The distinction between religion and magic was often a fine, often an invisible line. In the primitive world, the two were means to supernatural influence over events. In the medieval era, devout Muslims, Christians and Jews depended on amulets and talismans to conscript God’s assistance in an unpredictable world.
An unpredictable and dangerous world. In the nascent towns and cities, fire was an ever-present threat. Disease, wild animals, accidents… all seemed beyond human control. And of course, there was the economy: mostly dependent on the weather, but also subject to the whims of tyrants. Too many capricious events could turn people’s lives over in an instant.
Religion gave mankind a calming handle on terrifying, intractable fate. Rituals gave man the sense that he was doing something (however ineffective) to alter his destiny, while accepting that for all intents and purposes, it was out of his control.
In Europe, especially in England, the Reformation ripped that handle out of people’s hands, as it harshly denied religion’s ability to manipulate any aspect of God’s power. The Catholic Church was mocked for having transformed consecration into conjuring and enchantment. Religion, the reformers said, was meant to entreat, not coerce God. It was a terrible loss of the one instrument of control (however feeble) people had over their destinies. It wasn’t a loss they were willing to accept .
The Reformation concept that every detail of life was in God’s hands provided a small measure of comfort: at least people’s suffering had meaning. The world was portrayed as a moral order reflecting God’s purpose, and was sensitive to the conduct of human beings (a theme still popular among environmentalists). But that wasn’t enough to stop the commoners, the nobles, even many of the clergy from turning to wizards, wise-women, and snake-oil salesmen to locate lost objects or people, temper the weather, counter sorcery, or bring good fortune.
Life is still capricious. Illness, unemployment, typhoons continue to wreak havoc with our lives. But we do have more control. Building codes and running water have reduced the risk of fire while improving sanitation. Constitutional government has tempered the fickleness of would-be tyrants. People can purchase insurance against many hazards of life, transforming them from disasters to mere dilemmas.
But there was something comforting about magic that we haven’t let go of, and that’s the sense of impotence in confronting forces beyond one’s control. In the past it was the weather, plague, war… Today forces are one’s upbringing, an unjust social system, cultural disadvantage or gluten intolerance. The supernatural powers of ancient days have been replaced by social or psychological factors. The wizards and wise men are in the universities, explaining the world through the arcane language of the social sciences, offering remedies that at best have proven harmless, but are at times as poisonous as the worst witches’ brew. These magicians offer comfort and excuses to those who need life to be capricious.