Articles / Glamour

Magical Thinking

A year or two back I came across Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and was blown away by the theory underlying it.  I have to admit that I haven’t read much more of it yet than the first couple of chapters, but the rest, from what I can tell, is details about particular beliefs.  What fascinated me most was Frazer’s division of beliefs into four categories, based on what is being related to and how.  He makes a distinction between science and magic, as follows: “The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence.”  Science and magic are both rule-governed, but magic misunderstands the rules.  Religion, by contrast, is personal:

But if religion involves, first, a belief in superhuman beings who rule the world, and, second, an attempt to win their favour, it clearly assumes that the course of nature is to some extent elastic or variable, and that we can persuade or induce the mighty beings who control it to deflect, for our benefit, the current of events from the channel in which they would otherwise flow. Now this implied elasticity or variability of nature is directly opposed to the principles of magic as well as of science, both of which assume that the processes of nature are rigid and invariable in their operation, and that they can as little be turned from their course by persuasion and entreaty as by threats and intimidation. The distinction between the two conflicting views of the universe turns on their answer to the crucial question, Are the forces which govern the world conscious and personal, or unconscious and impersonal?

Things (rule-governed) People (relationships, prayer)
Empirical Science Society
Faith-based Magic Religion

Frazer does not really discuss the fourth quadrant of the chart, dealing with non-supernatural beings on a personal level, but it’s not very relevant to the main point, which is situating magic with respect to science and religion.

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