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Magic, Religion, and Science: The Blurred Lines

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Magic, Religion, and Science

The Blurred Lines

Magic, Religion, and Science to some, especially staunch believers and practitioners, may be as distinct and opposite as night and day (Tambiah, 1990, p.8). Yet religion to a certain culture may be magic to some cultures, or explainable by science, in others. Where then, should the distinction between magic, religion, and science be drawn? Has modern man, with his scientific methods, understood and mastered so much of the physical world that magic and religion seem to be but a primitive stage in the evolution of human thought? These questions will be considered in this essay, looking at the nature of magic, religion, and science in a historical context. This essay will discuss the progression of science as a supreme arbiter of rationality, particularly in western culture (Frazer, cited in Tambiah, 1990, p.102). It will also explore the ways in which the boundaries defining magic, religion, and science are blurred, primarily focusing on the use of words to achieve desired outcomes.

Magic can be conceptualized as the attempt to exert power through actions that are believed to have a direct and automatic influence on man, nature, and the supernatural (Cavendish, 1990, p.2). People who engage in magic are usually called magicians, wizards, witches, shamans, healers, sorcerers/sorceresses, or priests/priestesses. In some cultures, the knowledge and the ability to practice magical arts are limited to an esoteric few who have undergone extensive training, while in other cultures magic is more exoteric and is accessible to anyone (Versluis, 2007, p.47). Religion, as defined in the Oxford dictionary, is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. It is also defined as a particular system of faith and worship. Science is defined in the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries as the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world, through observation and experiment, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities. It is a 'profane' activity encompassing rules and conceptions, and derived from logical inferences (Malinowski, 1948, p.51). Summarily, science is understood as the observation, application, and manipulation of nature.

Magic and religion are indeed similar. However, it is first important to understand the difference between the two. Magic, as defined above, is the attempt to empower an individual to control the natural, and even the supernatural world. Magic practices have no value in themselves, but are strictly utilitarian means to an end; for example childbirth rituals are merely a way to ensure the safe delivery of a child, whereas religion celebrates ultimate values such as Providence and Immortality (Malinowski, 1948, p.54). The focus is giving credit to a higher being for the empowerment to control the natural and supernatural world. Western culture traditions of magic were heavily influenced by a strict monotheistic Judaic faith (Tambiah, 1990, p.8). Religion is based on a covenant relationship between people and deity, with complete antipathy to all other deities. This distinction was not to disprove the existence of other gods, but to prevent and warn against mixing with them (Exodus 22:17, NIV; KJV). Herein lies the similarity. To illustrate, let us look at the example of the power of the God of Abraham against the magic of the Pharaoh's sorcerers. From an Egyptian point of view, Moses seemed to be a powerful and distinctly sinister magician that summoned the plagues and killed the first born of Egyptian families. But from an Israelite point of view, Moses was a holy man and a servant of God. On this same point, Cavendish (1990, p.55) correctly notes that before Moses became God's servant, he was first a prince of the Egyptian empire and may have had some training in Egyptian magic.

The use of language to manipulate an outcome is something all three constructs share (Cavendish, 1990; Jolly, Raudvere, & Peters, 2002; Levack, 2002). In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God spoke and the world and all in it came to be (Genesis 1:1-31). There are many examples in the Gospels where Jesus commanded supernatural beings. He healed the sick, fed the multitudes, and cursed the fig tree with spoken words. Jesus taught that if you have sufficient faith, 'you can say to the mountain, "Move from here to there" and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you' (Matthew 17:20, NIV). This verse especially emphasises that this 'power' is available to all believers wherein faith is key. This is similar to magic in which spells are cast to manipulate an outcome (Jolly et al, 2002; Levack, 2002). This includes elements of imitation, command, genealogy, and anticipation, constituting a 'language of persuasion' not unlike western traditions of rhetoric and advertising (Malinowski, 1948, p. 78).

Science has made use of the power of words as a psychological tool to motivate change in physical and mental states. The placebo effect, for example, is when a fake treatment improves one's condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. Health and social behaviour literature is replete with examples of 'miracle cures' and 'unexplained deaths' (Biderman, cited in Coe, 1997, p.2). Pachter (1994, p. 191) further illustrates the placebo effect in a case study where an undernourished Latin American infant was brought back to full health. The mother had believed that her infant was suffering from 'Empacho', a Latin American folk illness involving symptoms gastrointestinal distress but described by Western physicians as an 'illness without biomedical pathophysiology' (Pachter, 1994, p.192). When the doctors learned that the mother thought the problem was Empacho, the doctors informed her that they would bring in a folk healer to assist in treatment in which the doctors also included nutritional supplements. The infant fully recovered within two days and was discharged from the hospital (Pachter, 1994, p.192).

It appears that placebos are like magic in a modern dress, and studies of placebo



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