For thousands of years people believed in magic. They were simple folk – often afraid and confused – unable to grasp the scientific world around them.
They struggled to:
* explain natural events
* understand why bad things happened
* barter with fate
* accept their place and rank in society
* influence things around them
* blame unseen forces when things went wrong
* believe in, and belong to, something bigger than themselves
* grapple with supernatural forces and events
* worship a greater power as part of a divine plan
* and find solace in a harsh, unfair world.
According to Sigmund Freud, each civilization passes through three distinct stages of development.
In the Magical Phase the primitive does not understand a natural phenomenon like rainfall, but he knows he needs water to survive. By creating a ritual – rain dancing for example – he believes he can influence the weather to obey his wishes.
As society progresses the community enters the Religious Phase. The rain-seeking ritual develops into an intricate rite of prayer, song, dance, and sacrifice, whereby the worshippers barter with the gods for their precious water.
But once the mechanics of rainfall are understood as a process of evaporation and cloud formation, that society progresses into the Scientific Phase. At this point, Freud argues, there should be no more need for religious or superstitious belief. “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality” without which the masses “could not bear the troubles of life and the cruelties of reality.”
Was Freud correct though? Even in today’s super-scientific space age a huge portion of the globe still follows the religious beliefs of their ancestors, and paganism is on the rise.
It turns out science does not have all the answers. It might satisfy the mind but it cannot soothe the wounded soul!
Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. New York: Norton, 1989.
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