On the disenchantment of the world

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was 15 years old when we visited my uncle Dick Hall, then a Seventh Day Adventist missionary in Sarawak. We went with him to a Dyak longhouse. He was upset, not at the skulls that lined the rafters -- they all looked pretty old, and these people had not engaged in headhunting since World War II -- but at a newly-carved image in front of the longhouse.

He hoped to convert these people to the One True Religion, while Muslim and Catholic missionaries hoped to convert them to their One True Religion, but this particular longhouse was proving to be a bit of a challenge. Here they were, making a brand-new graven image for the religion they already had, for the spirits they already knew.

I have great respect for my uncle, a man of firm faith who has worked hard to make peoples' lives better. Much of the work he's done, such as feeding people in Sudan and building schools for girls in Yemen, have not been directed at spreading his faith at all, because although you don't get to heaven for good works, in his view, the fact that you are saved by faith is no excuse not to do good works. For people like the Dyaks, missionaries are some of the best intentioned people from the world outside their own with whom they have contact.

As we discussed in this post, when we entered into the strange and wonderful world of symbolic thought, we entered an enchanted world. Everything seemed to have a real existence and a symbolic existence. The woods had tree nymphs, the brooks had water sprites, the transit of the sun was the journey of a god, people had stories, poems and legends instead of history. The world seemed populated with graceful ghosts and terrifying monsters with an existence beyond the world of our bodies.

People didn't travel much, and each locale developed its own belief system. As wealth and technology grew, and larger empires spread across the land, these different belief systems came into contact with each other.

For the most part, this was not a problem. When a conquering empire encountered a new god, they added it to the pantheon, preserving the peace between people by accommodating all beliefs. This didn't always work; the Punic wars were too bitter, the destruction of Carthage too complete, for the Romans to adopt Baal.

But Romans adopted the Mithraic mysteries, which may have originated in Anatolia. They accommodated most of the gods they encountered. This all changed with the spread of Christianity, which denied the existence of gods other than the Christian god.

Much of the progress of Christianity has been a story of the suppression of "superstition," and "magic," that is, beliefs in a world of small spirits that are not a part of Christianity. One might even see it as part of a continuum from belief in all the world being made of independent spirits to a denial of the existence of most of the spiritual world Christians encountered. The obvious next step is to deny the existence of the entire spiritual world, so perhaps atheism was made possible by monotheism.

 Francisco Goya, le Sabbat des sorcières.
This represents an increasing rationalism. Instead of all the world being animated by spirits who were independent actors, first they joined in a pantheon ruled over by a leader of the gods, then the chaos of the many gods with different motivations was replaced with one presumably rational actor.

The trees no longer had the spirits of nymphs, the brooks babbled only of one spirit, and the world was claimed to be a more rational place. It was a step toward rationality replacing the poetry and myth that had explained the world.

As an animal, humans have a giant brain, and are better at solving problems. That brain also remains plastic longer than in other animals, allowing them to be shaped by what they learn for a longer period. But language made a completely different kind of use for the mind possible, created a world of symbol and culture that could shape our minds in ways no other primate could.

That symbolic world seemed magic, allowing things to exist that did not appear in our senses but only in our minds. We could create narratives of things that had never happened, even narratives of things that could never happen, in the mundane world of our bodies. Language, and the symbolic thought it gave rise to, enchanted the world, or if you like, gave us an understanding of the enchanted world of spirits.

But while symbols and myths could give our world a beauty and coherence it lacked without them, reason offers us control of that world. Monotheism denied the existence of most of the spiritual world, and in claiming all the world was ruled by one god who is a rational actor, claimed that the world was a more rational place.

Atheists claim that the world is entirely rational, ruled by no spiritual beings. Theirs is a completely disenchanted world.

The question is, how disenchanted do we wish to become? Modernism, that most rational of movements, gave us the glass curtain skyscraper, the mechanized war with its industrialized killing, and political movements claiming to be based entirely on reason, such as Communism. How's that working out for us?

In the post-modern world, we have returned to ornaments on our architecture, a nostalgia for the time of legends in fantasy literature, and a sort of anti-rational movement both in Evangelical Christianity and New Age thinking.

Evidently, there is something in humanity that demands some enchantment in the world.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self e