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Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences

The critical reception of both films among American Protestant evangelicals is noteworthy because it demonstrates that despite belief in God, most evangelicals no longer have a taste for the miraculous, for the enchanted world. The terms of the debate have long been set. Indeed, most of those authors who promoted this undercurrent of esotericism in Western thought had either a Protestant upbringing or were influenced by elements of Protestant thought that deemphasized doctrinal statements, promoted the liberty of private judgment, and emphasized both reason and feeling in religion.

Thus, it is still possible to trace the origins of disenchantment to the rise of Protestantism and its iconoclasm with erasing rituals and external sources of authority other than the written word or freedom of conscience. What needs to be emphasized here, and what Josephson-Storm unfortunately does not do, is that it was a particular kind of Protestantism that aligned religious faith with critical reason.

Central elements of the myth of modernity were constructed by Protestant rational theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This anti-Catholic rhetoric, however, was immediately turned into an intra-Protestant self-critique, between contesting theological traditions. While Josephson-Storm tries to revise the narrative that the human sciences emerged out of Protestantism, suggesting instead that they were rooted in esoteric thought, this position is not entirely new, nor is it entirely accurate.

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We need to keep in mind that esotericism and theosophy emerged within a Protestant religious milieu, particularly among dissident intellectuals and liberal Protestant circles. The Protestant context thus remains vitally important. While Josephson-Storm does a fine job debunking certain myths of modernity, its origins and development will continue to be misunderstood until we get our story straight. Citation: James Ungureanu. October, Thank your for you review of the book!

I also made the mistake of burrying some of its more significant claims in different chapters. That said, I think the reviewer and I have at least two broad areas of substantive disagreement that might be worth exploring. Namely, 1 we disagree over the Protestant influence on the history of the Human Sciences, and 2 we disagree about the Protestant origins of the disenchantment narrative.

We disaggree. But we differ less than the review seems to suggest. The critique expounded here amounts to a similar line of criticism. The reviewer seems to wish my book had been more about the Protestant influences on the birth of the Human Sciences. In point of fact, I agree that Protestantism and Protestant theology were an important influence on the history of the human sciences and disenchantment, see below.

I discuss these issues repeatedly. A quick glance would show you that 52 out pages reference Protestantism.


There is plenty of room for more histories of the Protestant influences on the birth of the disciplines and I strongly would encourage the reader to write such as work. In other words, it is would be a misleading exaggeration. But this whole argument mislays the book's main focus.

Book review / The intellectual origins of modernity

One of the most often repeated claims in the historiography is that Protestantism is disenchanting. We owe this claim in part to Max Weber, but it is actually a partial misreading of Weber as I show in the book.

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But I also argue there are a number of reasons we might want to complicate the narrative of Protestantism as necessarily disenchanting. Even in European antiquity, spell-books often claimed to be recovering vanished or forgotten magical arts. In this respect, magic is constantly vanishing, even as magicians have claimed to recover it. As I show this was a storytelling move that was then picked up on by social scientists, philosophers, and self-avowed occultists who formulated the idea that modernity was disenchanted, even as they disagreed about whether lost magic could be recovered.

In sum, disenchantment is actually part of the trope of magic itself and has been for a very long time. There is no enchantment without disenchantment. I discuss Protestant anti-superstition campaigns at length and I do think Protestant theology is important although Catholics led similar attacks on superstition in the Counter-Reformation. As I put in the book:. Statements of this sort were not confined to Luther but can be seen in the language of many of the reformers.

Hence, one of the principal rhetorical innovations of the period was the transposition of demonological discourse about witches and heretics onto the Roman Church itself. In a nutshell, one might describe the Protestant Reformation contra-Weber as producing a super-enchantment of Europe by making the Catholic Church seem both pagan and magical.

But the contemporary sociological evidence strongly pushes agains this claim. Since the book came out there has been more corroborating evidence. The first is a program, the second is presented as an already accomplished fact. Two are are often entwined but equally often they are in conflict. All that is to say, I appreciate the chance for dialogue. I also agree with a broader trend of de-Christianization and have said as much in print. Again, Thank you for the review.

I hope readers find this additional clarification useful. First of all, thank you for responding to my review. Forgive me for the delay in my own reply. It was my editor who in fact informed me that you had commented on this review. I want to assure you that I read every word of your book, including all of your footnotes. I wrestled with it for months.

I also wrestled with reviewing it. I have followed the response to your book very closely, and I read other reviews of your book, many of them which you mention on your blog—but others as well. It is a big book that makes many different, subtle, and interconnecting arguments. I can only imagine all the drafts and revisions it took to come to a final, coherent storyline. In reviewing it, my editor and I also went through several drafts before it reached a reasonable length that satisfied both of us.

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The original review was almost twice as long. In short, being selective was necessary.

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In an earlier draft, for example, I did mention the importance of recent sociological surveys which show continued belief in miracles and magic. But that data is so widely known among scholars of religion, I saw little reason to repeat it in the review. I also did not think the chapter on Aleister Crowley added anything to your argument and I think most readers would agree , so I left it out. The review is as long as it is because I was determined to convey, in detail indeed, in much greater detail than what other reviewers have done the main story of the book.

But in my review, I wanted to point out something that other reviewers had missed and to offer a taste of my own research interests as an intellectual historian of religion. So you have to understand that my review was not simply a summary, but rather a critical interpretation of your book and the scholarship you cite. Whether or not I agree with that scholarship is a different matter. Indeed, while reading your book I was struck with how much your argument agreed with my own views during this period. Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem.

Return to Book Page. Preview — The Enlightenment and Religion by S. This title offers a critical survey of religious change and its causes in eighteenth-century Europe, and constitutes a radical challenge to the accepted views in traditional Enlightenment studies. Focusing on Enlightenment Italy, France and England, it illustrates how the canonical view of eighteenth-century religious change has in reality been constructed upon scant evide This title offers a critical survey of religious change and its causes in eighteenth-century Europe, and constitutes a radical challenge to the accepted views in traditional Enlightenment studies.

Focusing on Enlightenment Italy, France and England, it illustrates how the canonical view of eighteenth-century religious change has in reality been constructed upon scant evidence and assumption, in particular the idea that the thought of the enlightened led to modernity. For despite a lack of evidence, one of the fundamental assumptions of Enlightenment studies has been the assertion that there was a vibrant Deist movement that formed the "intellectual solvent" of the eighteenth century.

The central claim of this book is that the immense ideological appeal of the traditional birth-of-modernity myth has meant that the actual lack of Deists has been glossed over, and a quite misleading historical view has become entrenched. Get A Copy. Paperback , pages. More Details Original Title. Other Editions 3. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

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S. J. Barnett

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. Sort order. I think this is a re-read from a few years back as I kept getting that feeling that I've read this before. Not that that was a problem as this is such an excellent book.