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  Thursday, January 22, 2004

A popular saying (attributed to John Gager) is that magic is a term used to describe someone else's religion.  But magic is more than just a slur on religion--it was central to human beliefs about the world for millenia.  Both religion and science, by comparison, are modern developments that emerged from a world permeated by magical beliefs.  Reflecting on the past (magic) helps us understand the present (religion and science).

How did a religious worldview replace the magical worldview?  Only recently have scholars been willing to take magic seriously enough to study it.  The seminal work is Religion and the Decline of Magic (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971) by Keith Thomas.  From a short review by Philip Greven of Rutgers:  Thomas enables us to understand the extent to which Puritanism sought to delimit the magical elements of religious belief and yet, paradoxically, proved to be peculiarly susceptible to magic and witchcraft.  The remnants of Puritan religious culture in New England were the backdrop for the emergence of Mormonism in the early 19th century.

In a longer article entitled Civility and the Decline of Magic, Alan MacFarlane, a social theorist and a student of Thomas, summarizes the bulk of Thomas' book as illustrating the gradual erosion of the magical worldview and the birth of modern science.  Yet, he quoted Thomas as admitting that the most difficult problem in the study of magical beliefs is thus to explain how it was that men were able to break out of them.  Actually, some didn't--magical beliefs mingled with religious beliefs for many years, and even now questions about the status of supernatural events and explanations in relation to religious belief remain controversial.

With this introduction, Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books, 1987; revised and enlarged edition, 1998) becomes more comprehensible.  It was the first extended application of the "religion and magic" paradigm to Mormonism, but the theme and the approach were already well established.  The Introduction to the 1998 edition of Quinn's book is online at the publisher's website.  Long on detail but short on any kind of interpretive model, Quinn's book benefits from the framework laid out by Thomas.  One approach to Quinn's material, for example, is to ask whether it was easy or difficult for Mormons to abandon the magical views they brought to Mormonism as they developed more modernist religious and scientific beliefs. 2:59:37 AM      

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