Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Magic and Religion

For me, the Golden Bough is one of those books that I start and give up on repeatedly. At the moment, I'm about 100 pages in and still going - progress!

It's a study of beliefs and magic and religion and is really interesting, although the lists sometimes seem to go on and on. So far, I've read about different things people do (or used to do) to make it rain, make it not rain, make it windy, sunny etc. We really are an imaginative race!

One idea keeps occuring and I find it really potent, is the differences between the concepts of magic and religion. James Frazer suggests (I think) that people practice magic when they believe that they (or other humans) can control their environment. Religion is practiced when people believe that they (as humans) cannot control their environment, but that there are beings (or gods), similar to a human, but bigger or more powerful, who can control the environment for us. He suggests that as humanity evolves, it moves from magic to religion.

Like I said, I'm only a little way into the book thus far, so it may develop more. I'm interested to see where we go after religion. But this idea has been on my mind a lot. A lot of Catholics seem to have this idea of religion, of a God who will change something, cure someone, provides something, do something that we want done, but cannot do.

I think that there is something missing from the ideas of magic and religion as suggested (so far) in the Golden Bough - but I can't put my finger on it. In modern magical stories (I'm thinking Harry Potter, LOTRs, books by David Eddings and Dianne Wynne Jones), the practice of magic is not so much about controlling your environment, but doing something that could almost be done normally, in a different way. In reality, you wouldn't normally fly on a broomstick, but in stories, to get from one place to another you could walk, ride a bike, drive a car, teleport, go on a spaceship or fly on a broomstick. Some of these methods are 'normal', magical or scientific.

For me too, religion is not really about controlling the environment I'm in. I don't generally pray for good things to happen to me or for God to make bad things go away. I don't think that God interfers in our day to day lives as a general rule. It's more about me opening my eyes to see what is actually going on around me.

But then, lots of us now live sheltered from the worst of nature or we try to hide from it. We can control our environments, not through magic or religion, but science. We can control the heat and light in our buildings. the water and food we consume, the people we interact (or not) with. We are removed from nature - nature is something that happens to other people, something we see on the news or an adventure we see in a film.

This does not seem like a good thing, but again, I can't really explain why. Maybe I've been reading and watching too much about the end of the world as we know it.

1 comment:

1dayin7 said...

For me, the world as I know it usually ends most days... I like to be surprised!

I reccomend you to read "At the Origin of the Christian Claim" and "Why the Church?" by Luigi Giussani. There are some bits in there on "other religons" and magic vs. sacramentality that are really priceless.

You can get 'em cheap from Amazon too.