Magic, science, and religion are not rigid concepts. Their definitions are fluid and flexible in order to bend to encompass each and every worldview that exists. These definitions also change depending on who is defining them, in what context they are defining them in, and what their agenda is. In this paper, we will explore instances of magic, frameworks of science, and the interconnectedness of all things that make religion. Through these examples, we will better see how fluid and flexible these terms are in reality.
The dictionary definitions of the terms “magic”, “science”, and “religion” are often oversimplified and boxed-in to follow the rules and constructs of a single and perhaps dominant worldview. However, our world contains many worldviews that do not conform to the rules and constructs of this proposed single dominant worldview. If we stick too strongly to these rigid definitions, we lose a deeper understanding of these other worldviews and thus lose crucial anthropological knowledge. Additionally, by adhering to these inflexible definitions, we unfairly force this one dominant worldview onto others. The definitions of “magic”, “science”, and “religion” must be flexible to allow each worldview to be expressed in its complex, interconnected entirety.
In her article, “Magic”, Tanya Luhrmann provides an explanation of what the belief in magic does to people who practice it. Having practiced certain magic rituals herself in an effort to better study it, Luhrmann observed that, “It shifts attention from the external to the internal, and blurs the line we draw between the mind and the world. And, as I have argued in my scholarship and teaching, this shift alters the lines we draw. The mind bleeds into the world. Not predictably, and not on demand, and for some more than others, but when it happens, the senses experience what is not materially present.” (Luhrmann, 2011) She goes on to define magic as something originating in the imagination, but whose effects can be realized in reality. Her account helps to explain what is real to the individual or group depends on their experiences, beliefs, and worldview. These beliefs should be taken seriously and with respect in an anthropological understanding of a religion, ethnic group, or culture, and as such, the definition of magic no longer has rigid boundaries, but rather each individual has their own definition of magic completely dependent on their interpretations of their life experiences.
In Hallowell’s Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View, he delves into the topic of magic, more specifically the “realness” of dreams in Ojibwa beliefs and tradition. According to Hallowell, the Ojibwa recount their life events as consisting of both events that occur when awake, as well as those that occur in dreams. Moreover, they often give life events that transpired in their dreams more importance than those that occurred to them when awake: “When we think autobiographically we only include events that happened to us when awake; the Ojibwa include remembered events that have occurred in dreams. And, far from being of subordinate importance, such experiences are for them often of more vital importance than the events of daily waking life.” (Hallowell, 1960, p.15) This is an excellent demonstration of how the Ojibwa people experience and view dreams differently from people of popular Western culture who place dream visions in the category of magic or imagination. What is categorized as “magic” in Western culture is simply a part of reality for the Ojibwe, which blurs the boundaries of what “magic” is and isn’t, ultimately calling for a broader, flexible definition of magic altogether. For the Ojibwe, there is no separation between the spiritual and non-spiritual. This identifies the significance of these beliefs to the Native American peoples and how this is not a literal translation, but a spiritual understanding which alters the definition of magic to be broader. In essence, this demonstrates how one must make the strange familiar and the familiar strange in order to truly grasp that the definition of “magic” is not definite or universally applicable.
Another issue with a clearly outlined definition of magic is that it is often assumed to belong solely to “primitive” or “superstitious” peoples -terms which should not be used to describe any group of people- unwittingly linking these concepts to indigenous or tribal people across the globe according to the popular Western culture mindset. This is an incorrect assumption because magic exists and is rather widely practiced in today’s Western culture. The concept of magic and superstition are not reserved for people of older eras or of unindustrialized areas but are practiced in new ways every day in our highly educated and highly advanced Western societies. In his book “Baseball Magic”, Gmelch brings attention to American baseball players and the rituals they perform for each game for luck. Now, baseball, like many sports, requires extreme skill but the outcome of the game is a product of not just skill alone, but of chance. This takes a sense of control and predictability out of the players’ hands often leading to anxiety over the uncertainty of the game. As a result, it has become common for baseball players establish their own complex rituals to reduce that anxiety, claiming that these rituals give them luck and improve their skill or concentration (Gmelch, 2000) These rituals and practices of baseball players demonstrate how the concept of magic is often born and the significance it has for the people who practice it. Most importantly, the practice of magic is not reserved for the “primitive” or “superstitious”. Therefore, language such as “primitive”, “superstitious” and “tribal” do not serve to define who practices magic, and the definition of magic blurs more.
It is important to clarify that science is the process of proving facts about the world by backing them with empirical data and repeatable experiments. However, it is also important not to ignore the idea that science intersects with religion and magic more than we acknowledge. The National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine has an online booklet of articles, one of which is “Compatibility of Science and Religion” (National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, 2018) In this insightful article, they state that “Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith…Scientists and theologians have written eloquently about their awe and wonder at the history of the universe and of life on this planet, explaining that they see no conflict between their faith in God and the evidence for evolution.” (National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, 2018) This intersection of science and religion can be compatible as well as incompatible, but regardless of the nature of the relationship, they are two spheres that interact with one another and do not stand alone, which feeds into why the definition of science must be fluid.
To add to the needed fluidity and flexibility in the definition of science, scientific paradigms shift and change over time. If what science consists of can alter, then the definition must be able to follow suit. Thomas Nickle in his introduction to Kuhn’s ideas stated that “…Kuhn gave us a very different picture of science. Kuhn contended that there are two types of mature physical science, ‘normal science’ and ‘extraordinary’ or ‘revolutionary science’. In a given scientific field, long periods of conservative, tradition-bound normal science are punctuated by an occasional crisis and, still less frequently, by a revolution.” (Nickels, p.1) According to Nickle, Kuhn understood that paradigms are impermanent and that adjustments and alterations are made over time to better fit new knowledge. Furthermore, paradigm shifts influence people’s beliefs, and people’s beliefs influence paradigms. This is proof that there exists an overlap between science and religion that an inflexible definition of science does not account for.
In a TED talk, Wade Davis elaborates upon the interconnectedness of religions and human constructs across the globe (Davis, 2008) Davis states that there is no linear progression of these ideas coming into existence, but rather a web of things that morph and change along with paradigm shifts, belief shifts, culture shifts, etc. Demonstrating the fluidity and flexibility of the definition of religion, Davis says, “…unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. There is no progression of affairs in human experience. There is no trajectory of progress. There’s no pyramid that conveniently places Victorian England at the apex and descends down the flanks to the so-called primitives of the world. All peoples are simply cultural options, different visions of life itself.” (Davis, 2008) There is not linear progression or straight, traceable chronology to how worldviews and beliefs shift. Rather, it is a constantly changing web of interconnectedness. The definition of religion must be broad enough to allow for the constant alteration.
In the same line of thought, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”, eloquently stated after a realization during her study of a Hmong family caught in the crosshairs of Western medicine culture that “Medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine.” (Fadiman, 1997) This story of a medical journey paints a vivid picture of the Hmong vs. Western Medicine dynamic that shows how flexible the definition of religion must be for people to better understand other worldviews outside of their own, or outside of a dominant worldview. The idea that medicine is religion, religion is society and society is medicine shows just how connected these different spheres are and the definition of religion should be able to encompass that.
A PEW study that surveyed over 4,700 adults in the US found that about 90% of Americans believe in a higher power, but only a small number believe in God as defined in the Bible, as some supreme being, or as a spiritual force. The research also found that beliefs change from one generation to the next, in the younger peoples, and as people get more educated (Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2018) This research empirically demonstrates that religion, beliefs, and worldviews are subject to shifts in paradigms and that we live in an ever-changing religious landscape. These varied and changing beliefs of the people contribute to a need for a flexible definition of religion.
The definitions of “magic”, “science”, and “religion” must be flexible to allow each worldview to be expressed in its complex, interconnected entirety. The true definitions of these concepts overlap and bleed into one another to a point where, like good infrastructure, they must be plastic and accommodate any shifts, changes or interconnection that occur.
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