The myth of disenchantment?


In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, Williams College religion professor Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm opens with this anecdote, noting that it doesn’t quite jibe with “the single most familiar story in the history of science,” one we tell ourselves in the modern, secular world: the story of disenchantment. Josephson-Storm summarizes it as follows:

... at a particular moment the darkness of superstition, myth, or religion began to give way to modern light, exchanging traditional unreason for technology and rationality. When told in a soaring tone, this is a tale of triumph; and when recounted in a different and descending emotional register, it can sound like the inauguration of our tragic alienation from an idealized past.

Whichever your take, the narrative abides: Modernity, thus understood, is an age of rationalism, science, and technology that eventually (and inevitably) overcame the mysterious wonders of magic, religion, and superstition. But this story, Josephson-Storm argues, is a myth. Why else, he suggests, would an esteemed scientist like Curie be cavorting with the likes of Palladino?

Part of his evidence comes from recent polls, which show that belief in psychic healing, ghosts, telepathy, witches, reincarnation, and other paranormal phenomena remains remarkably high. According to 2005 Gallup research, seventy-six percent of Americans “profess at least one paranormal belief.” Results from the large Baylor Religion Survey of the same year show that about 80 percent of respondents believe that angels probably or absolutely exist, and about 66 percent in the case of demons.

While these numbers challenge the idea that ours is a disenchanted age, perhaps such beliefs might still be expected among the common folk. Thus Josephson-Storm places in the crosshairs members of the scientific establishment, who we would expect to be right-thinking. He provides an impressive compendium of Curie-like anecdotes going back to Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, dabblers in magical thinking all, suggesting that our default image of the scientist as hardnosed materialist is more caricature than reality.

From these anecdotes, Josephson-Storm concludes that “we have never been disenchanted.” Thus “we should be less surprised than we usually are to find scientists of all stripes keeping company with magicians.” “Séance and science” have often gone hand in hand, and “it is unclear ... that science necessarily deanimates nature.”

The book, however, is less important as a history of science and magic than as a history of how we came to believe the myth of disenchantment. As he traces the story, Josephson-Storm brilliantly pulls open the curtain on one of our oft-told and rarely questioned modern myths, helping us better to see the motley crew responsible for its production.

But if disenchantment is a myth, just how has it managed to persist for so long? While Josephson-Storm does a fine job exploring the origins and story of the disenchantment myth, his failure to offer an adequate answer to this question leaves much to be desired in his project....

The enduring myth of disenchantment can only be explained if it is filling a timeless need in the human soul--a need for a vanquishing order-restoring force that defeats the forces of darkness and evil. This is an ancient religious longing in the human psyche--a longing for the divine message or gospel that delivers us from the minions of ignorance and delusion. Science becomes the new messianic promise of light conquering darkness. It is not hard to see why this archetype would persist in the modern psyche. Note the predominance of light/dark metaphors. Of the elevation of an illuminating "way of knowing" that makes superstition and deception shrivel up and die. It is the continuation of the Enlightenment myth from 400 years ago.
I feel I should point out that Josephson-Storm using the USA as a sample study of the "modern, secular world" is problematic.
(Aug 20, 2018 06:40 AM)Ben the Donkey Wrote: I feel I should point out that Josephson-Storm using the USA as a sample study of the "modern, secular world" is problematic.

Presumably the information gatherers for other countries (and the globe as whole) do studies in which the results occasionally (miracle of miracles!) show up in reports which are actually picked-up by search engines for at least those applicable geographic regions. So that its residents (and even outsiders!) might reference something besides anecdotes and popular gossip about _X_. But otherwise, it often feels like the US is the rare country that does routinely research and output any data about its population in highly refined categories.

Belief in ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon remains prominent in many cultures. 42% of Americans believe in ghosts, and 52% in the United Kingdom.

Grappling With Russians' Paranormal Obsessions
Russia's bizarre obsession with psychics and the occult

Superstition in India

Norway: Spirits & ghosts are filling the vacuum

Belief in Witchcraft Widespread in Africa

A belief in the supernatural is mostly taken for granted in Latin America

Belief in ghosts around the world

Demographics: Though China is state atheism, 85% of the population practice various kinds of religious behaviors with some regularity. In the Netherlands, beliefs of "convinced atheists" are quite diverse: 41.1% of them believe in telepathy...

The Politics of Muslim Magic

The World's Muslims: Other Beliefs and Practices

List of haunted locations in Japan

Persuasions of the Witch's Craft Ritual Magic in Contemporary England

Culturally reshuffling continental Europe is a mere intermediate patch on the globe, which often appears like it's just trading in its Abrahamic theism for alternative kinds of eccentricity or "nuttery": Ranging from old slash pre-Christian, to incoming migrant exoticism to new forms of paranormal yoyo-ism and junk fanaticism (latter including anti-GMO zealotry). Fewer organized conceptual orientations and practices (i.e., religion) doesn't mean a shortage of jumbled magpie and packrat belief collections for individual denizens.

The "greater world" is of course Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Islamic realm, the Anglophone realm (of which a significant chunk is North America), etc. All with robust pockets of woo-doo.

Hmm. I regret posting that now, tongue in cheek as it may have been.

I have a tendency to lump the USA in with southern European nations (e.g. Italy, Greece), though, in terms of religious fervour. It was that I was thinking about.
Anyone who knows much at all about the history of science knows that science started on the basis that we could understand a universe created by a designer. That it was only predictable because it was purposefully created.

The real myth is the coming supremacy of atheistic materialism.

(Aug 20, 2018 04:33 PM)Ben the Donkey Wrote: Hmm. I regret posting that now, tongue in cheek as it may have been.

I have a tendency to lump the USA in with southern European nations (e.g. Italy, Greece), though, in terms of religious fervour. It was that I was thinking about.

Yeah, your "analysis" of studies is far from rigorous.

(Aug 20, 2018 07:16 AM)Ben the Donkey Wrote: I'm hardly going to take the results of a single study conducted 20 years ago to heart anyway.
When you actually read that article Syne linked, the numbers don't have any context. It's... well, I'm a data analyst. And I'd not pay any attention to data like that without knowing the details of the original study. Which are not available, it appears. There is a link to an original piece but it doesn't work.
It's junk.

More like dismissive due to obvious bias. You know, you can Google up those figures to verify them for yourself.
No, Syne. It was a junk article.
Please stop making excuses, it's tedious.

I have no idea what is is you're trying to do now with the off-topic quoting. Do you have an explanation, or are you simply confused?
If you don't see the relevance of one faulty assumption to another, I can't help you, mate.

Most likely just another lazy genetic fallacy.
I see. Confused, then.
The other thread is that way, Syne.
And more nothing from Ben.

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