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Relationship Between Magic And Religion Philosophy Essay

Relationship Between Magic And Religion Philosophy Essay

The relationship between magic and religion has been debated by anthropologists dating back to the 19th Century but a decision is yet to be reached as to whether there exists a fixed boundary between the two. E.B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer both conducted research into the separate nature of the two belief systems and came to the general conclusion that ‘magic was not a false religion, but a different sort of activity altogether’ (REF1) and was in many ways seen to be in direct conflict with religion. The opposing argument in this case is reflected in the work of E.E. Evans-Pritchard and his studies into the nature of witchcraft in the Azande tribe residing in North Central Africa. Evans-Pritchard found that although such beliefs appeared to be illogical when viewed from an outsider’s perspective, by entering into the society itself and thus performing an ethnographical study, he was able to gain a much greater insight into the Azande’s belief system and noticed it possessed several similarities to that of a religious system. Therefore we can see that there exists great difficulty when attempting to define a fixed boundary between the two as the terms “Magic” and “Religion” are not subject to set definitions themselves. (204)

Throughout history there is evidence of a conflict between magic and religion with religious systems not only acknowledging the difference between religion and magic but going as far as to reject magic completely. (REF2) The Church’s involvement in the prosecution of those believed to possess magic has changed over time due to public pressure and demand to take action. Originally it was greatly frowned upon to label someone as a witch and it was said that ‘whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church’ (REF3). However, this view changed over centuries with church heretics now being labelled as witches and the prosecution of many of the accused taking place at the hands of the church authorities themselves. (REF4) Although the Church did to some extent attempt to keep control of the situation it’s clear to see that, at least in Western religions, ‘religious tradition defines […] the unacceptable as magic’ (REF5) and so would strongly preach a boundary between them. ([163]367)

In his extended work “The Golden Bough”, Frazer also develops the idea of a fixed boundary existing between religion and magic and suggests that at some point in time there must have existed a period of transition from one to the other which is now developing into the scientific way of life we see today. Frazer describes magic as a primitive form of technology through which believers would attempt to explain or affect nature through objects considered to have either a contagious or sympathetic link to each other. This is then followed by religion which develops as a product of the failings of magic and the resulting realisation that control over nature was not possessed by humans and so there must exist external forces or beings which occupy such control. The idea of a higher, spiritual power appeared to be a stronger theory than that of magic, with all hardships or misfortunes being accounted for as part of a bigger, divine plan, however there was still no hard evidence to back up these claims. The next stage of human development proposed by Frazer is that of science and rationalism which he states can be described as a more advanced version of the original magical beliefs. This link between magic and science is key to the use of Frazer’s work to argue the existence of a fixed boundary between religion and magic as it presents the view that ‘[Religion] stands in fundamental antagonism to magic as well as to science’ (REF6). For Frazer, both science and magic are the results of the principles of association, which when correctly applied lead to science; however an incorrect connection results in magic. These two principles can be considered the same as both are based upon a real and firm faith in the order and uniformity of nature; this cannot be said of religion as its systems differ across countries and historical periods whereas magic remains constant. (REF7). Frazer uses this as evidence for the truth of science and the attempts made by magic to reach the same conclusions, but also to dismiss religion as incorrect and irrational. He advocates the existence of magic without religion at some point in history and states that it is the belief in supernatural beings and their control over the world which causes the movement from the realm of magic to that of religion and thus separates the two (REF8). There is some discrepancy over the connection of magic and science and whether this necessarily excludes religion completely. Belief in witchcraft, such as that displayed by the Azande, in no way contradicts empirical knowledge of cause and effect; the Azande were still scientific in their understanding of the way nature operated and used witchcraft to explain that which could not otherwise be explained, a role often fulfilled by religion in modern society. This take on religion, often referred to as a ‘God-of-the-Gaps theology’ (REF9) therefore can be consider to perform the same role as witchcraft and belief in magic in such cases. In addition to this, in modern society, scientific theory is excluded in matters of moral and legal responsibility and the same applies to the Azande belief in witchcraft. Depending on the society in question, religion is often also excluded and not taken as acceptable reasoning for breaches or law or morals such as in the case of sacrifices or honour killings (REF10). These similarities between religion and magic, and to a certain extent science, help to distort the clear distinctions between the belief systems and so make it harder to determine a fixed boundary between religion and magic. ([596] 963)

‘Both Tylor and Frazer distinguished between magic[ …], a belief in impersonal forces, and religion, a belief in personal supernatural being’ (REF11), which when viewed in this respect acts as a definitive difference between the two, therefore providing a fixed boundary with which to separate them. However, points raised by both Tylor and Frazer can be used to call attention to compelling similarities between magic and religion.

One of the key similarities between the two belief systems is their importance to the functioning of the society in which they are held. Emile Durkheim stressed the need for religion as a means of maintaining social order as it provides a set of moral codes by which to live and a system of reward and punishment for abiding by these codes, thus Gods or some form of higher power are responsible for keeping society functioning within certain boundaries ‘for it is by worshipping and serving them that it regenerates itself and strengthens and renews its commitment to its own values’ (REF12). The same can be said for witchcraft, as it exists within the Azande culture, as it encourages seeking and providing forgiveness for past wrongdoings in order to relieve the ‘curse’ placed upon you. In addition, as witchcraft would not act as a legitimate excuse for committing such sins as adultery or murder, it maintains that such acts are wrong and are a matter of personal choice and therefore the individual is held personally accountable. By offering rewards to those who achieve forgiveness, in the form of the cease of witchcraft, and punishment to those who commit moral wrongdoings, in the form of exile or death, witchcraft helps to provide the community with a strong set of social regulations and therefore maintain social control. Evans-Pritchard found that for the Azande, witchcraft provides a social structure similar to that of the Church, with oracles and witchdoctors possessing different qualities and powers which denote their different ranks within the community. This method of ordering society is an important factor which helps to blend religion and magic together and so make it harder to define a fixed boundary between them.

The emotional aspect of religion and magic is another component which is common of such belief systems. According to Frazer, witchcraft provides an explanation for the outcome of a series of events which otherwise cannot be explained (REF13) and this can be associated to religion and it’s tendency to explain otherwise unexplainable events as a part of a larger divine plan or the result of bad actions committed in a previous life. When viewed in this respect, science can also be connected to religion and magic once again as ‘whether explanations for illness are “scientific” or “mystical”, all societies must have explanations for crises’ (REF14). All three systems of belief provide members of the society with a natural philosophy which helps to explain both the positive and negative events that take place in their lives and offer a way of reacting to them. Sigmund Freud saw the emotional aspect of religion as highly important when attempting to explain why people choose to follow a religion and stated that ‘Religious ideas […] are charged with an extremely suggestive, emotional power.’ (REF15) This works in the same way as the Azande’s belief of witchcraft as a second spear, in both cultures a close friend or family member having a disease would be explained in scientific terms; they are elderly and so more susceptible to disease or they have caught the disease by engaging in a particular activity for example, as the first spear. However, if the person is then to die from the disease, this is the influence of the second spear, in the Azande case, witchcraft, or in a religious sense, the will of God as part of His divine plan. This may provide comfort to the family of the deceased that everyone involved had done everything they could to help the individual recover but it was the work of a force outside of human control that was responsible for the outcome, not human error or neglect. Therefore, when viewed as a provider of emotional comfort, both religion and magic fulfil the same function and so dismiss the idea of a fixed boundary existing between them. (705 [1668]

As briefly mentioned earlier, witchcraft and religion both possess a similar level of emphasis on maintaining a high moral standard within society, at least in some cases. In some societies, generally those associated with being either primitive or less developed compared with modern western civilisation, religious ceremonies include the ritual sacrificing of animal or even human life, albeit the more rare of the two, or contain beliefs that, when ignored, call for murder or other generally unacceptable moral breaches in the name of honour. In modern, westernised societies, religion would not provide a legitimate excuse for committing such crimes and the same attitude is displayed in the Azande tribe who would reject any claims of witchcraft having caused someone to commit acts which were considered to go against moral guidelines. Consequently, here we can see another area in which there lacks a clear difference between religion and magic; in both cases, not every negative event is accounted for by God’s will or witchcraft, carelessness, ignorance and lack of morals are still discouraged and found to be the cause of many negative events.(REF16) If a farmer’s crops failed to grow because he did not give them the right amount of water and nutrients then the cause would be his inexperience or forgetfulness, not God or witchcraft. However, if the farmer carried out all of the required tasks to the best of his ability and usually succeeded by doing so but the crops failed to grow, then this could be attributed to witchcraft or God as it would be considered an otherwise unexplainable event. From this we can clearly see that neither religious nor magical societies, in general, allow for breach of moral laws on the grounds of their faith. This displays a positive aspect of the two systems that is common and so clouds any set distinction between the two. (309 [1977])

Generally, it can be said that when viewed from a less detailed perspective; both religion and magic seem to fit into several of the wider definitions often applied to religion in the modern day and fulfil some of the same functions both within society and to the individual. ‘One important aspect of religion is helping believers to come to know the unknown’, (REF17) an aspect which is exhibited in Azande witchcraft beliefs through the use of Oracles and Witchdoctors to uncover the truth about the origin of the curse and what implications it will have on those who are subject to it. Helping to uncover or predict the unknown is just one of the many examples of how magic and religion perform the same occupations for believers and contributes to forming a broader definition of the two as similar systems. Both religion and magic provide ‘ways of dealing with the supernatural, explaining the unexplainable, attempting to control or manipulate what otherwise cannot be controlled’ and a social structure which helps to dictate how believers live their lives. In this respect, there is only a boundary between the two when considered in greater detail and studying the individual beliefs and practices separately. Despite these slight differences in beliefs and practices, there is evidence to suggest that at some point in history, there did not exist a boundary between religion and magic, or if one did exist then it was barely visible. Both Tylor and Frazer ‘viewed magic and religion in primitive societies as beliefs and practices that attempted to interpret the world rationally and achieve worldly goals’. (REF18) In his work, The Golden Bough, Frazer proposed that at some point in time, the functions of priest and sorcerer were the same and may have even been combined, he also suggested that during the transition between magic and religion, which would have taken place gradually over hundreds of years, there may have been the belief that the God’s were magic. (REF19) In addition to this, in some societies, it was thought that witches inherited their ‘power for evil or [was] given the power by God’. (REF20) It has even been claimed by some that Jesus was a magician as he portrayed such traits as being able to perform miracles and healing the sick, acts often associated with magic or an otherworldly power. (REF21) Thus, although a distinction between religion and magic may exist in the present day, it is highly possible that at some point in the past, the two systems were considered as one or at the very least performed functions so similar that they were impossible to separate. (434[2411])

In conclusion, there are a number of strong similarities between religion and magic although there does appear to be some distinctions which form a boundary between the two. It has been agreed by many of those who have studied magic and religion that there is a general trend running through them; both have a metaphysical sense and involve something which is outside of complete human control. Tylor found religion ‘to generally resemble magic’ (REF22) which is echoed by William James’ view of religion ‘as the belief in an unseen order’, (REF23) something which can easily be said of magic. Both Frazer and Evans-Pritchard also saw a basic connection between the two systems and suggested that they acted as separate strains of human reason, which remains the same globally, but is expressed differently according to culture and also varies over time. However, it is undeniable that there are aspects of each belief system that not only contrast but are incompatible with each other. Religion is most widely focused on the belief that there are a set of powers superior to man which have control over nature whereas magic emphasises human control. Furthermore, Tylor defined religion as ‘belief in spiritual beings’ (REF25) and also magic also deals with spirits in some respect, when it does so, it refers to them as inanimate objects rather than sentient beings. A final example of a significant difference between religion and magic is that ‘Magic is not a uniform class of practices and beliefs which can be immediately discerned in every society’, (REF26) especially in modern society. Science has made it almost impossible for a belief in magic to survive in modern cultures, specifically those in Western Europe, as it provides definitive explanations for the acts of nature and as a result, negates the claims made by magic. On the other hand, Religion has survived the development of scientific explanations as science has yet been unable to prove Religion as entirely false and merely casts speculation onto some of the finer details of specific religious beliefs. Additionally, science cannot offer the answers to all questions posed about the nature of human life and reason for our existence and so many turn to religion.

Overall, it can be said that ‘One group’s holy man is another group’s magician’; (REF27) there exists a boundary



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