Truth and the inefficacy of magic and religion

Posted on December 17, 2007


In his book, David Sloan Wilson makes a very useful distinction between the manifest and the latent function of a practice. He uses this distinction to argue that while the manifest function of various religious practices may be something like worshipping some deity, their latent function is to maintain group cohesion by, among other things, increasing in-group cooperation. The important thing that Wilson does not go into too much is that the manifest functions of religious practices usually are such that the effectiveness (in that regard) of the practices is practically untestable – what I will call ‘superempirical’ to contrast with supernatural. After all, for example, how can people, as a community of living beings, test whether prayer does help people to get to heaven? The reason why this is significant is that it means that a practice with a superempirical manifest function can only be selected on the basis of its latent function.

Durkheim claimed that religion and magic can be distinguished from other practices because they involve dealing with objects and entities that are deemed sacred. He did not like the idea of distinguishing them on the basis that they involve the supernatural as many societies with magic and religion do not distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. The problem does not exist for the superempirical. It does not matter whether people actually differentiate between what is superempirical and what is not. Given the limited empirical capabilities humans have, certain things will, as a matter of fact, be superempirical. What they are precisely will change over time but this does not negate the brute fact of the existence of the distinction nor does it negate its relevance for human practices. Significantly, it will regularly turn out that previously superempirical claims become testable as our abilities improve with the growth of science. Still, religion and magic can be identified, at least roughly given that we are dealing with complex human traditions, with what are thought to be superempirical claims. The link to sacredness can be explained by pointing out that by being made sacred certain things may be placed beyond examination and, thus, their superempirical status can be preserved. The difference between magic and religion on this picture becomes that, while the manifest functions of religious practices are superempirical, in the case of magic/superstition the manifest functions are actually empirically testable (and only the explanations for how these functions are allegedly achieved are superempirical).

This makes for an important difference between magic and religion – a different explanation for why people believe in magic is necessary than the one given for religion. In the case of religion belief is not, generally, faced with negative evidence because the practices have superempirical manifest functions. Beliefs about magic are often held despite negative evidence coming from the general ineffectiveness of the practices in achieving their manifest function. What is most interesting is the way that magic does seem to be predominantly concerned with individual needs while religion deals with social ones. I do not understand why the difference in the testability of the manifest functions should go hand in hand with this difference.

Notice that at no point is it actually assumed that either the religious or the magical/superstitious beliefs are necessarily false or the practices ineffective. In fact, on this way of thinking about superstition it is possible to say that some of the practices are actually effective. This means that, for example, the use of certain traditional herbal remedies that do contain active ingredients can be classified as magic/superstition where the explanation given for the effect is superempirical. There is a further point to be made in this respect. As already observed, what is superempirical changes. Thus, claims about mechanisms for contagion were superempirical before the 18th century but are not today. Together with my general scepticism about the significance of explanations in superstitious beliefs, this leads me to think that the category of superstition/magic is not a very deep one. Certainly, not as deep as that of religion.