In its issue of December 21, 2013 (as a sort of Christmas present), the German news magazine Der Spiegel carried a story by Manfred Dworschak, under the heading “Between Religion and Magic”. A better title, reflecting the bias of the story, might be “Religion as Magic”. It is the cover story of this issue (though it starts on page 112, which hardly signals an important topic). The picture on the cover indicates the approach: Religion and magic (or if you will, superstition) are treated as one comprehensive phenomenon. That is what I find interesting here.
The picture shows a young woman with folded hands and an aura around her head (perhaps the Madonna?), looking down on a black cat running by her. I was reminded of an episode I read about years ago: A group of American tourists were on a visit to the Soviet Union. They were shown around by a guide supplied by Intourist, the government agency which made sure that nobody strayed from the pre-arranged itinerary and which routinely reported to the secret police. As the group left the hotel, a black cat ran across its path. One of the tourists said, with a laugh: “A black cat. Perhaps we had better turn around?” The guide frowned thoughtfully, then said: “Oh, I see. You are religious.”
Der Spiegel was founded in 1947 by Rudolf Augstein (1923-2002). It quickly became the most widely read news magazine in Germany, and is still that today. In its early history it was known for its relentless exposure of the Nazi past of various individuals occupying important positions in the Bonn government. It was also known for its style—brash, irreverent, more than a little supercilious. The style has remained in the magazine itself and has become influential beyond its pages; it has become conventional in the German media. Religion in general has ever been a favorite target of the magazine’s irreverence. Politically, Der Spiegel was critical early on of the conservative trend of the Federal Republic, and specifically critical of its increasing closeness with the United States and the American-led NATO. The magazine was never ideologically on the left, but I think it is fair to say that its position on the political spectrum today is left-of-center. It is suggestive of this bias that Der Spiegel (along with The Guardian and The Washington Post) was one of the three publications to which Edward Snowden entrusted the huge cache of NSA data with which he absconded.
The main focus of the Spiegel story is what it calls “the belief of unbelievers”—the persistence of all kinds of magical or superstitious practices among atheists or others with no avowed religious beliefs. It would appear then that there is a deeply rooted human propensity to believe in supernatural realities. The author (mercifully, in my opinion) does not ascribe this persistence to neurological peculiarities of our species or other vicissitudes of the evolutionary process. (One curiosity of the contemporary religious scene is that even some theologians find it plausible to look on religion as a variety of brain disease.) Various psychological experiments are quoted; I particularly like the one (conducted, of all places, in Helsinki), in which avowed atheists are asked to loudly petition the deity (in which they don’t believe) to burn down their house or to drown their parents: The unhappy subjects of the experiment evinced obvious reluctance and physiologically measurable stress (this can be done by analyzing the degree of sweating). The author of the story opines that this is nothing new, that it was always the case. In other words, he agrees here with what a Protestant theologian of my acquaintance has called “the eternal return of the Stone Age”. Sweating Finnish atheists today thus stand in a long line of supernaturally terrified humans, going back to the dawn of history, uninterrupted by allegedly more Christian periods (such as the Middle Ages) or the alleged emancipations of the Enlightenment.
All these are empirically well-founded assertions. What is intriguing is that these descriptions of surviving magic are mixed in with polling data about conventional religious beliefs. These data would indicate that, whatever deep supernatural needs are around, the Christian churches are not doing a good job meeting them, at least in Germany. According to recent surveys, 38% of Germans believe in angels, 52% in miracles; but only 22% believe in a personal God (so much for the Christian creeds). Things become more complicated if one looks at other data: 54% of West Germans believe in “God, divinities or something divine”, only 23% in East Germany reply yes to the same question – which obviously covers a very broad spectrum of religious possibilities. To underline this fact, 24% believe in reincarnation (not exactly a Christian doctrine). There is a photo of a group of Buddhist monks and nuns in Hamburg. [The difference between religion in West Germany and in the territory of the old German Democratic Republic is well known. It is one of the great puzzles in the sociology of religion in Europe—one which, in my opinion, has not as yet been adequately explained.] As to church membership, it has markedly declined in both German regions, again more sharply in the East. The story hardly mentions other parts of the world. There is a photo of magical accessories sold in an African market, implying that there are customers ready to use them. The more robust presence of organized religion in America is mentioned, and is very briefly explained in terms of the energizing effects of competition (a currently fashionable, if somewhat ethnocentric, supply-and-demand theory in the sociology of religion).
Most of the facts cited in this article are well-known and not in dispute. Yes, there is a substratum of quasi-magical beliefs surviving even in supposedly Enlightened populations. And yes, both Catholic and Protestant churches have declined in most of Europe. I don’t know Manfred Dworschak. Thus, for all I know, he may be an overt atheist, whether anxiously sweating or calmly dry; or he may be a committed or potential Christian, belonging to that minority targeted by Rome’s campaign to re-evangelize Europe. Be this as it may, he sees religion in an unbroken continuum with every variant of magic—a rather serious distortion of both phenomena. Yet this perspective is not an individual eccentricity. Rather, it is a perspective grounded in a widely diffused class of people—part of the culture of an international intelligentsia.
This class is internally variegated, from an upper stratum of celebrity sages and public figures who function as a cultural elite, to lowly workers in the knowledge industry who take their cues from this elite and aspire to join it. They believe in progress, which they represent. Thus, by definition, they are “on the right side of history”: Given time and the proper educational programs, everyone will be like them. They are the epigones of the European Enlightenment. They share its view of religion—a backward phenomenon, regrettably still surviving among the unwashed lower orders. Not surprisingly, this class has been most successful in Europe in terms of shaping the general culture. Europe is indeed the most secularized continent, giving credence to the belief that the secular elite is riding the wave of the future. In other parts of the world this view of things is grotesquely out of touch with a furiously religious reality. However, there exists an international intelligentsia which has been converted to the secular worldview emanating from Europe. [If you like to use old Marxist concepts, you can see this situation as one of cultural colonialism, with a native comprador class serving the interests of the Western imperialists.] In this worldview, the huge religious explosions in the Global South—Asia, Africa and Latin America—are dismissed as the last gasp of superstitions about to wither away [comprador academics may nod in agreement].
The United States does not fit comfortably into the progressive secular worldview. Fortunately, at least since the middle of the twentieth century, there has emerged a Europeanized American intelligentsia, which shares the secularity of its European counterparts. H.L. Mencken can be seen as the granddaddy of this class of smugly self-assured progressives. Proof text: Read his account of the triumph of Clarence Darrow over Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee; Mencken’s account positively oozes with contempt for the ordinary citizens who cherish the Bible and refuse to see human beings as nothing but a subset of chimpanzees. A useful question to ask is which superstitions are more socially damaging: the superstition that the earth is only six thousand years old, or the superstition that moral values can be based on the view that we are all animals.
I suppose that The Washington Post is read by people across the political spectrum whose main interest is what goes on inside the Beltway. But core readers of Der Spiegel and The Guardian should feel comfortable with each other.