Every morning my grandmother used to rise at dawn, look out over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and scatter ground cornmeal (masa harina) for the spirits. To those outside the family, she was known as Felicitas Goodman, a famous professor of anthropology and the author of several well-regarded scholarly monographs on glossolalia, Mexican Pentecostal Christianity, and the anthropology of religion. After her retirement, she went public with her belief in spirits and ecstatic trances; scholars, scientists, and artists came from Europe, Mexico, and the United States to participate in “shamanic” trance workshops under her leadership.

My grandmother inspired me to become a scholar, but her shamanism bothered me. Not that I believed in spirits, rather I was troubled by a theme I often heard repeated in her community—that the modern Western world had lost its magic. This notion that there had been a loss of magic paired with overt belief in magical practices demonstrated an irony that has only been amplified by people I encountered since, many of whom express similar sentiments.

Shortly after I delivered my first book to my editor, I found myself thinking about my grandmother, who died in 2005, and was saddened that she’d never get to read it. Thinking about her I also found myself returning to the broader issue of the entanglement of enchantment and disenchantment. The more I thought about it the more I began to believe that it had serious implications for foundational assumptions in the social sciences. I’d like to touch on a few of these implications and in so doing summarize one important thread from my new book The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences.

* * *

A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of “modernity” is the departure of the supernatural.[1] It is often supposed that what makes the modern world modern is that people no longer believe in ghosts, spirits, occult forces, or magic. This notion is often expressed with reference to Max Weber’s poetic phrase “the disenchantment of the world” (die Entzauberung der Welt), literally the “de-magic-ing” of the world. Sometimes this account of modernity has had a tone of celebration, rejoicing in the ascent of European science and the end of superstition, but equally often it has been a lament, bemoaning a loss of wonder and magic.

This account of modernity is generally taken for granted and despite the many challenges to notions of secularization, few scholars would argue that magic is making a comeback. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently summarized it, “Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of 500 years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not.” [2]

At its core, The Myth of Disenchantment is an attempt to challenge this notion of disenchantment, to re-write this particular account of modernity and its rupture from the pre-modern past. Simply put, I argue that magic never vanished.[3]


Modernity is as much a spatial as a temporal category, so to call a culture “modern” is to ally it with newness and to consign its opposite to colonization or the scrap heap of history.


Part of my motive for challenging this narrative comes from an awareness of its historical and cultural limits. Taylor’s “us” above already clues us into the Eurocentrism of the thesis. Modernity is as much a spatial as a temporal category, so to call a culture “modern” is to ally it with newness and to consign its opposite to colonization or the scrap heap of history. Accusing so-called “savages” of believing in magic or witchcraft was historically used as a justification of European expansion. So it should not surprise us that “the disenchantment of the world” has generally seemed harder to find outside the lands of the phrase’s birth.

Inverting the older notion of enchantment as a sign of backwardness, a host of scholars have shown us that magic and technology, capitalism and spirits, often coexist throughout the global south. They have traced: epidemics of spirit possession among Malaysian factory workers, democracy and witchcraft in contemporary South Africa, Indian gurus believed to be capable of reviving the dead, Japanese amulets to protect against automobile accidents, and so on. Indeed, Cosmologics has even showcased research on the electric gods of Cuban Santería. It would seem that Africa, Latin America, and most of Asia are inhabited by sorcerers and alive with spirits.

* * *

A generation of theorists has learned to be cautious about assuming that belief in sorcery and spirits vanished across the globe. But while there are many different accounts of how modernity became disenchanted (and precisely what disenchantment entails), it is usually supposed that at the very least the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their magic.

But you don’t have to have known my grandmother or her fellow travelers to become suspicious of even this last claim. You have only to look around you. By way of illustration, enchantment would seem to be on display in coffee shops, co-ops, and bookstores throughout the United States. Indeed, while my archival research was undertaken in England, France, and Germany I wrote most of it in an American café adorned with flyers advertising “crystal healing,” “energy balancing,” “chakra yoga,” and “tarot” readings. [4]

Beyond my coffee habit, I devote the first chapter of The Myth of Disenchantment to a sociological (meta)analysis of contemporary patterns of belief in the so-called heartland of disenchantment. Tellingly, the evidence from opinion surveys suggests that roughly three-quarters of those living in Western Europe and North America believe in some form of the “paranormal” (a fraught term I explore in greater detail in the text). Even when one finds radically different degrees of secularization (as measured by church attendance and surveys tracking belief in God), one finds similar degrees of paranormal belief. [5] There is also evidence that there is no direct correlation between education and paranormal beliefs. More educated people generally believe in different types of the paranormal, but, often still believe. According to several different measures, most people living in the “first world” believe in ghosts, witches, psychical powers, magic, astrology, or demons. Skeptics are in the clear minority. As the contemporary scholar, Jeffrey Kripal has put it: “The paranormal is our secret in plain sight.”

At the very least, if one views Europe and North America through the same sort of anthropological lens that European and American anthropologists are used to directing abroad, it seems hard to defend the notion that there is a radical disjunction between “the West and the rest” in terms of belief in the supernatural. It makes it hard to countenance the idea that belief in spirits and magic has suffered a precipitous and complete dropping off.

There is an interpretation of current enchantments that is worth addressing before I continue. Perhaps contemporary belief in things like spirits and healing crystals is the result of a new return of magic, what Theodor Adorno famously described as “regression to magic under late capitalism.” This view might be appealing if you think of contemporary beliefs of this source as a popularization of the 1960s and 1970s “New Age” movement. But historians (Catherine Albanese, Ann Braude, Alex Owen, and many more) have demonstrated the centrality of movements like spiritualism and theosophy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, it is hard not to see the Victorian era without being reminded of the cultural importance of séances, ghosts, and occult revivals. This is a problem because, as I argue, these movements were in ascendance in the very moment in which social scientists and philosophers were first giving birth to the notion of disenchantment as a central feature of modernity.

This realization has yet to have a serious impact on the historiography of the disciplines. It is often assumed that the human sciences resulted from a rejection of theology and the relativization of European thought in the face of global contact. Other scholars have argued, for instance, that religious studies, for one, had its origins in the European empires; it is an important point that may nonetheless need refining, since the canonically early figures in the discipline—Max Müller, Max Weber, Marcel Mauss—never went to India or met an Aboriginal Australian firsthand. They were, however, profoundly enmeshed in the occult milieu, and much of what they thought they knew about the non-West was mediated by European esotericism. Indeed, the very objects of their concern, methods, and even their self-definition still bear the marks of this important early encounter with the occult.

My larger project works out this occult side of the human sciences, not just the texts and thinkers who did not make it into the canon, but also those canonical figures whose esoteric preoccupations have been systematically ignored or suppressed.


Why did European societies come to think of themselves as disenchanted? How did Europe come to imagine that it did not believe in spirits, despite persistent evidence to the contrary?


But having located the birth of the human sciences in the occult milieu poses new problems. To reiterate, the first implication of my research is that it calls into question the broader trajectory of disenchantment (and even of notions of modernity that rest on the assumption that rationalization or secularization is the central feature of modernity). I am not the first to challenge the notion that we have never been modern.

But if we reject the old European story of the “disenchantment of the world,” and I think there are plenty of good reasons to do so, this opens up further questions such as: why did European societies come to think of themselves as disenchanted? How did Europe come to imagine—even to the extent of taking it as its self-definition—that it did not believe in spirits despite persistent evidence to the contrary? Why were social scientists drawn to the very beliefs they decried as primitive superstitions? How in the face of widespread belief in spirits and magic did disenchantment come to function as a regime of truth or disciplinary norm in the human sciences? When and how did the myth of disenchantment emerge?

In The Myth of Disenchantment, I try to answer these questions by tracing the long history of the notion of “disenchantment” and “modernity” in the human sciences showing how the notion of a vanishing world of magic and spirits ironically emerged in the shared terrain of scholars and professed spiritualists/magicians.

I hope you’ll forgive me for omitting most of that argument here and that you’ll read the book. But I want to highlight one particular aspect of the answer that will be of particular interest to Cosmologics readers. I want to gesture at how the repression of “magic” came from the formation of the categories of “religion” and “science.”

Scholars, such as Peter Harrison, have emphasized the historical contingency of the categories “religion” and “science” and shown how they were constructed through a parallel process of mutual distinction and reification.[6] Although initially understood as complementary, “religion” and “science” eventually came to be understood as separate systems with their own spheres.

To this insight, I add the observation that this differentiation process involved the construction of a third term—“superstition”—understood as the false double of religion and later as the false double of science. Superstition went from wrong because it was diabolical or pagan to mistaken because it was anti-scientific. Put differently, the notion of true “religion” was in some sense constructed by being distinguished from the false religion of “superstition” (we can hear echoes of Protestant anti-Catholicism and earlier Christian anti-paganism). Similarly true “science” was articulated in opposition to “superstition” (understood as occult or fake science). Moreover, from both vantages the prototypical superstitions were belief in spirits and “magic.” Accordingly, instead of a binary, I see a trinary formation in which religion is negated by science, which is in turn negated by superstition or magic.

Overlaps between “religion” and “science” were often described as “superstition” or pseudo-sciences. Policing “superstition” became part of the way that the categories of “religion” and “science” were formed in differentiation. But this also meant that these so-called superstitions appeared to show promise as a way to reconcile the supposed conflict between religion and science. This gave magic and occult sciences certain allure (as locations for the critique of modernity or scientific materialism or ways to repair the science-religion divide), but it also made their suppression key to claims to scientific status.

This is not the only reason that European thinkers came up with the theory of disenchantment and put it into place as a regulative ideal. I explore a range of other entangled issues (such as the ever important backdrop of colonialism) in my manuscript. But the above is a significant part of the story.

* * *

To conclude, I have been trying to make two broad arguments—first, the disenchantment of the world (as it is often understood) never completed. Despite the formation of disenchantment as a disciplinary regime of truth, belief in spirits and magic are surprisingly common across the globe. In this respect, Europe itself did not follow the official trajectory of European modernity.

Second, I have been arguing that once one stops assuming that modernity is equated with disenchantment we can see that the canonical figures in the human sciences were influenced by spiritualist and magical revivals (if you are curious about who a partial list can be gleaned from my table of contents). Indeed, while the social sciences are often supposed to be one of the vectors for secularization and the displacement of enchantment, by tracing the early history of the disciplines I show that anthropology and its cousins were more likely than other disciplines to birth new revivals of paganism, shamanism, and even magic.

This in turn poses a further problem because if the nineteenth century was not by any stretch disenchanted and many of the canonical figures were themselves connected to the occult milieu, how then did these thinkers come to embrace the idea that the end of magic was the order of the day? In the book, I explore multiple answers to this issue, but here I have showcased the construction of a putative opposition between religion and science and the occlusion of a third term (superstition), and the mutually reinforcing nature of the disenchantment thesis in occult and academic circles.

In sum, European thinkers saw modernity as either a triumph or a tragedy: if tragic, it must recover its lost magic before it was too late; if a triumph, it must complete the work of banishing superstition. But European culture was not in fact as unique in this respect, as these theorists believed. Modernity was a false paradigm, and so neither project could succeed. Why? Because the magic never vanished.

Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm * is Associate Professor of religion at Williams College. The common thread to his research is an attempt to decenter received narratives in the study of religion and science. His first book, The Invention of Religion in Japan is the first study in any European language to reveal how Japanese officials, under extreme international pressure, came to terms with the Western concept of religion by “discovering” religion in Japan and formulating policies to guarantee its freedom.


[*] A note about my name change (from “Jason Ānanda Josephson” to “Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm”). I am getting married in August 2016 and I will be hyphenating my surname with my wife’s surname (Storm) going forward.

[1] The main version of this narrative that inspired my project was Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.

[2] Charles Taylor. “Western Secularity.” In Rethinking Secularism, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 38.

[3] There were attempts at disenchantment, but they failed more often than they succeeded.

[4] Flyers on the wall of Dobra Tea in Northampton, MA 6/30/2014. Similarly, Courtney Bender discusses flyers at the Harvest Cooperative Supermarket in Cambridge, MA in The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, 21-22.

[5] American and British survey data is more robust. Evidence from Western Europe is more scattered and beliefs to do very widely by country. These issues are addressed in much more nuance in my book.

[6] See Peter Harrison. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015. I also made a similar argument in Jason Ānanda Josephson, The Invention of Religion in Japan, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Image from Flickr via felineboard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *