Jason Josephson-Storm Has Controversial Ideas about Secularism, Disenchantment and Magical Thinking in Western Society
Self-described Christian prophet Mark Taylor told an evangelical End Times radio show that Satan used the Illuminati and the Freemasons to send out a “frequency” that would alter conservatives’ DNA so they would be shunned and punished for loving Donald Trump. “I believe what happened on November 8 is the enemy has literally sent out a frequency and it agitated and took control, basically, of those who have their DNA turned over to [Satan],” Taylor said. “That’s what’s happening. The Illuminati, the Freemasons, all these people, their main goal is to change the DNA of man and they’re doing it through these frequencies.” He added that news media broadcast at the Satanic frequency of 440 Hz, which transforms Christian conservatives’ DNA to match that of the “Illuminati bloodline.” I think we have hit peak fringe. But more to the point, conspiracy theories that were once so bizarre that they were on the fringes of even conspiracy culture are now a dime a dozen and afternoon entertainment.
We’ll return to this in a moment.
The Religion Dispatches site has an interesting interview this week with Jason Josephson-Storm, a professor of religion at Williams College, whose 2016 book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, looks into the question of whether the common trope that Western civilization has become “disenchanted” (in Max Weber’s classic formulation) is actually a myth promulgated by secularists and atheists. Based on what I read, it sounds like Josephson-Storm has some interesting points to make, but has tied them to a postmodern view that I find unpalatable. Nevertheless, some of what he says has echoes with Taylor’s bizarre anti-Trump Illuminati conspiracy.
The crux of Josephson-Storm’s argument is this: Even in the most secular parts of the West, people have never stopped believing in magic in various forms, from religion and superstition to UFOs and Bigfoot. That much is indisputable; after all, some three-quarters of Americans admit to holding paranormal views of some kind. Josephson-Storm wants to know why Euro-American elites, who were prone to bouts of spiritualism, theosophy, and other Romantic irrationalism, also believed themselves to be uniquely immune to the magical thinking of, basically, everyone else:
The issue becomes even more troubling when you realize that the canonical European theorists (anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and so on) who came up with the various accounts of modernity as disenchantment lived in the nineteenth century in the midst of spiritualist and occult revivals. Magic and séances were on the surface of European culture at the very moment that Europeans came to argue that magic had vanished. So I began to ask: how did this narrative of modernity become dominant? Put differently, how did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted?
Now, this is an interesting question, but one that it sounds like Josephson-Storm is approaching slightly askew. If I read his interview and other online articles correctly, it sounds like he has not made a clear distinction between different levels of culture; therefore, the popular embrace of supernatural beliefs is taken to be proof that the elite intellectual project to investigate supernatural claims in the light of science is somehow suspect. As far back as the eighteenth century, Enlightenment scholars recognized a distinction between intellectuals, who embraced science and secularism and essentially materialism, and the popular rabble who had to be protected from their own credulity and eagerness to worship idols and cower before counterfeit ghosts. Matthew “Monk” Lewis chafed at cultural elites who told him that he shouldn’t write ghost stories because it might cause the common folk to believe in ghosts again.
What made the West different from other cultures is that while every Westerner might have had a supernatural belief, there grew a general consensus that supernatural beliefs overall were false. The 73 percent of Americans who hold one, for example, hold different supernatural beliefs and, excepting religion, none commands a majority. Broken down by belief, clear majorities believe each belief false. In other words, most people believe most magical beliefs are mostly false, often by overwhelming majorities. More to the point, in the West, the primacy of science as the most legitimate way of knowing creates a cultural norm that “disenchants” simply by virtue of not recognizing the supernatural as legitimate due to a lack of evidence. So, while séances might have been Victorian parlor entertainment, the number of people who believed them to be real was likely never a majority, and even when they were popular, they were also subject to intense scientific scrutiny, not least from the Society for Psychical Research, which was not then the fringe group it became. The Victorians attempted to fit the supernatural into a scientific framework as an extension of the natural world in a dimension as yet undiscovered and un-probed, and though they failed (and thus further disenchanted the world), this effort undermines the idea that it was not possible to investigate the supernatural while seeing oneself as something more than a magical thinker.
Compare this to what Josephson-Smith celebrates as the more holistic lifeway of “the global south”:
Inverting the older notion of enchantment as a sign of backwardness, a host of scholars have shown us that magic and technology, capitalism and spirits, often coexist throughout the global south. They have traced: epidemics of spirit possession among Malaysian factory workers, democracy and witchcraft in contemporary South Africa, Indian gurus believed to be capable of reviving the dead, Japanese amulets to protect against automobile accidents, and so on. Indeed, Cosmologics has even showcased research on the electric gods of Cuban Santería. It would seem that Africa, Latin America, and most of Asia are inhabited by sorcerers and alive with spirits.
While Josephson-Smith studiously avoids outright endorsing this, it is hard not to read his words as presupposing a benefit to living in a society where you can go home sick from work because a demon has possessed you. Granted, large swaths of the American Bible Belt are rife with demonic possession, too—and a whole exorcism industry—but the elite culture of media, educated elites, and what used to be high society marginalizes this to the point that one could not run for office or gain a position of prominence and trust while claiming to have experienced demonic possession without being viewed with suspicion or ridicule. Other cultures take these claims much more seriously, and their elites actively promote belief such that it is an accepted part of the culture at large and a framework through which everyday experiences are conceptualized.
But Josephson-Smith doesn’t see it that way. For him, the existence of supernatural beliefs translates into a culture that endorses the magical.
This implies a need to re-conceptualize the history of the academic disciplines. For scholars in a range of areas (from religious studies to anthropology to psychology to sociology and modern philosophy), I show that founders and canonical thinkers in these areas worked out their various insights inside an occult context, in a social world overflowing with spirits and magic, and how the weirdness of that cultural milieu generated so much normativity.
The problem I have with this is that Western scholars tried to place the supernatural and the weird into a scientific and materialist context, but Josephson-Smith seems to want to excise the entire question of science from the equation and view scholarly engagement with issues of supernatural belief as “magical” even when they were actively anti-magical, as in Sir James Fazer’s classic (though incorrect) Golden Bough or Edwin Sidney Hartland’s The Legend of Perseus, massive works that tangled with the question of enchantment but with the purpose of demonstrating that myths and legends weren’t evidence of ancient magic but merely survivals of a primitive age when such beliefs were wrongly thought to be real.
In an essay, Josephson-Storm alleges that the occult is central to Western civilization and speaks to the problem with his own point of view exactly by misunderstanding culture: “My larger project works out this occult side of the human sciences, not just the texts and thinkers who did not make it into the canon, but also those canonical figures whose esoteric preoccupations have been systematically ignored or suppressed.” He is right that the occult was important at the dawn of science, because its pretended knowledge was the starting point for investigations that eventually found better alternatives to occult claims. Hermeticism and alchemy helped create science, and science eventually proved those occult systems either incorrect or unnecessary to understand the world. Here is the problem: It is exactly the ignoring or suppressing that makes culture. Cultures must choose what to celebrate and what abnegate, what to declare normal and what to declare taboo. Without this selectivity, you don’t have a culture at all. Josephson-Storm, who apparently holds quasi-postmodern views, to judge by his writings (he claims to represent a revolutionary new philosophy that “negates the negation”), doesn’t want to see Western selectivity as similar to that of “the global South” but rather as a dark effort to “suppress” other ways of knowing. Would he argue the same for traditional societies where magical thinking is enforced by political and cultural elites and secular thinking is punished by death? I can’t imagine him writing a book that chronicles the suppression of atheist, materialist, and secular thinking in non-Western cultures and then declaring that such beliefs are the hidden driving force behind their cultures. That is because the narratives cultures tell about themselves are by definition the mainstream of those cultures, and the rest is … not. No society is homogenous, and all must make choices about what and who among the variations to include or exclude.
It is therefore heartening that when Mark Taylor fantasized about a Satan ordering the Freemasons and Illuminati to mutate our DNA with evil signals from the “fake news” media, those who represent consensus culture are still able to laugh at him, and his claims are treated in the so-called “mainstream” with the contempt and ridicule they deserve. The scary thing is that postmodernists and conspiracy-mongers alike want to destroy that consensus culture and make it far more difficult to keep in check awful ideas.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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