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A Monopoly on ‘Enchantment’?


re-printed from The Guardian U.K. In 1918, the German sociologist, Max Weber, claimed that the spreading influence of scientific rationalism meant that religious explanations of the world would become increasingly pushed aside. For Weber, this meant that, “the fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and … the disenchantment of the world … the […]

re-printed from The Guardian U.K.

In 1918, the German sociologist, Max Weber, claimed that the spreading influence of scientific rationalism meant that religious explanations of the world would become increasingly pushed aside. For Weber, this meant that, “the fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and … the disenchantment of the world … the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life.” Different trends around the world over the last 20 years, from the rise of political Islam, the resurgence of religious political movements across the former Eastern Bloc and the power of the Christian fundamentalism in the United States have cast doubt on Weber’s assumption of the increasing irrelevance of religion to public life. Today, many social scientists claim, in contradistinction to Weber, that the world is actually becoming “re-enchanted”.

However, what both Weber’s analysis of disenchantment and counter-claims as to the importance of contemporary re-enchantment often share is a tendency to make an easy association between religion and enchantment on the one hand and secular rationalism/scientific atheism and disenchantment on the other. In fact there is a long history of occasions when very modernist secular events seemed highly enchanted to many of those participating in them. Wordsworth’s response to the French Revolution, containing a reference to “reason” as the “prime enchantress” of the earth, being but one famous example. Likewise, organised religion can often be experienced as profoundly disenchanting, as the work of generations of writers, from James Joyce to Jeanette Winterson testifies.

For those debating the role of faith in public life, this sense that life is either more or less enchanted or wonderful with or without religion becomes something of a political resource to be fought over and used as a weapon against one’s opponents. And this sense of enchantment feeds into wider claims about the ways in which it is possible to find meaning or value in worlds that often look devoid of any moral compass, be it the world of free-market globalisation championed by the believer Tony Blair, or the world of the selfish gene as described by the atheist Richard Dawkins.

For Blair, the launch of his Faith Foundation marks not only an effort to encourage interfaith dialogue, but a conscious attempt to alter the political culture by, “restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future”. In Blair’s “Faith and Globalisation” lecture of last year, he argued that faith is “integral” to society, “giving the use of reason a purpose and society a soul, and human beings a sense of the divine”. The two aspects seem to be linked in Blair’s mind. Recapturing the “sense of the divine” given by faith is intimately linked to its role in giving reason a purpose. Reason by itself, contra the young Wordsworth, cannot enchant or provide its own sense of purpose, without the gift of faith that makes life “more than just a sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall from one darkness to another”. For Weber, a key element of scientific rationality’s tendency to disenchant the modern world is that it is “meaningless” because it cannot answer the “only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?”

Those who see themselves as defending science and rationalism against a tidal wave of religious superstition, whether they have read Weber or not, are keenly aware that a sense that, as Weber puts it, scientists, “with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood-and-sap of true life without ever catching up with it”, is one of the most powerful weapons to be used against them. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, begins and ends with passages which outline how much more wonderful and alive the universe appears when viewed through scientific eyes. He approvingly quotes Bertrand Russell’s claim that, “even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver … in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own”. Far from science disenchanting the world, for the rationalists it is faith, that by casting a veil of fairy stories in front of our eyes, keeps us from appreciating the true majesty and wonder of the universe that we live in. Dawkins knows that to simply disenchant is not an attractive position, so he has to establish science as a rival and superior enchantment to that of faith, hence his references to the “soul shaking” power of “sacred” science to “open the mind and satisfy the psyche”.

Such rhetorical tussles over enchantment play an important part in ongoing political battles over the place of faith in our daily lives. When the post-Downing Street Blair, who is now free to “do God” tells us that, “a faithless world is not one in which we would want ourselves and our children to live”, it is hard not to think back to policies that he championed in government to encourage a greater role for faith in state education. For Dawkins, such indoctrination of youth into faith is “a grievous wrong” to be opposed. Yet both are aware that the power of their position to inspire the human spirit is central to winning the argument.

Proponents of the role of faith in public life have perhaps mistakenly assumed that they would have a monopoly over a sense of enchantment, yet the popularity of books such as Dawkins suggests that they might have a fight on their hands retaining it in coming years.


Share your thoughts. Leave a comment:

5 Responses to “A Monopoly on ‘Enchantment’?”

  1. Ben Heyward
    June 18, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    Hello Ian,
    perhaps Weber was far too modern to know the pall of superstition that still hangs over some communities but not modern enough to have seen the photos which make us familiar with the colour and glory of both the macrocosmic scale of galaxies & the mocrocosmic scale of x-ray photography of hair lice or fleas! I am with you in rejecting an “easy association with religion/ enchantment on the one hand and rationalism/ disenchantment on the other”. I will suggest that there is a trend to the reverse

    I see a confounding here of enchantment as the mystery of what used to be called the Providence of God and we now call, after Einstein, the synchronicity of the Universe as opposed to the ignorance and fearfulness of superstition that believes some people can control sickness and physical forces to hurt or destroy others.

    Whether through some brands of pentecostal or fundamentalist christianity or some new-age movements we are seeing a return to superstition where people have a real fear of what sorcerers, witches or wizards might do to them. That is a relapse to means of power and control used in another time (pre-enlightenment Europe) and still used in some parts of the world today. In contrast to the ‘feel good’ vibes of using the word enchantment there is nothing positive about superstition. In parts of the Pacific, for example, christian vigilantes do occasionally beat suspected sorcerers to death. The victims are usually women

    Using this distinction beween enchantment and superstition (which you imply above) I would argue that the latter is on the rise in the post-modern West while the former is on the rise throughout the world but they are very different phenomena. As you say above, our SBNR faith is bound up with enchantment (with life) and therefore akin to Richard Dawkins’ sense of enchantment. I cannot speak for Tony Blair but I feel no need to rhetorically tussle with Dawkins about enchantment. I reckon we are right alongside him whereas our faith and his are another matter

    I think that we should be willing to openly stand with the rationalists about enchantment and reject the claim that faith has a monoploy on enchantment. Faith in an interventionist God is too much alloyed with the disempowerment of superstition

    Regards Ben

  2. Ian Lawton
    June 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    thanks for writing Ben. Your writing is very dense, and I had to read it several times, but after doing so I agree with you. SBNR in my estimation is a movement that connects all those who live in wonder and openness, religious or not. Email me if you have more to write in this area as it might be of interest to others. Ian

  3. Michael
    June 23, 2009 at 9:03 am #

    This is a fascinating topic that has many ramifications. Just as William James argued that there were varieties of religious experience, so too there are varieties of enchantment — including many forms of “secular” enchantment. Joshua Landy and I have co-edited a volume exploring these varieties that might be of interest: _The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age_ (Stanford, 2009).


  4. Loretta Milburn
    June 23, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Thank you both (Ian and Ben) for this discussion. I particularly am interested in the difference between enchantment and superstition. At first blush and looking from an “Integral” map approach, it seems that, to me, enchantment may be viewed as my own personal experience (interior singular). Superstition as the intersubjective (we of the interior collective) of culture. Glad to have the chance to think about this! lORETTA MILBURN

  5. Ian Lawton
    June 25, 2009 at 3:06 am #

    Hi Loretta. Do you think enchantment has greater depth and span (complexity and consciousness) than superstition for a culture? Is it a higher level of development? Sure is a fascinating topic. I might write on it and look up your book Micheal. Ian

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