Religion and Magic in Western Culture

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Daniel Dubuisson
Supplements to Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , April
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book has also been reviewed in JAAR by Randall Styers.

In Religion and Magic in Western Culture, Daniel Dubuisson undertakes two related projects. In the first two sections of the book, Dubuisson explores the ways “religion” and “magic” are discursively linked in Western religious, academic, and popular thought; in the third and final section, he attempts to “rehumanize” and “rehabilitate” the study of magic—or “magisms” (181).

Dubuisson begins his double project with a careful reading of Marcel Mauss’s A General Theory of Magic, which he considers “the most passionate and most famous” exposition of the perceived essential opposition between religion and magic (3). In this first section, Dubuisson reveals how Mauss and other influential theorists, including Émile Durkheim and James George Frazer, reproduce negative Christian stereotypes in both their descriptions of magic and in the presumed essential difference between religion and magic they propose. Dubuisson’s critique is forceful and persuasive but does not constitute, as he puts it, an “original proposition” (29). Randall Styers, for instance, considers the same key theorists and makes a similar and equally persuasive argument in his excellent book Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Dubuisson makes his most original contribution in the second section of the book, where he focuses on the influence of early Catholic writers and later clerics in creating and maintaining imagined essential boundaries between magic and religion to serve their own theological, political, and social purposes (108). In adeptly exploring the practical consequences of the centuries-long reification of religion as essentially separate from magic with reference to ecclesiastical and clerical power, Dubuisson makes a strong case for the political and social relevance of the field of critical religion more broadly (82).

In the final section of the book, Dubuisson imagines what renewed scholarly engagement with magic might look like if scholars accept that religion is “an original creation of the Christian West” (137), question influential Catholic (and eventually Protestant) negative appraisals of magic, and attempt to think about magic differently. Dubuisson provides several suggestions in support of this project. First, Dubuisson argues the singular noun “magic” should be replaced by the plural “magisms” or “magic processes” as these terms avoid “unfavourable value-judgments” typically associated with magic and stress the ways magic is flexible and capable of transformation over time (5, 139).

Yet despite this laudable goal, Dubuisson’s own characterization of magisms risks at times reproducing the negative stereotypes and presumed fixity he criticizes. For instance, Dubuisson’s assertion that “magic carries with it everywhere a calamitous and disquieting reputation” (136, my emphasis) homogenizes magic while ignoring renewed interest in magical and occult practices in the West. Although Dubuisson seeks to rehabilitate and rehumanize the study of magic by stressing how magisms respond to basic human needs and ease unhappiness, suffering, and misfortune (171), his descriptions of magisms are sometimes tinged with apparent disdain. For Dubuisson, contemporary magisms involve symbolism that is “rather rudimentary” (141); tools that are “sometimes naïve” (168); appear in forms can be “degenerate or crude” (177); and are practiced by “poor human creatures who felt impotent before misfortune and unhappiness” (176). As in the above quotation, Dubuisson often uses the past tense to describe magisms: he enumerates the existential problems magisms “were responding to” along with the functions they “fulfilled” (166, my emphasis) and affirms that magic “held an irreplaceable role” in history (174, my emphasis).

Religion and Magic in Western Culture is an interesting and exceptionally well-researched volume that offers valuable contributions to the field of critical religion and to inquiries into the religion/magic binary. While I agree with Dubuisson that the study of contemporary magic ought to be divested of the negative associations proposed by Christianity and later reinforced by influential scholars, I am unwilling to view magic as naïve or as something to be overcome. Whereas Dubuisson worries about the troubling effects of the persistence of magic in the Western world and expresses his hope that Elvis fans will not seek to sell the dust around his grave on eBay (151), I think a truly rehabilitated study of magic ought to avoid such normative pronouncements and concern itself instead with determining the motivations and consequences of such behaviors.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is Baker Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen's University, Kingston in Ontario, Canada.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Dubuisson, Docteur ès Lettres (1983) is emeritus Director of Research (CNRS, Lille). Publications include The Western Construction of Religion (2003), Twentieth Century Mythologies Dumézil, Eliade, Lévi-Strauss (2006) and Wisdoms of Humanity Buddhism, Paganism, Christianity (2011).


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