michael_shermer's picture
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Why Darwin Matters

Science and The Decline of Magic

I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study:

ESP    60%
UFOs  30%
Astrology    40%
Lucky numbers 32%
Magnetic therapy   70%
Alternative medicine  88%

Nevertheless, I take the historian's long view, and compared to what people believed before the Scientific Revolution, there is much cause for optimism. Consider what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and 17th-century England, for example, almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, and providence. "A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands," noted Bishop Latimer in 1552. Saints were worshiped. Liturgical books provided rituals for blessing cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns, not to mention the sick, sterile animals, and infertile couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton explained, "Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind."

Just as alcohol and tobacco were essential anesthetics for the easing of pain and discomfort, superstition and magic were the basis for the mitigation of misfortune. As the great Oxford historian of the period, Keith Thomas, writes in his classic 1971 work Religion and the Decline of Magic, "No one denied the influence of the heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century, total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere." And it wasn't just astrology. "Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck." With such sweeping power over nearly everyone, Thomas concludes, "If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effectives ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it." The superstitious we will always have with us.

Nevertheless, the rise of science ineluctably attenuated this near universality of magical thinking by proffering natural explanations where before there were only supernatural ones. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William Paley's natural theology, which gave us the "watchmaker" argument) was the only game in town so everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America, the most religious nation of the developed democracies, and in most other parts of the world virtually everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That's progress.

The rise of science even led to a struggle to find evidence for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping up with facts. Consider the following comment from an early 17th-century book that shows how even then savvy observers grasped the full implications of denying the supernatural altogether: "Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft (contrary to what has been so long generally and confidently affirmed), why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God."

Magic transitioned into empirical magic and formalized methods of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature—the very basis of science. As science grew in importance, the analysis of portents was often done meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined on the nature and meaning of comets: "I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are frequently also the presages of imminent calamities."

Science arose out of magic, which it ultimately displaced. By the 18th century, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry succeeded alchemy, probability theory dislodged belief in luck and fortune, city planning and social hygiene attenuated disease, and the grim vagaries of life became less grim, and less vague. As Francis Bacon concluded in his 1626 work, New Atlantis: "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."

Sic itur ad astra — Thus do we reach the stars.