Notes on the Sociology of Religion (12)

John C. Rankin

Malinowski, Bronislaw: “Magic, Science & Religion,” in Magic, Science and Religion (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954), pp. 17-92.


  1. Background: a) 1884-1942, born in Krakow, Ph.D. London School of Economics; b) influenced by Frazer (The Golden Bough); founder of “Functionalism”; c) circumstances of being on the Trobriand Islands, 1915-1918, and work of sociological anthropology there.
  2. Sequential Perspective of Critique: a) the sacred and the profane, assumed as magic and religion as the former, and science as the latter, is to be challenged; b) Edward B. Taylor’s narrow view of religion as animism; c) James Frazer’s Golden Bough transcends Taylor in integrating concerns for how religion and science relate, totemism and sociology, and the cults of fertility and vegetation; but still views magic and religion as roughly co-extensive; d) these perspectives have science opposing magic, the former born of (actively tested) experience, the latter of (passively received) tradition; e) William Robertson Smith, pioneer of religious anthropology, believed primitive religion was essentially community based, overriding individualism; f) Emile Durkheim likewise: “ ‘the religious’ is identical with the ‘social’ ” (p. 21); g) Robertson Smith and Durkheim fall short in not seeing the interface between the individual and the social order in the context of “primitive” religion (e.g., p. 56, issue of solitude; yet too, “there is only one body of religious belief in each tribe,” and hence no differences of opinion are tolerated (p. 60).
  3. Assertions: a) the summarizing of anthropology is not facile, but it is fair to say that “the recognition that magic and religion are not merely an intellectual body of opinion, but a special mode of behavior, a pragmatic attitude built up of reason, feeling, and will alike” (p.24); b) magic is innate in every individual, and functions to control the otherwise uncontrollable, especially in matters of health and death, also in terms of war and revenge, and based on a history of clear reasoning of cause and effect between the “other” and the familiar; c) religion functions to integrate the individual and the social order, institutionally and systematically governing all important rites of passage in life, e.g., pregnancy, childbirth, initiation into adulthood, seasons and feasts, and death − the main function of religious rites is to maintain tradition and hence tribal unity, and such practices as sacrifice and the communal meal, and having totems as protectors, as key markers of corporate identity, reinforce the same; d) science functions, not as a defined domain from a modern perspective, but consistent with certain assumptions about magic, through learned skills in daily life, where cause and effect are known well; magic is never relied on entirely, but it is “clung to” due to necessity; daily skills we call scientific are always relied on for their given purposes; e) there is “a prima facie distinction between magic and religion. While in the magical act the underlying idea and aim is always clear, straightforward, and definite, in the religious ceremonies there is no purpose toward a subsequent event” (p.38, and read: “no function, no cause and effect”); f) interface of individual and social order: “We are forced therefore to conclude that publicity is the indispensable technique of religious revelation in primitive communities, but that society is neither the author of religious truths, nor still less its self-revealed subject” (p. 66) − need for a) social cooperation in things sacred, b) public performance of religious dogma is necessary for maintenance of morals, and c) public transmission of sacred tradition is necessary to conserve it as “absolutely inalterable and inviolable” (p. 68); g) rites of magical spells “are prima facie expressions of emotion” (p. 72 − innate, inward, protection, revenge etc., experiential, re-enactment or remembrances of primal myths, and importance of the renown of the magician; h) “…as I know it from Melanesia…” (p. 77) = crucial basis of authority.; i)  “Both magic and religion arise and function in situations of emotional stress… Both magic and religion open up escapes from such situations and such impasses as offer to empirical way out except by ritual and belief into the domain of the supernatural” (p. 87).
  4. Conclusion: against the backdrop of prior “modern” perspectives of the historical sequence from magic to religion to science, in an evolutionary progress toward the “enlightenment of modern man,” Malinowski instead asserts the integrity of magic, religion and science in complementary and overlapping capacities, unpretentiously present in primitive cultures, where their intellect and will is as fully engaged in the ordering of their lives as it is with “modern man.”
  5. Critiques of Malinowski: a) too positive in his view of such social integration or harmony, and in assumption of all cultural factors being positive by definition − 1. posthumously published field notes showing a condescending attitude toward the Trobriand peoples (yet, there was time between the notes and the book, hence added reflection); b) his cultural assumption that “magic” is a mere rite, and its functional power for desired purposes is due to selective memory of primal myths, and not to an intrinsic supernatural possibility.