but to a methodological way of thinking aiming at resolving a problem. It is when this scientific, or rigorous, way of thinking fails, that magic comes into play to find a solution. Depending on what needs to be achieved, either magic or science will be applied to solve a problem. The understanding of science by Malinowski has of course been critiqued as being totally unrelated and far from, let’s say, Karl Popper’s perspective that science is strictly about testing theories against experience, and not about solving problems. With a stretch of the imagination, it could be argued that Popper’s perspective about science is akin to an early twentieth-century monotheist theologian critiquing classical polytheism. Both are still religions, but of different types. The same can be stated about science. Western societies are scientifically developed, and it is evident that their inhabitants do not share the same lifestyle as Malinowski’s informants and that science and religion are different. But what about magic?
During the early phase of modernity, scientific views were dominant in public discourses and were even changing faith. Rational knowledge forced religions, despite some resistance, to eradicate anything that was seen as superstitious or magical in order to maintain their relevance in this new world of calculative and scientific reasoning. This, also, was a time of crisis; adapting large populations to changes brought about by industrialization created difficulties. There were problems of overpopulation, rural exodus, rapid urban growth, and famine in the early stages of industrialization. Beliefs in the supernatural still existed, but they did not emerge sufficiently from the social underground for any growing trend to be perceived, even if many new occultist and esoteric groups developed.2
At the present time, in late modern societies, science is no longer the dominant paradigm and must engage more and more with religions; and religions, themselves, have to take magic on board. In this postcolonial, postindustrial, post-Fordist world, Westerners are experiencing new types of crises that undermine the voices of intellectuals and experts, and beliefs in the supernatural are again coming to the fore. Science is today not dominant enough to curb this revival of magic, and this is why we are talking about re-enchantment in contemporary societies. Re-enchantment is in fact a misnomer, as the reemergence is not of the existence of magic itself, but of its visibility and acceptance.
Egil Asprem has so well described, in his essay “Dialectics of Darkness” and his book The Problem of Disenchantment, the plurality of claims from intellectuals about knowledge during the heydays of industrialization and science at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Asprem performed a synchronic analysis of these knowledge exchanges and discovered telling conceptual affinities between physics and occultism, between experimental biology and psychical research, and between methodological challenges in psychology and the practice of ritual magic. These knowledge exchanges were aimed at resolving enigmas, and recourse to magic in systematic investigations was not deemed inadequate by all intellectuals. The primitive person from Malinowski’s research is simply using scientific and magical methods for resolving pragmatic issues. Similarly, in Asprem’s research, systematized magical thought is around the corner where science fails. His work is key in pointing out how mythic the re-enchantment process is, as magical beliefs never really left Western societies.
Weber saw the beginning of disenchantment evidenced first by its impact on religion—e.g., Judaism and later Protestant ethics and its doctrine of predestination—and second by the development of instrumental rationality in collaboration with the new scientific methods. But neither religion, before industrialization, nor science, after industrialization, eradicated magic. Depending on the time and social context, magic simply went in hiding or was not vocal.
With today’s loss of trust in the expert system, people increasingly expect a scientific apocalypse, a perceived inevitable catastrophic world unintentionally created by scientists. Science is no longer the dominant ideology. Even if religion is today more vocal in the public sphere, a trend we in sociology call post-secularism, fewer and fewer people claim to be religious and follow a religious institution.
With religion and science no longer dominating Western political and civil societies, magic, this tertium quid that never left, is reemerging from the shadows and our unconscious. This does not mean that our life is now better or worse, just different. While some commentators will see this as a positive alternative to, or complement of, calculative rationality and a logocentric view of the world, others will see an awakening of monsters because of the sleep of reason or of the expert system. Indeed, not everything in the supernatural world is positive; growing numbers of people believe in, for example, the devil. As a consequence, the need for exorcism is increasing.1
The key question to ask today is no longer if magic is coming back or not, but how beliefs in magic impact people and society. My team in Australia put together a survey to explore issues beyond the simple belief in the supernatural. We found that the nonreligious people who believe in the supernatural have a higher level of well-being than religious people. This raises multiple questions, and, as with a typical supernatural thriller building suspense at the end of each of its chapters, the answer will have to wait for future research.
Adam Possamai is Professor in Sociology and the Director of Research in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University.