Belief in magic and witchcraft

Xochi Zen (
14 Nov 1995 21:57:25 -0500

I'm looking for texts that treat witchcraft from a skeptical
perspective. It's hard to believe that educated people still believe
in this sort of thing as something more than manipulation by subtle
psychological methods - when I say "witchcraft" I'm referring to
things like "spell casting", death spells, etc. I am _not_ referring to
the nature-worshipping religion itself... just the idea that one can
effect changes via supernatural intervention or some other unseen force
unknown to science. Actually, I shouldn't be surprised given the success
of religion in general (Christianity, for example, is just as "occult"
as any other group/practice with that label attached to it - supernatural
interventions, prayer, a being outside of space and time, etc.)

So far, I've come-up with the following texts:

* _Science vs. Miracles_ by B. Premanand of Indian Skeptics.
Premanand details over 100 conjuring tricks used by the gurus
of India to fleece people. For more info, check out the Indian
Skeptic link on my WWW site:

* _Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande_
by E. Evans-Pritchard
A classic in the anthropology of religion. No decent
anthropologist writes about religion w/o making reference
to Evans-Pritchard.

* _Persuasions of the Witches Craft_ by T.H. Luhrmann
(another anthropologist)

* _Science, Magic, and Religion_ by Bronislaw Malinowski_
_Coral Gardens and their Magic_ " "
(yet another anthropologist)

* _Masks of the Gods: Primitive Mythology volume_
by Joseph Campbell

* _Magic and Meaning_ by Burger and Neale.
A magician's trade book not available from regular bookstores.
Burger and Neale discuss the use of conjuring tricks by
shamans and others.

In general, I haven't found many books devoted to discussing
magic and witchcraft from a skeptical perspective. Most skeptical authors
choose as their focus "psychic" abilities. Most fall silent on witchcraft
as practiced by people to manipulate others and for self-aggrandizement.
Enough educated people believe in this stuff (humanities "scholars" seem
particularly prone to belief in this sort of thing - must be an aesthetic
thing -) that there ought to be more written about it.

I'm especially interested in how people convince themselves that
they can cast death and destruction spells on others successfully - or
that they can get a job via uttering some "ooga booga" spell. I can well
understand coming to believe one can do this sort of thing with respect
to oneself - that would be a matter of motivation, say with the job thing.
But it's quite another for someone to claim that they could, say, cast
a spell on a skeptic or public figure that would have some real, unistakeable
effect. If magic were a real acting-at-a-distance force, you'd expect a lot
of professional skeptics to wind-up dead.

It's funny... I had a discussion recently about this on the 'net,
with the believers claiming the reason that more skeptics _aren't_ dead is
because they don't address magic and witchcraft directly or forcefully.
I agree with the latter... that they don't often discuss it... as for why
this is so, my guess is that either they think magic is so ridiculous that
it's not worth mentioning, or that it intersects with religious belief
(there certainly seems to be a lot of magic going on in both the old and
new testament) - and they don't want to step on any toes... but that doesn't
seem right because skeptics speak pretty forcefully against creationism,
etc. Well, _has_ belief in magic and witchcraft been dealt with in print
satisfactorily? If so, where?

Do any skeptics have friends who believe in this sort of thing?
How do you deal with it? In my experience, a lot of people who believe
in this sort of stuff --- to the point of indulging in it and coming to
believe they have special powers --- see a shrink on a regular basis or
have had some contact with mental health professionals in the past.
It would be interesting to see some clinical literature on this sort
of thing.

- X

| | "All roads end at the grave, which is the gate of |
| Xochi Zen | nothingness; and in the shadow of nothingness, |
| | everything is vanity." - George Bernard Shaw |

| "Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and |
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