All societies and human beings have a set of beliefs for ordering the world. Religion and magic are belief systems used by many societies. This essay will discuss the function and moral dimensions of both magic and religion, and focus on the need to explore human beliefs and behaviours in the context of the society in which they occur. I will also discuss the way in which magic and religion use various processes to provide psychological reassurance to individuals, leading to the conclusion that both belief systems incorporate equally rational ways of dealing with problems. Religion can be seen as an overarching controlling force in the universe that sustains the moral and social order of the people, serving to validate people's lives. The main purposes of religion function to set a moral code and sense of community and security, to explain misfortunes in life and most importantly, to help people through crisis and problems, providing hope and faith.
There is some evidence of hostility in Western belief systems toward magic, with magic tending to be understood as an erroneous and unreliable belief knowledge system. Some anthropologists believe it is necessary to distinguish between religion and magic, seeing religion as a rational belief system and magic as irrational. Many evolutionist anthropologists maintain the belief that magic and religion equate to different stages of social evolution, holding that 'the deeper minds may be conceived to have made the great transition from magic to religion' (Frazer, J 1890). This phrase is misleading because it suggests that some societies are less complex, rational or primitive than other 'advanced's societies, enhancing the common misconception that religion is a more rational way of dealing with problems than magic is. Religion is generally associated with developed cultures and magic is associated with undeveloped, so-called primitive cultures, hence encouraging the idea that magic belongs to superstitious, irrational individuals with limited intellectual abilities. Magic, through various forms including activities and rituals, provides a means to influence the supernatural.
It is a way of gaining information about the unknown, and also gives a sense of control over events and happenings of life. Magic, like religion, provides meaning and purpose, reducing uncertainty, effectively counteracting the forces of fear and providing the means for the re-establishment of solidarity and morale of a community facing or touched by crisis. Magic 'embraces a system of values which regulate human conduct' (Evans-Pritchard 1976 : 18]. It is in fact a very complex, regular and consistent form of belief.
Azande people resolve problems using a logical belief system of witchcraft. All events and circumstances are not invariably and unanimously attributed to magical forces, and witchcraft is used solely to explain the unexplainable. Evans-Pritchard states in his analysis of the Azande people, that magic and witchcraft has its own logic, 'its own rules of thought, and that these do not exclude natural causation. Belief is quite consistent with human responsibility and a rational appreciation of nature' (Evans-Pritchard 1976 : 30). Azande people say that witchcraft and magic is the 'second spear' (Evans-Pritchard 1976 : 25).
This depicts that they recognise the plurality of causes, and that witchcraft is not used to explain every misfortune. This philosophy can be linked to what Westerners would call 'accident' or 'fate', what Hindus would call 'karma' and what Christians would call 'God's Will'. There is no evidence to suggest that some societies contain individuals more rational or better equipped to employ logic and reason than other societies. Every community is in possession of a considerable store of knowledge, based on experience and fashioned by reason (Malinowski 1954: 26). Individuals of all societies have equal scopes of rationality and intellectual capacities however, differ in the method used when dealing with problems. Religion and magic are both used to cope with the domain of the unpredictable, adverse influences and misfortune.
For example, the Trobriand Islanders do no utilise magic when fishing in the inner lagoon, where a man can completely rely on his skills and knowledge. However, when fishing in the open-sea in an environment of danger and uncertainty, the fisherman will resort to magic for safety. This shows that the Trobriand Islanders use magic only when confronted by situations they cannot control, because their pragmatic skills are inoperable, and out of psychological stress they turn to magic. They recognise both the natural and the supernatural forces and agencies and never rely on magic alone. But they cling to magic, whenever they have to recognise the impotence of knowledge and of rational technique (Malinowski 1954: 26). This illustrates that the Trobriand Islanders only turn to magic when they reach the limits of their practical knowledge.
Individuals of undeveloped societies experience the world differently than do people in modern cultures, so naturally they have different belief systems. The difference between the thinking of various societies cannot be based on different degrees of logic or reason, but rather on differences in the premises on which logic operates. 'Primitive' cultures do not have lower intellectual abilities than Westerners. For example, Evans-Pritchard states that 'a Zande's perception of how events occur is as clear as our own' (1976 : 25). However, they have a different way of relating to the objects and experiences of the everyday world. This form of thinking expresses itself in magic and witchcraft, but these systems embody an underlying rational order.
'All knowledge is culturally constructed and that it can therefore only be deemed right or wrong within its own cultural context' (Winch in Eriksen 1995: 231). Although magic at first may appear to be a foreign topic, practiced by those in 'primitive' places, in reality magical thinking is commonly involved in thought processes and is practiced by every individual. Gmelch observed the use of superstition and magic in baseball. He discovered a whole series of rituals and taboos that together form a complex of baseball magic, involving players touching their uniform letters or medallions, tapping the bat on the plate and tugging on their cap. Gmelch confirms Malinowski's assertions, that magic is most prevalent in situations of chance and uncertainty. In addition, magic and religion coexist in many societies.
Social psychologist Samuel Stouffer found that 'in the face of great danger and uncertainty, soldiers developed magical practices, particularly the use of protective amulets and good-luck charms such as Bibles and crosses' (in Gmelch, G. 1997: 326). This shows how magic and religion are intertwined, displaying discrepancies in the James Frazer's evolutionist theory of magic and religion equating to different stages of evolution. Magic arises out of emotional tension. If a man is overcome with an emotion, and there is nothing practical he can do about it; he resorts to magic to relieve the tension. (Evans-Pritchard, 1965: 34) It is not a definite fact that in the cases of both magic and religion, that the instruments employed, for example ritual or prayer, has a causal connection to the desired effects of the magical or religious practice.
However, it can be seen that both belief systems create in the individual a sense of control, certainty and confidence, which in turn helps individuals to effectively accomplish their activity and reach the desired result. There is no evidence to show that members of some societies are more rational than others. Objectively, it is no more rational to believe in an all-powerful God then to believe in the existence of witches and magic. Magic and religion contain similar psychological concepts, for the function of both is cathartic. Faced with life's crises, individuals release or prevent their tensions and overcome their despair by turning to magic or religion. All human beings in some way look for a higher explanation, to clarify the breadth of experience in terms of something fundamental.
There is a basic human unwillingness to think of the universe as random... For events that have moral dimensions, as unexpected misfortunes do, we often seek moral causes (Bowen, J. 1988: 88). Both magic and religion, with differing methods, aim to seek patterns, causes and reasons for things. There is little point distinguishing between magic and religion. They both provide a way of dealing with problems, are rational within the context of society they exist in, and in some cases, coexist in society.
Anthropologists should explore what forms of religion and magic mean to people, how they help to make sense of the world and solve problems, and how they give meaning and direction to different forms of human existence (Eriksen 1995: 211). References: Bowen, J. R. 1998.
Explaining misfortune: witchcraft and sorcery. Chapter 5 of J. R. Bowen Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion. Allyn and Bacon. Eriksen, T.
H 2001. Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Pluto Press. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965.
Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.