Tag Archives: sociology of religion

Reading Roundup: 5 September 2012


Marvin Meyer, a scholar whose work I encountered last year & has deeply influenced my understanding of magic & religion, has recently passed away. The only work of his I’m particularly familiar with was an accidental find at a library booksale, Ancient Christian Magic.


Humanist pagans on the rise? If paganism isn’t about polytheism, what IS it about? Humanist pagans pose an issue for a lot of scholars of modern paganism.


This strange, rambling essay is about this author’s belief that esoteric beliefs fuels fanaticism, particularly racial fanaticism. His belief that the belief in a literal esoteric cosmology populated with spirits of any kind results in a delusional belief in conspiracies is… well, not particularly well-articulated here. Part of the larger, ongoing belief that “enlightened” people live in a disenchanted universe, and people who believe in an enchanted universe engage in “magical thinking” according to psychological boundaries and need help before they hurt someone. On the other hand, what might be seen as validating his argument is that in my own life there are people who have decided their (self-generated, clearly result-of-bad-choices) problems are all my fault because I’ve cursed them. And yet in many societies, an active belief in evil spirits and malicious magic-workers is an important part of constructing social boundaries and maintaining social control — are we to consign all such people as delusional? Spiritual healing in many communities is understood to stem from spiritual issues caused by interactions with non-physical but malicious entities impacting the physical body. Is it only insanity when white people in the West do it, or is the whole non-Western world actually deranged? Suffice to say, I have some issues with his premise.


This ancient charms are thought to have been a form of sympathetic magic to gain control over animals. If true, this might qualify this kind of magic  as one of the oldest in the books.


This is one of the more interesting discussions of “animism” I’ve seen recently. It gets at part of what is problematic about the schema of “animism” as a “worldview” which is neatly and categorically ordered into a hierarchy of spirits with discrete and universally agreed upon traits. I am reminded a bit of Karen McCarthy Brown’s discussion of the Lwa has having agreed-upon traits and definitions in a single community. You know who is speaking based on which traits the participants agrees they recognize, but should a performance feature traits not expected or fail to deliver traits come to be felt as familiar, markers of identity might shift if a spirit is otherwise positively identified. Likewise there seems to be an implication that there is a lot of fluidity about how spirits are understood, and people are content not to ask too many questions until something arises in which thinking about how spirits organize themselves, what rituals are efficacious for which purposes, and so on, become important.

Hmm. Do we forget that religious rituals and beliefs, when integrated into daily life, become invisible to us, the same way that we don’t put much thought into the deeper meaning of making dinner or brushing our teeth?


Animism apparently cannot be defined within modern terminology without applying to it a set of unquestioned assumptions that are the fundaments of modernity, and in whose matrix we necessarily operate as long as we assume that the question is one of determining the “correct” distinction between life and non-life, self and world. These assumptions are already manifest when it is described, in a seemingly neutral terms, as the belief of some cultures that nature is populated by spirits or souls. The very meaning these terms carry within modernity imply that such belief is at worst mistaken—that is, failing to account for how things really are—or at best symbolic representations of social relations projected onto a natural environment that is indifferent to them. When we use the term animism, we have thus already entered into the narrative structure and self-mythologies of modernity. And these narratives cannot but deny reality to what they construct as modernity’s other. Mobilizing the grounds would require that we question the very meaning of terms such as “belief,” “spirits,” ”souls,” “projection,” “fiction,” and even “life,” as well as the historical role they have played in Western modernity as part of a disciplinary system of divisions that organize a modern “reality principle,” ghettoizing modernity’s discontents as “fiction,” “aesthetics,” or “primitive animism.”

These incredibly dense notes on an exhibition about animism, challenging both animism as a category of interpretation and the worldview that leads to such a category, is… well, incredible. But dense. I spent 3 days chewing on the contents of these exhibition notes, trying to decide what to say about them. Challenging the worldview that creates a divide between “animism” and “rationalism”, otherizes animistic beliefs as “primitive” or “premodern” and pathologizes belief in an animated, aware universe that shapes us in return to being shaped by us,  the exhibition asks the question of what dismantling this division might mean for western society, art, psychology, and political engagement.

The exhibitation notes aren’t the only thing from the e-flux issue dedicated to animism worth a serious look. A lot of it isn’t in my fields of interest and can go over my head (I confess!) but it’s still a serious, rigorous collection, including scholars I’ve been told to keep an eye on, like Michael Taussig. You may see more of my notes on this issue of e-flux in days to come.


“How magic survived the disenchantment of the world” Wouter J. Hanegraaff

“How magic survived the disenchantment of the world” Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Abstract: This article argues that the process described by Max Weber as the ‘disenchantment of the world’ iscompatible with the continued vitality of ‘the occult’ in contemporary western culture. Focusing on theexample of ‘hermetic’ magical traditions in western culture before and after the pivotal period of the Enlightenment, the article analyses the relation between continuity and change in the development of thesetraditions from three angles: their theories of magical efficacy, the nature of their practices and the ways inwhich magicians seek to legitimate magic to the wider society as well as to themselves. The discussion demonstrates that the transformation of magic under the impact of modernization and secularization resulted in the paradoxical phenomenon of a ‘disenchanted magic’. The article concludes by proposing a theory that explains why it is actually quite natural for magic to have survived the disenchantment of the world.

It took me a few days to get around to giving this my proper attention, but I really should have done it earlier. As a sociological exploration of how modern magicians think about the magic universe in a way that is consistent with their beliefs in a “scientific” as opposed to a “spiritual” universe, it’s rather on point to my research as to how modern communities of practitioners conceive themselves and their magic. For the researcher of modern magic, it neatly summarizes some of the dominant beliefs I’ve seen in discussing magic, what it is, how it works, and why it’s efficacious.

Beginning with Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment, Hanegraaff argues that the continuing influence of magic after the enlightenment illustrates not a blanket invalidating of Weber’s theory, but that magical theory and dialogue is so fundamentally changed by the theological changes of upper-class Western society known as “the disenchantment of the world” that magic after the enlightenment explains itself and justifies itself completely differently from its Renaissance roots, which were deeply oriented in a religious landscape. By defining “secularisation” as a process which changes how beliefs and rituals are understood to have deeper meaning, he argues for a fundamental post-enlightenment shift in thinking that impacts the worldview and theoretical basis of magic to make it more easily justifiable to modern magicians in a way that is different than the justifications applied to Renaissance magical texts and practices.

Renaissance magi appealed to “natural magic” and the orderly, created universe which was full of deliberate correspondences set down by God for the benefit of humanity. But modern magicians justify magical practice principally by psychologizing their beliefs and lumping the whole of them in as an “unknown science” which is partially pseudo-scientific, partially based on archetypal psychology, and partially related to belief in another kind of unseen reality in which things may be symbolically or fundamentally true in a way that is not literal. From this point of view, “magical techniques are actually psychological techniques intended to develop a mystical consciousness” (366). How this works is not particularly important, rather, what i important for occultists is “only that there is ‘some kind of subtle stuff’ which ‘somehow’ bridges the gap between mind and matter. The presupposition is that magic is ultimately based on the powers of the psyche: ‘it is the mind that works magic’.” (368)

Among the most relevant references for my own research was the very coherent way Hanegraaff articulated  the ‘magical plane’ theory of being the home or origin of magic.

Fundamental to the way occultists rationalize magic is their concept of a separate-but-connected ‘magical plane’ which exists on a different level of reality. On this plane the things of the imagination are believed to be as real as tables and chairs are real in our everyday world. Perhaps the easiest way to explain the magical use of the concept is by the analogy of a computer. The images on the screen may seem very real, but are the direct reflection of an underlying and more fundamental reality ultimately existing of digits and zeros: a parallel reality which remains invisible to the common user. Only the programmer is able to access this level and work with it; any changes he makes on that level are bound to be reflected in the reality on screen. It is not surprising that so many contemporary magicians also turn out to be computer enthusiasts, for magic is believed to work exactly along the same lines. The magician works on a parallel realityor a ‘subtle plane’ where the things of the imagination are real. Just like the computer specialist needs to learn a complex programming language with its own symbols and rules, the magician needs to learn a no less complex language of symbols and equivalences based on elaborate systems of correspondences. By mastering such a symbolic language, it becomes possible for the magician to manipulate the realities on the magical plane; and as a result of such activity things will change on the parallel level of the everyday world. It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of this concept for understanding how magic is legitimated in a disenchanted world. Processes of secularisation and disenchantment inthe everyday world simply have no bearing on the magical plane, and hence do not have to affect the reality of magic. As observed by Luhrmann, the purpose of the concept of the magical plane ‘lies in keeping unhappy bedfellows apart’ (Luhrmann, 1989,p. 276). The other ‘bedfellow’ is precisely the disenchanted reality of everyday life. The dissipation of mystery in this world is compensated for by a separate magical world of the reified imagination, where the everyday rules of science and rationality do not apply. And Luhrmann correctly recognises that this is a new phenomenon in the history of western hermetic magic… (370)

The rest of Hanegraaff’s article is worth a read to see how he uses sociological theories of religion to explain what potential reasons magic users had to adapt the magical universe to a disenchanted world. Not so much on point for my work, as I’m not particularly interested in what theories might have to say about magical practice, but interesting. While secularisation and disenchantment as theories have limited usefulness in many contexts (especially my contexts), his critiques of those theories allowed him to offer up an interesting interpretation of changes in communities of magical thinkers.