Science and Enchantment in Ordinary Non-Religion

In this blog, Amy Unsworth explores and raises important questions concerning the relationships between “enchanted worldviews” and science in the lives of the nonreligious.

Surveys show that many British people believe in fate, ghosts, an afterlife or other kinds of spiritual or paranormal phenomena. The figures seem a bit surprising for a country that has seen a rise in the numbers of atheists and non-religious people in the past few decades. It’s commonly assumed that Britain has become “disenchanted”, in the sense that people no longer believe, as their forbears once did, in gods, ghosts and spirits that animate the world. Closely related is another assumption: that now we have more-or-less “subtracted” our shared public religious understandings of the world, we will be left with the “genuine deliverance of science, the truth about things, including ourselves, which was waiting all along to be discovered.”[1]

The ‘new atheist’ movement that rose to prominence in the mid-2000s contributed to this impression that if we could just throw off the remnants of religion then people would surely accept scientific evidence (usually measured simply by their acceptance of evolutionary theory) and presumably come to hold a thoroughly materialist understanding of life. Thanks to a flurry of popular books and considerable media coverage, the new atheists’ high-profile brand of scientific atheism is likely seen as representative of atheism in Britain, and quite probably of non-religion more broadly too. Unfortunately for Richard Dawkins, a key figure in new atheism, disenchanted materialism may not be as common as he would like. For example, in a YouGov poll I commissioned a few years ago, although a huge majority of non-religious people said they accepted human evolution, only half said that evolution happens solely through natural processes.[2]

I am interested in exploring orientations towards science among individuals living without religion, recognising that in this area we know little about the worldviews of non-religious people who do not appear to hold to the scientific materialism of the new atheists. It’s now becoming clear that a decline in traditional religiosity does not necessarily lead people to adopt a disenchanted worldview; indeed we may instead see the proliferation of various enchanted worldviews in societies where institutional religion is of limited influence.[3] And while there have been many studies of institutional religion and its relationship with science, far less attention has been paid to the relationship between what we might term non-religious enchantments and modern science.  In my current research, I am trying to excavate the interactions between science and various enchanted worldviews in the lives of ordinary non-religious people living in Britain by conducting interviews and surveys. I am particularly focusing on interviewing working-class people who have not been to university, as this large demographic has tended to be overlooked in the sociological study of non-religion. I offer here some ideas about the various ways that people may be negotiating science and enchantment in our times, as well as raising questions that I aim to answer in the course of my research. My aims are twofold: 1) to better characterise enchantment in our so-called scientific age and 2) to explore whether various enchanted worldviews have any consequences for how people receive and act upon scientific advice.

It’s clear that scientific ideas or language can act as an inspiration or departure point for a huge range of worldviews that are not strictly disenchanted. Some of these are clearly religious in nature, such as the notion of “creation science” that developed within conservative Protestantism. Others are broader in their appeal. For example, the idea that the universe has higher dimensions has been used to support belief in ghosts, miracles and other kinds of phenomena that might otherwise be labelled supernatural.[4] This has led to the suggestion that a more scientific supernatural now exists, a term describing concepts that are “suggested by scientific theory or… evidence while also at least partially eluding scientific tests, instruments or measurements.”[5] These kinds of ideas offer very rich resources for entertainment (think of the popularity of the Netflix series Stranger Things), but to what extent do people actually incorporate aspects of these scientific supernatural ideas into their own worldviews – and are there any real-world consequences of holding such beliefs?

In the past few years, sales of tarot cards have rocketed, which could be interpreted as growth in enchantment of a different kind. This may or may not be the case. Some who use or practice tarot may do so in a thoroughly disenchanted way, seeing it as a spectacle that “delights but does not delude”[6], much as people enjoy conjurors’ tricks without believing in magic. Or what about the person who explains that tarot is a helpful tool to help them better access their own intuition? The boundary between enchanted/disenchanted thinking is not entirely clear here, but the belief that life’s answers lie within ourselves and can be accessed through various practices or techniques has undoubtedly grown in recent years in the West, drawing on western magic, eastern spiritualities as well as concepts from modern psychology. While we used to look for answers and explanations in external spirits and gods, we now look deep within, to an inner spirit  – or what we might describe as an enchanted self.[7] Does trusting in one’s own intuition or inner knowledge come at the expense of trusting or acting upon scientific information, or do most people simply deploy these different kinds of knowing in different situations?

Conspiracy theories can also be thought of as bridging enchanted and disenchanted ways of thinking.  Within theistic worldviews, “global evils” – such as the global coronavirus pandemic for example – might be explained through supernatural forms of agency such as God’s judgement or the work of the Devil. Conspiracy theorists are similarly seeking explanation in the form of unseen powerful agents, but these agents are “disenchanted devils”: human rather than spiritual in nature. Are these secular and religious forms of explanation in direct competition with each other, as well as with the scientific consensus (where that exists)? If not, what kinds of hybrid forms do we see emerging in people’s understandings and how are these constructed?

Research that probes traditional religion and its relationship with science usually lacks the categories to answer the questions I’ve raised here. My hope is that the study of ‘science and enchantment’ will provide a way to better understand a range of non-religious worldviews that are not well represented by scientific atheism.

Sources Cited

[1] Taylor, C. (2009). A Secular Age. Harvard University Press. Chicago, p575

[2] Unsworth, A., & Voas, D. (2018). Attitudes to evolution among Christians, Muslims and the Non-Religious in Britain: Differential effects of religious and educational factors. Public Understanding of Science27(1), 76-93.

[3] Josephson-Storm, J. A. (2017). The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, modernity, and the birth of the human sciences. University of Chicago Press.

[4] White, C. G. (2018). Other worlds: spirituality and the search for invisible dimensions. Harvard University Press. Chicago 

[5] Ibid p.4

[6] Saler, M. (2006). Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review The American Historical Review111(3), 692-716.

[7] Froese, P. (2016). On purpose: How we create the meaning of life. Oxford University Press.

Amy Unsworth is a Research Fellow in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London (UCL). She studies science popularization and public understandings of science, particularly in relation to religion and non-religion.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s