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Science, religion, and magic

By Alec Ryrie


My book started out as a bit of fun, trying to tell a rollicking good story. I did that, I hope, but I also ended up somewhere more controversial than I expected: caught in the ongoing crossfire between science and religion. What I realised is that you can’t make sense of their relationship without inviting a third ugly sister to the party: magic.

The links between science and magic are pretty obvious. Science, basically, is magic that works. A lot of things that look pretty scientific to us were labelled ‘magic’ in the pre-modern period: chemistry, magnetism, even hydraulics – to say nothing of medicine. The only real difference is that modern science has a rigorous experimental basis. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. But to the novice, all science is indistinguishable from magic. You try showing a magnet to an astonished four-year-old and asking them how you did it.

Of course, science and magic are supposed to be enemies nowadays. Scientists despise magic, but still read their children fairy tales. Modern pagans dislike ‘scientism’ but they love information technology.

Religion and magic have the same sort of ambiguous relationship. They’re obviously connected: both trying to bring humanity in touch with supernatural powers. And they hate each other: the Abrahamic religions, at least, have always seen magic as heretical if not diabolical, and the view the other way isn’t much more complimentary. But the line between the two is pretty fuzzy. The theory is that magic is about trying to manipulate supernatural powers (with the magician in charge of the process) while religion is about submitting to or petitioning those powers (with God in charge). In practice, that breaks down, as magicians seek transcendent experiences and priests promulgate infallible books or sacraments.

In Christianity, though, this kind of talk has a confessional edge to it. Protestants have always argued that their (OK, full disclosure: our) form of Christianity is less tainted by magic, while Catholicism is riddled with superstition, obscurantism and priestcraft. Writing this book convinced me that this is nonsense.

Yes, Catholicism is more ritualistic. But early Protestantism was up to its neck in magic too. How could it not be? The best minds of the sixteenth century all took magic immensely seriously. It’s true that Protestants were uneasy about the way astrology (say) was being used, but they found it easier to mock it than to prove it wrong. And when they do mock it they sound crude, like flat-earthers denying the moon landings, or creationists using what Richard Dawkins calls ‘the argument from personal incredulity’ to deny evolution.

The truth was that, in the sixteenth century, only a fool would deny that magic was real. The Renaissance was turning the world upside down, sending the Earth round the Sun; explorers were discovering whole new continents. As I say in the book:

In our own age, scepticism and disbelief seem intellectually sophisticated; in the sixteenth century, they seemed self-limiting and perverse. It was unmistakable that there were more things in heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in the old philosophies. Credulity, or at least a willingness to believe, was the only sensible way of looking at the world. And when you have adopted a new mathematics, a new astronomy, a new geography and a new religion, why balk at a new magic?

So I hope the story I’m telling in this book has a serious point to make. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to be a magician (heaven forbid), but to recognise that one of the reasons science and religion have been so antagonistic is that they have a third sibling: this is a family quarrel. And both of them could do with hearing their sister’s warning: that incredulity and credulity can sometimes be just as stupid as each other.

Professor Alec Ryrie is Reader in Church History at the University of Durham. His book, The Sorcerer’s Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England, tells the story of Gregory Wisdom, a physician, magician, and consummate con-man at work in sixteenth-century London. The book is now out in paperback.

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