What is religion? Yet another answer

“Stated simply, magic is … the religion of the other.”

— Suzanne Preston Blier, quoted in Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 3.

Chireau offers this quotation as a caution to academics against “value-laden assumptions” when studying a religious or cultural tradition. In particular, Chireau is warning against assuming that a dominant religious tradition (e.g., Protestant Christianity in the United States as practiced by white Anglophones) is normative. If you tacitly accept the norms of the dominant tradition, you will be tempted to make judgements about a different religious tradition with different norms; you may even be tempted to call the other group’s religion “magic” in a pejorative sense.

Obviously, the same principle applies in any situation where one is making judgements across cultural (or even subcultural) boundaries. One example of this is when people who accept scientism (which must be distinguished from science) as normative make judgements about other religions, calling them “magic” or worse. Of course, from another perspective, scientism is grounded on unquestioned assumptions, as should be obvious from anyone who has been exposed to Godel’s work on unprovability; and those who expect scientism to answer all questions and provide all meaning will be seen by some of the rest of us as mere practitioners of magic.