Has Science Abolished Myth and Magic

Religion, of course, is not the only form of relief from existential dread. Individuals may seek relief using philosophy, materialism, sex, drugs, or any of a number of palliatives, to varying effect. Protestant theologian

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) argued that in effect universal dread is both a determinant of religious behavior and an explanation for bellicosity in the world.13 Whatever the release, this ubiquitous dread is the essential characteristic of all existence—from which a demand for release and religion spring. According to an ancient story, if there could only be one wish granted to humans from the gods, it would be "never to have been born.'' Magic and religion are in essence inventions to deal with human angst.

It is therefore self-evident that religion did not evolve independently of other human activities and achievements. Clearly art, music, and science were all intertwined in the early development of human life. The "spirit caves'' of Lescaux depicting animals and people most likely had religious connotations. Prehistoric stone art of the kind found there may also have been positioned so that it had an "acoustic impact'' on viewers. Science writer Fenella Saunders speculates that the sound of cloven-footed animals may have been replicated by early hunters by means of clapping or playing primitive musical instruments, thus suggesting that the spirits were talking to worshippers.14

In the realm of magic—where early man attempted to control nature, belief preceded knowledge. Survival demanded production and consumption of economic and spiritual goods, and when magic did not perform well, it gave way to other tactics. Formalized religion, a survival tactic wherein god or the gods could answer "yes" to human requests in exchange for propitiations, was thus invented. If sacrifices and propitiations did not get the desired results, the obvious answer was that there was not enough sacrifice, prayers, or monetary transfers. In this manner, the credence-good aspect of religion took on new dimensions. (Later, philosophy was one response to the degeneration of forms of earlier credence goods.) Religion bears a different relation to the sacred than magic, although magic has always remained a part of religion. Mexico is a case in point, where pre-Columbian myths coexist with Roman Catholicism. It is not considered any kind of contradiction in that country for a farmer's plow to be blessed by a priest in the morning and for the farmer to engage in some form of blood sacrifice in the evening, all with a view to improving the harvest. Historian Theodore R. Fehrenbach provides ample evidence that Christianity's conquest of the Central and South American Indians was a phenomenon that was more apparent than real.15 Rather, attempts to replace indigenous, ancient forms of animism produced incredible hybrids of worship.

Science, rudimentary as it was, was also an early part of magic and religion. Herbal medicine was undoubtedly part of the shaman/priest's toolkit, as were hallucinogenic drugs. The substantial conjunction of science, magic, and religion in early societies lasted until the late Middle Ages in the West, after which empirical science and the scientific method gained ascendance. A more distinct separation of science and religion was ushered in by the emergence of Protestantism in the early sixteenth century. The cleavage was retarded in most of the countries remaining Roman Catholic. Only in more recent times have societies that were dominated by animistic forms of religion and worship begun to experience economic growth fueled by technology and science.

Eventually, for some at least, science became a religion. The breakdown of the conjunction of science and religion was called the "scientific revolution,'' sometimes interpreted as secularization; but empirical science was probably always part of human activity, as evidenced by early linkages between astronomy and the calendar. Nevertheless, ever-changing boundaries between science and religion created different forms of religion. For most, the cruder forms of magic were expunged from worship and religion, although some forms of magic remained and persist, as we already noted in the case of Mexico. However, the more science explained, the more the credence good had to be altered, a development that can be observed through time. In a sense the history of science is a history of the forms of religion. As science expanded the scope of explainable phenomena, religion's sphere of explanation shrank. Since empirical science substitutes for magic and cruder forms of religion, one might think of the state of science as a constant or a parameter for some of the services of magic and religion (e.g., solar eclipses, rain, and disease). This does not mean, however, that fundamental existential dread has been quelled by science, nor does it suggest that certain forms of magic do not remain a part of religion. Even in extreme circumstances, such as religious persecution (e.g., ancient Rome, Nazi Ger many, and the former Soviet Union), it has not been possible to raise the costs of particular forms of religious belief high enough to make them disappear altogether. Perhaps this is because there are other reasons for religion besides existential dread, but those other reasons remain mostly hidden from scholarly purview.

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