Essay on Relationship Between Religion and Magic

1. As H.M. Johnson has pointed out “when the goal of action is empirical and the means are supernatural, we call the action magic.”

2. Max Weber used the term “magic” “to refer to religious action believed to be automatically effective, whether the goal is empirical or non-empirical.”

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3. B. Malinowski defines ‘magic’ as “the use of supernatural means to try to obtain empirical ends.” He, however, distinguished magic from religion.

4. In simple word, magic can be understood as the use of some supernatural power to obtain the desired ends.

British anthropologist James Frazer in his ‘Golden Bough’ has spoken of two aspects of magic: (i) magic by imitation, and (ii) magic by contagion, (i) In magic by Imitation an individual imitates what he wants or expects to happen. Example: If an individual wants rainfall to take place, he may fill his mouth with water and squirt it around in different directions. Similarly, to finish off an en­emy, a wax or wooden image of him may be made and pierced with a needle or chisel, (ii) Magic by Contagion is based on the belief that whatever would come into contact with the supernatural power, will be swayed by it.

Thus the forehead of a person may be rubbed off with some ashes so that he may be free from headaches. Further, it is because of this belief the survivors of the deceased person used to bury or burn along with his dead body all his articles, (dress, walking stick, foot wear, bed, mat, etc.) to keep themselves free from his bad influence.

Types of Magic:

Sociologists have spoken of two types of magic, (i) White magic, and (ii) Black magic. The distinction between the two does not always correspond to the distinction between “approved” and “disapproved” or between “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” White magic is normally approved of; but black magic is sometimes approved of, while some other times disapproved of.

1. White Magic:

White magic is that kind of magic which is never used to do harm within the magician’s own society. Example: Magic to restore health is White”. Similarly, magic to ensure victory in war is ‘white’ even though it may harm the enemy.

White magic is perhaps most commonly practised in fields such as agriculture, hunting, war­fare, and health. The magic rite or spell may be used for an individual’s benefit or for the benefit of some larger group, upto the whole society. Example: The Navaho singer, by various supernatural means such as singing, chanting and making sand paintings, tries to restore people to health. He is a specialist, and gets fees for his services.

We may expect magic under two conditions; that is, (i) when there is emotional involvement in the outcome of action, and (ii) when there is no adequate rational control over the outcome. Magical ritual is not used as a substitute for rational techniques for magic is only a supplement.

By perform­ing magic, men assure themselves that they are doing everything possible to produce a favourable outcome. Through magic they try to express their strong wishes symbolically and renew their confi­dence.

Ex: Trobriand Islanders consider magic as inevitable for deep sea fishing which involves risk. But they do not use magic in their fresh-water fishing, which involves no risk.

2. Black Magic:

Black magic consists of sorcery and witchcraft. Sorcery consists of rites and spells, the effi­cacy of which does not depend upon the supernatural power vested in the magician himself. Hence sorcery can be learnt and practised with efficacy by any one.

It only requires that the ritual is cor­rectly performed and that the victim or his protector does not use counter magic of greater power. Witchcraft, on the other hand, is black magic that is thought to depend upon the supernatural power of the magician.

Thus it cannot be transmitted, except possibly by heredity. Ex: Among the Dobuans of the Western Pacific, black magic is used to protect property right and hence to punish theft. The Maori Chieftains in New Zealand try to reinforce their authority by their control of black magic.

Among the Pondo of South Africa, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law most frequently accuse each other of being witches. The use of black magic on a large scale in some societies such as those of Dobuans, is an indication of strains and tensions in the social structure of a society.

Difference between Religion and Magic:

Magic and religion are closely linked. According to some writers magic is also a kind of reli­gion, while some others never consider it so. What they have in common is the reference to a super­natural realm.

According to Kingsley Davis, magic and religion could be distinguished on the basis of the following: (i) the kind of ends pursued, (ii) the types of attitudes involved, (iii) the particular kind of supernaturalism required, and (iv) the pattern of behaviour exhibited. These may be ex­plained in the following way.

1. The kinds of ends pursued:

The magic implies that a definite end is being pursued. This end is immediate, practical, and usually private. Ex: Among the Northern Chins, a sick man may offer a young foul or small dog to the angry deity (who he thinks is responsible for the disease) in sacrifice to satisfy his deity so that he gets cured of his disease.

But religion has no definite end. It is not used as means but stands as an end in itself. Even when the religious behaviour and holy objects are used to attain an end, the end is either ultimate or public in nature. Thus a man may pray God for his salvation or for group welfare.

2. The types of attitudes involved:

In religion, emphasis is laid on the subjective attitude of the participants. For example, feelings of awe, reverence, elevation, sublimation, and inspiration are experienced by the individuals with regard to the holy. But in magic the attitude is more materialistic.

The attitude is more a matter of fact. It is similar to the attitude which one holds, when using any ordinary technological instrument. Most of the magical spells are spoken in normal, matter-of-fact voices. If a magician wants a medicine to bring the immediate effect of a cure, he says so.

3. The particular kind of supernaturalism required:

Religion brings into play the entire supernatural world with all its creatures capable of responding to human wishes and sorrows. On the other hand, magic accomplishes its effect simply by automatic action.

In magic, the supernatural agency may be nothing more than an imaginary force or principle attributed to some objects. Ex: In order to secure long life which lasts longer resisting the fire?

Thus, the intellectual content of magic is very narrow for it is mainly utilitarian in purpose. But the intellectual content of religion is relatively wider. It includes various aspects such as myths relating to the origin of man and his major institutions, accounts of gods and their power, elaborate rituals, ceremonies, etc.

4. The Pattern of behaviour exhibited:

A magical behaviour is mostly a commercial transac­tion in which trickery and deceit become possible. But religion establishes a bond between man and God, and such a bond is absent in magic.

Magic diverges most from religion when it is used to accomplish aims not sanctioned by the group. It may be employed to achieve vengeance, to acquire property illegally, to steal another man’s wife, to commit murder, etc. In such cases it is carried out in secret. Hence members of the group fear black magic. For the same reason “Magic is now, and for a long time has been regarded with some moral reprobation…”

Magic and Science:

Magic is often called a type of primitive science.–This view is based on some analogies. Ex: Magic, like science, pursues practical ends, conceives that certain effects follow certain causes, takes an impersonal attitude towards causation, and has little to do with morality. In spite of these analogies, magic is in many ways the opposite of science. Because, unlike science, magic relies on supernatural causation.

Magic unscientifically believes that some effect is produced because of the mystical power associated with the spell, rite or object. In magic, the facts are not used to test the theory as in science. On the other hand, the theory that is, the magical procedure is always assumed to be right. Here the elements of faith and wishful thinking enter.

A failure in magical performances is therefore attributed to a failure to carry out the procedure correctly, and not to the procedure itself. The function of magic is to give confidence and a sense of security. For this reason the individual must have a non-rational faith in its adequacy. Hence it can exist side by side with perfectly good scientific and technological practices.

During the World War II the pilots used to carry in their planes some animals, articles of clothing, mystic numbers, etc., that were believed to give them luck. Magic deals in absolutes whereas science deals in probabilities.

Science is tentative and partial and it cannot give the confidence in the way in which magic gives. As K. Davis says magic may become less important, but it is not going to disappear as technology and science advance.