Classic text available online:
Taboo, Magic, Spirits
Straightforward presentation of the principles of Ancient Roman religion – directly applicable to modern magical thinking.
In the first paragraphs of his book, Burriss provides examples of “magical thinking” in modern humans:
“In his capacity as a minister my father frequently had occasion to christen children, sprinkling them with water. One of his parishioners, on returning from a visit to Palestine, brought back a gallon of water from the Jordan. The members of the parish, learning of this, made frequent requests that this water be used to sprinkle their children at christening ceremonies. Had anyone asked them why they wanted their children christened with Jordan water, they would probably have been quite at a loss, or else have suggested some sentimental reason or other. But their actions, if analyzed, might have yielded the following process of reasoning: Christ was baptized in the Jordan two thousand years ago; the Jordan is, therefore, a holy river. Water from the Jordan, having been in contact with Christ, is equal to Christ, so far, at least, as its sanctifying effects are concerned. Therefore children who are sprinkled with water from the Jordan come in contact with Christ.”
This primitive type of reasoning leads a person to believe, for instance, that a thing which has been in contact with another thing is still in contact with it, however far removed it may be in reality. This may be referred to as the principle of contact.
Example: Purchasing the products and “fashion” brands that a “celebrity” promotes is contagious magic – wearing the same dress, shoes or make-up “transfers” the celebrity’s power of attraction to the imitator.
During the Middle Ages Rome suffered from a plague of flies. Vergil, who, as the people believed, often came back as a wonder-working wizard, was called upon to rid the city of the pests. As the story goes, he consulted Il Moscone, the king of the flies, and at his suggestion caused a great golden image of a fly to be set up, which miraculously drove the pests from the city. This illustrates the axiom that “like cures like,” a principle which magic and medicine have in common.
Ever notice how many medical “treatments” are actually “poisons” or intervention by brutal technology? Like “cures” like. A toxic substance is “required” to fight a malevolent presence in the body. This philosophy of battling evil with evil is vastly more popular than pro-active provisions for creating and maintaining health.
Now religion seems to be the outgrowth of man’s need to overcome the obstacles which nature places in his way in his struggle to survive. Rain, drought, hail destroy his crops; lightning strikes his house; pestilence carries off his loved ones and his cattle. These evils, of whose origin he is ignorant, he must ward off, if he would survive; and he must, similarly, force the phenomena about him to do him good. In his effort to overcome these obstacles man reasons illogically much in the same way as the characters in our stories; or perhaps we should say, rather, that man’s actions, from our viewpoint, suggest such illogical reasoning. For in most cases there has been no conscious process of thinking; or, if there has been any thinking, it is incomplete and hopelessly confused. Many of the superstitions, religious misconceptions and actions on the part of men grew out of this imperfect understanding of the facts of the universe, and out of man’s inability to think correctly about these facts.
Comment: The exponential growth of “facts of the universe” in recent human history has not made any significant progress in reason, common sense or concrete analysis as a replacement for magical thinking as the default mode of modern social humans.
The ancients, as well as modern anthropologists, were aware of the difficulties which primitive man had to encounter in his struggle to survive; and while the former were as yet unable to study these problems scientifically, occasionally some of them like Lucretius or Cicero would remark a principle, upon the discovery of which modern anthropologists still plume themselves. Lucretius, the Roman exponent of Epicureanism, anticipated many modern problems in physical and social science. He has left us a vividly imaginative account of some of these early struggles of man.
The importance (and difference from standard writing on “magic”) is that Burriss recognizes as a fallacy, that the advent of science “eradicated” magical thinking. It is the dominant pattern of thinking in modern humans.