The Myth of Disenchantment
The main thesis of this book:
There is a story about the march of history, which says that the human race is progressing from a dark era of superstition to a bright future of rationality. According to this story, the dark era of superstition was defined by belief in magic, witches, ghosts, elves, and other weird phenomena, and as rationality advances – through education and science – these things are banished, for the betterment of all mankind.
A version of this story, is that the West – namely Europe, namely Western Europe – France, Germany, U.K., Scandanavia, and by extension, the European colonial states: United States, Austalia, New Zealand, – were ONCE primitive places where superstitious people believed in occult forces, but NOW they’re advanced, rational, and reject occult forces. And importantly, the rejection of occult forces is a symptom of the advance of industrialization, science, scientific medicine, and higher education,if not an outright contributor to these things.
Let us call this the disenchantment thesis.
Jason Storm argues in his book that the disenchantment thesis is a myth. He does this in 428, dense, endnote-packed pages of history and analysis. Here are the main points he makes in his book
- Belief in the paranormal is normal in advanced “Westernized” societies.
- Many of the historical figures who are most held up as having advanced rationality and enlightenment, were very much engaged with the paranormal, either in their public published works in in their private lives.
- The disenchantment thesis ITSELF, COMES OUT OF EUROPEAN ENCHANTMENT. So, the story that European and American intellectuals tell about progress and enlightenmnnt, the myth of disenchantment, it’s just another version of an old folk story that has been reverberating around Germany, England, Ireland, for over 600 years.
- Published works that attempted to codify and advance the disenchantment thesis, themselves HELPED FUEL revivals of interest in magic.
Those are the four main theses of this incredible book.
Let’s go through them one by one.
- Belief in the paranormal is normal.
Case study: Japan. Japan is a highly industrialized society. Japan is full of enchantment. If you go to Japan you will easily find, flashdrives that double as magic charms, funeral rituals for old photographs, Iphone apps for exorcisms, and Buddhist stuppas dedicated to Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz as the divine patriachs of Electricity and Electro-Magnetic Waves.
There is even a town, Kotohira, on the island Shikoku, with a memorial to the first Jaapanese astronaut, Akiyama ToyoHiro, and the memorial includes a plaque thanking Konpira, the God of Sailors, for Akiyama’s Safe voyage through the cosmic void.
This shows that you can be highly industrialized without being disenchanted.
Case study: USA
A 2005 Gallup telephone survey of 1K Americans found 1/3rd believe in ghosts.
A 2015 survey found 50% of people agree psychic powers exist and 43% believe in Ghosts. Overall, 73% of people believe in some kind of paranormality. And this is consistent with polls from 1999 and 2001. Here’s details about the Gallup poll:
Psychic Healing: 55%
Haunted Houses: 37%
A 2007 survey found 55% of people have experienced contact with a guardian angel!
A 2010 book Paranormal America found
“Staticially, those who report a paranormal belief are not oddballs; it is those who have no beliefs that are in the significant minority. Exactly which paranormal beliefs a person finds convincing varies, but whether it is UFOs and ghosts or astrology and telekinesis, most of believe in more than one. If we further consider strong beliefs in active supernatural entities and intense religious expereicnes the numbers are even larger.”
Education does not reduce paranormal belief. College grads are less likely to believe in UFOs but more likely to believe in psychics. Other studies find higher education fuels beliefs in ghosts. Self-identified magicans and witches tend to be more educated than the average person. At least it seems higher education makes people more open-minded about certain paranormal possibilities.
Paranormal belief is bipartisan. You might have thought enchantment was a far-right fringe phenomena, if you’ve been exposed to Nazi Occultism through the Indiana Jones films. But, paranormal beliefs are distributed across the political spectrum.And even among the hyper-produced enchanted (occult writers and theorists) you find that historically their political views divided along the aisles of their times. For example, among 19th century Theosophists there was even distribution of believers between those who were pro-colonialists and those who were anti-colonialists.
But, parnormality does have its own tribes! (e.g. UFO people may not believe in ghosts and vice-versa). “Different metaphysical communities are often skeptical of one another” magic practicioners look down on spiritualists. Psychics are often anti-ritualists, claiming that mental powers explain what others wrongly see as ‘magic’.
Another major source of paranormal tribalism is Christianity. Evangelical Christians often believe in miracles, angels and demons, but they deny ghosts, reincarnation, and are skeptical of psychic powers. They often claim that ghosts and psychic powers are just illusionary phenomena crafted by demons to lead us astray.
[personal note: Dane is Catholic, and in his Catholic upbringing was told that scrying was demonic and ghosts do not exist. But, later he encountered Catholic intellectuals (Jesuits) who admitted psychic powers]
There is no evidence that society is becoming less paranormal over time. Multiple studies suggest convergence on a 14% growth in some paranormal belief by 2050. This is consistent even with the decline in religious practice and belief in God in the U.S. As people turn away from God and mainstream religion they do not become less likely to reject the paranormal, but more likely to believe in the paranormal.
[Dane may be editorializing here:] A major implication from Chapter 1 is that there is no unified construct of “superstition” that can be opposed to “rationality,” such that as one declines the other increases, at least not if you define ‘superstition’ as belief in the paranormal and ‘rationality’ as disbelief in the paranormal. [[but see Dane’s criticism of the book at the end of these notes]]
Similar results were obtained from Europe.
Conclusion of chapter 1: Belief in paranormality is normal among ‘Western’ societies.
Let’s move on to the second major thesis of the book:
Many of the historical figures who are most held up as having advanced rationality and enlightenment, were very much engaged with the paranormal, either in their public published works in in their private lives.
Examples of major enlightenment advancing figures include:
Giordano Bruno – an early astronomer who was executed for claiming humans were not at the center of the universe [note to self: double check background on Bruno]
Bruno’s enchantment: Bruno was a devotee of Christian magic.
Rene Descartes – a French scientist who advanced the mechanistic model of the universe.
Descartes’ enchantment: Descartes had a background in Rosicrucianism (Christian magic), and there are occult themes in his works, such as references to spirits and evil demons.
Isaac Newton: advanced the clockwork model of the universe.
Newton’s enchantment: interest in alchemy and the kabbalah.
Francis Bacon – an early promoter of science, and anti-superstition polemicist.
Bacon wrote a book. [see Wikipedia]
Bacon’s enchantment: Bacon saw himself as an alchemist with a prophetic mission to recover the lost knowledge of Adam in order to prepare man for an immanent apocalypse. He believed in astrology, the evil eye, and the transmutation of lead into gold.
Most importantly: Bacon aimed to purge certain superstitious elements of magic. He was against what he called ‘demonic magic’ which was attempting to communicate with evil spirits. He was critical of what he saw as pagan elements within the magical traditions, but he actually wanted to preserve a kind of scientized magic. His main complaint was with the practice of magicans of keeping their research methods and practices secret. Bacon wanted to restore magic to its ancient and honorable meaning. He looked to the Persians for a deeper understanding of what magic should be.
In delineating what should and shouldn’t be studied, Bacon said:
“Lastly, matters of superstition and magic (as in the common acceptance of the word) must not be entirely omitted. For although such things lie buried deep beneath a mass of falsehoods and fable, yet they should be looked into a little; for it may be that in some of them some natural operation lies at the bottom; as in fascination, strengthening of the imagination, sympathy of things at a distance, transmission of impressions from spirit to spirit no less than from body to body, and the like.”
For Bacon, superstititions were mistakes in reasoning. This was a new level of abstraction for European thought. Previously, bad thoughts (superstitions) would have been just bad beliefs (usually pagan or other non-christian beliefs), but Bacon promoted the idea that “idols” included fallacious modes of inference and also obsessions with things like money and power.
The writers of the first encyclopedia are often held up as paradigmatic exemplars of the European enlightenment project. But, when they followed and extended Bacon’s model for taxonomizing human knowledge they created a logical space for MAGIC!
They had a branch on the ‘tree of knowledge’ for the science of God. They divided the science of God into two sub-branches: (1) natural and revealed theology and (2) science of good and evil spirits.” Now, they said the science of good and evil spirits divided further into (2.1) Divination and (2.2) black magic, and they said this whole branch was rotten. But, [I THINK] Storm suggests that this organizational framework leaves up the possibility of a legitimate science of good and evil spirits.
But, they spoke highly in the encyclopedia of certain magicans, such as Paraclesus. And the entry in the encyclopedia of magic, describes three kinds of magic: divine, supernatural, and natural magic. The encyclopedia says that divine magic involves gifts from god, or miracles. Supernatural magic involves the “illusory powers of demons” and natural magic is described as “the exhaustive study of nature, the wonderful secrets therein” which is pretty positive.
The term “natural magic” was also commonly used at the time to refer to spellbooks that were popular in Europe at the time. For example, one very popular book on natural magic, was “The Marevlous Secrets of Natural Magic and The Kabbalah of Lesser Albert” which includes love charms and instructions for how to make an invisibility talisman from the severed hand of a hanged criminal.
Storm concludes: natural magic is a double-edged sword, the term could be used to imply that what we THINK of as magic is just a misunderstood natural process, or it could be used to imply that nature is inherently magical. And thus this most enlightenment of projects, the encyclopedia “imagines its own anithesis” by anticipating a legitimate scientific magic. Wow.
Chapter III deals with the myth of the death of God and discusses how the Germans were talking about the death of God, waaaay before Nietzsche in the late 19th centuey. They were talking about the death of God in the 1700s.
Chapter IV advances the third point of the book (see 3 below), but I also think Chapter III connects to this big point because Storm suggests that German intellectuals were weirdly obsessed with this idea that they were becoming secular (hence disenchanted), even during a time when they were still BURNING WITCHES. So, it shows that there’s an ancient origin, and irrational appeal, to this myth of disenchantment. It’s an old, bad idea.
Thesis 3. The disenchantment thesis ITSELF, COMES OUT OF EUROPEAN ENCHANTMENT. So, the story that European and American intellectuals tell about progress and enlightenmnent, the myth of disenchantment, it’s just another version of an old folk story that has been reverberating around Germany, England, Ireland, for over 600 years.
3.1) Frazer’s The Golden Bough
A great work of comparative religion
Aimed to reconstruct a theoretical UR religion (Aryan religion – a popular belief at the time was that there was a proto-European culture called ‘Aryan’ out of which all the particular European communities had arisen)
Frazer’s first thesis: Christ = Aryan God = King of The Woods
Frazer’s second thesis: history progresses from pure magic to superstition to religion to science. pure magic == science, suggesting the world is coming full-circle. So Frazer is not a completely normal progressive. He does think there was a kind of golden age in the past.
BUT…Frazer’s work advances the myth of the departure of the fairies. And in re-capitulating this myth, Frazer ironically reproduces an earlier version of his own thesis of progress
Frazer, like Bacon, develops a scientized vision of natural magic. And Frazer romanticizes early magicians as having been like proto-scientists.
3.2) The Departure of Fairies is an older European version of the Myth of Disenchantment.
Fairy Departure Story can be found in Chaucer as well as several other sources.
Cessationists are Christians who believe that the era of miracles has ended.
These are both versions of the Myth of Disenchantment.
Concerns about the book:
Storm is writing around paradigms of ‘enchantment’ and ‘disenchantment’ but he doesn’t define what enchantment is precisely. What does it mean to be ‘enchanted’? He often uses paranormal beliefs as a proxy for enchantment, but he does not define paranormal beliefs either. This matters because some of his examples he uses to advance the thesis of disenchantment may not be clear. He talks about Descartes as being influenced by the enchanted, but his evidence is that Descartes had some background from his early life in Rosicrucianism (Christian magic), and used some spiritual tropes in his writing. But, did Descartes believe in Christian magic when he produced his main body of work? Did Descartes’ use of spiritual tropes mean he was enfused with occult spiritual influences? I am not confident. Similarly for Newton, Newton was into finding patterns in the bible, and alchemy. Are these really ‘enchantments’ along the same lines as belief in witches?
Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t we handicap great minds like Newton and Descartes for their time? Newton lived in the 18th century. Couldn’t it be that these great advancers of rationality and enlightenment were great contributors to the march of enlightenment because their works were leveraged to expel even forms of superstitution that they themselves still believed in?