Six giant trees that hold the secrets of magic wand making? Really? Is that true?

Grandmother and grandson on the great wand-making expedition

The week before last was half-term during which Susanna’s seven year old grandson, Harrison, come to stay with us. One of the things we did was go to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and as we arrived we picked up an activity sheet called “Giants of the Garden” which was to take us round the garden looking for five giant trees, a “Golden Willow”, a “Giant Redwood”, a “Hop Hornbeam”, a “Grafted Beech”, a “Gum Tree” and a “Strangler Fig”. So far so obviously educational in a loose natural history/scientific way. However, we quickly discovered that the sheet contained the following text:

“In this Garden live six giant trees that hold the secrets of wand making. Use the map to find them and discover how to make your own magic wand. Each tree will challenge you to find a natural object to add to your wand. The trails starts at the Golden Willow.”

So, suddenly and unexpectedly, there I was, a clergyman (albeit of a highly skeptical persuasion) finding myself needing to think, not only about how to explore with Harrison ideas concerning natural history and botany (the Garden’s immediate concern) and our non-empirical feelings about the meaning to us of natural world (my immediate concern), but also those concerning the history and meaning of “magic”. As we went about making our wand — along with, of course, many other families — I began to wonder about what on earth the educational outreach team hoped to achieve by bringing magic so loosely and vaguely into play, especially given that in our own culture there has been a long running and highly-charged conflict between the always overlapping domains of human activity which have been named magic, religion and science?

The relationship between magic and science has long been seen in a negative light and the important early British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) was a key figure in first articulating what has become a prevailing idea in our culture that magic was best understood as “an elaborate and systematic pseudo-science.” by which people attempt “to discover, foretell, and to cause certain events” (cited in The Notion of Magic by Murray Wax and Rosalie Wax, Current Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 5, Dec., 1963, pp. 495-518).

The relationship between religion and magic is no more positive as these three verses from Galatians 5 (vv. 19-21) translated by David Bentley Hart show:

Now what the works of the flesh are is obvious: whoring, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcraft (φαρμακεία), enmities, strife jealousy, rages, rivalries, dissensions, heresies, envies, inebriations, carousels, and things of that sort, regarding what I tell you in advance — just as I have said in the past — that those doing them will not inherit God’s kingdom.

David Bentley Hart’s footnote on the word φαρμακεία (pharmakeia) read: literally, “the making of drugs” or “of medicines,” but also a name for witchcraft, which was understood as largely involving the concoction of poisons, abortifacient drugs, and magic potions.

Anyway, when we got home I decided I needed to do two things. The first was to have a conversation with Harrison to find out what he thought about our visit — we’ll return to that in the address — and the second was to hunt out half-a-dozen peer reviewed academic papers on the subject and Shirley (one of the church members) will now read an extract from one of them by Rodney Stark, (b. 1934) an American sociologist of religion who was a long time professor of sociology and of comparative religion at the University of Washington.

From “Reconceptualizing Religion, Magic, and Science” (Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, No. 2, Dec., 2001, pp. 101-120) by Rodney Stark.

Three of the most central concepts used in the social scientific study of religion are so poorly and inconsistently defined as to preclude coherent discussion, let alone theoretical progress. In this essay I examine the similarities and crucial differences that can be used to clearly distinguish religion, magic, and science. Among the many contrasts I pursue, science is restricted to the empirical world, while religion is more effective when it limits its concern to the non-empirical, hence there is no necessary incompatibility between the two. Although magic and religion are both based on supernatural assumptions, magic concerns the empirical world and thus is vulnerable to scientific falsification. Furthermore, in contrast with religion, the supernatural assumptions of magic are crude and impersonal. Thus, in contrast with both science and magic, only religion can adequately address issues of ultimate meaning and morality.

When people discuss the existence of God, they are not speaking with the authority of science. Nor can anyone confer the authority of science on statements such as “Everyone deserves happiness.” These statements have no contingent empirical implications. It is quite impossible to demonstrate either the existence of non-existence of God, nor can statements about what people “deserve” be put to scientific tests. The point is that the scope of science is limited to natural or material reality. It cannot penetrate non-empirical realms anymore than it can tell us how we ought to feel about the natural or material world. Indeed, even a simple statement such as “That’s a beautiful sunset,” is beyond science, albeit science can determine what sorts of sunsets most people in a given
culture will judge to be beautiful—but that’s an entirely different order of question. The limited scope of science explains why it is not fundamentally incompatible with religion.
    To sum up: magic differs from religion because it does not posit the existence of Gods, does not offer explanations either of its own domain or address questions of ultimate meaning, does not offer “otherworldly” rewards, and is unable to sanctify the moral order, while religion does all of these. Magic and religion also differ in that the former is subject to empirical falsification, while the latter need not be. Magic differs from science because its primary mechanism is supernatural, because it offers no general explanations even of its own workings, and because, unlike science, its scope is not limited to natural or material reality. Science and religion differ over reliance on the supernatural and the promise of “otherworldly” rewards, as well as sanctification of the moral order, falsification, and scope.


Six giant trees that hold the secrets of magic wand making? Really? Is that true?

The first thing I note from the papers I read is the important reminder made by Paul L. Harris from Oxford University’s Dept of Experimental Psychology in his 1997 paper “The Last of the Magicians? Children, Scientists, and the Invocation of Hidden Causal Powers” (Child Development, Vol. 68, No. 6, Dec., 1997, pp. 1018-1020) that, although it is “often assumed scientific thinking displaces magical thinking” the strength of the disposition to think magically “among children and adults alike [still] stands in need of explanation”. To think magically in this context means holding the belief that an object [such as a wand] and/or an action [such as casting a spell with your wand] not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome.

The second thing I note is that all the papers I read revealed that there still exists no clear generally definitions of the words “religion”, “magic” and “science” and how, and if, they overlap. However, Stark, from whose paper you heard a few extracts, believes that, despite this, ”it is entirely feasible to formulate mutually exclusive and theoretically efficient definitions of each, while retaining substantial linguistic continuity.”

Harrison's wand (click to enlarge)
Now I have some serious doubts about Stark’s claim — and certainly about important elements of each of the definitions he offers his readers (not least of all the one concerning religion) — but, in the interests of beginning to think reasonably clearly and critically about my wand-making visit with Harrison and Susanna I’m (temporarily) going to accept Stark’s chart contrasting religion, magic and science and, where possible, I’m going to cross reference Harrison’s own comments with it. Remember, I had not read Stark’s paper before our conversation took place.

Throughout our conversation Harrison repeatedly returned to two tropes. The first was that he had “no idea whether magic was real”. The second was that a lot of his answers were going to say something like “we might know more in the future.” I acknowledged these as being excellent and admirable attitudes to hold but did encourage him to speculate a little on what he thought might, or might not be the case. I should also add that we mostly stuck to exploring the differences between he thought existed between magic and science and so we only occasionally touched upon religion.So let's now return to Stark’s chart.

With regard to attempts to control nature and events you will see that Stark thinks religion, magic and science all try to do this. I discovered that Harrison felt this was true about magic and science saying that they “were about using the mind to find things out and do/make things.” We didn’t speak specifically about religion.

With regard to offering worldly rewards, again Harrison agreed with this, particularly in terms of the rewards one got after discovering knowledge which helped you build things you wanted and also the rewards of gaining what he called “power” or “energy”.  Again, we did not talk about religion.

Harrison agreed with Stark that religion depended on the supernatural but, interestingly, he disagreed with Stark and thought that both magic and science were concerned with energies from this world — i.e. they were both naturalistic not supernaturalistic. When I pressed Harrison to speculate Harrison felt “magic might come from the wand but not from elsewhere” and that “magic energy might also be in the mind” which “goes down an invisible ‘pathway’ [or ‘tube’] into the bottom of the wand.” He was very clear that wands wouldn’t work without a person holding them so magic really did depend on the person holding the wand and not some God or gods. A wand for him would, therefore, simply “project” a this-worldly energy of magic.

Harrison did, however, agree with Stark on the matter of the invocation of God or the gods — he was aware that most religions usually invoke God and that magic and science did not.

With regard to offering general explanations of relevant domains Harrison’s views agreed with Stark and he defined science as “basically people finding answers to things.” He didn’t think magic did this — it was simply about doing stuff like “turning people into frogs and things”. Again we didn’t talk about religion.

With regard to the categories of ultimate meaning, otherworldly rewards and sanctification of the moral order we didn’t address these at all in our conversation. However there was, perhaps, a hint of the latter, moral, category in Harrison’s strong opinion that he didn’t like the idea of being dogmatically told by anyone that magic, or anything else, was or wasn’t true. He said he preferred to be allowed to make up his own mind about how he felt and on the basis of what he saw for himself. He said, “You must choose yourself — you can’t get your ideas from a man because he is not you.” However, and contradictorily (although perhaps it's not quite that), he also said that it was OK to “get ideas from a teacher because you can trust them” adding that “you can trust a teacher because they are not your enemy.”

We then talked a bit about trust which he thought was very important saying that “trust is when you know you can believe in people.” In connection with this I asked him whether he trusted both his own feelings and evidence? He said yes but, interestingly, he added that “what you felt” was “stronger” than “what you saw”.

His honest and utterly guileless answer to this question was for me a salutary reminder of the visceral and primordial power of feeling, a power that, as easily in a child as in an adult, can always threaten to trump the power of good, empirical, scientific evidence, and God knows there’s too much of that going on at the moment . . .

With regard to the category of being subject to empirical falsification Harrison strongly agreed with this. The way he indicated this was powerful and direct — I asked him why he hadn’t used his wand since we got home? He immediately picked it up, waved it in my general direction whilst making-up some spell-like words and then said “See, nothing!” However, his already highly developed agnosticism immediately caused him to add that although the wand “doesn’t work in the present it might work in the future. See, I said a lot of my answers would be about the future!”

I asked him what he thought was different about the future? He replied that “there was a time when there weren’t pens and stuff [he was drawing at the time] but in the future there might be lots of stuff that isn’t now.” To this he added that the future was a time when we would know more things and have different feelings.

With regard to the last of Stark’s categories, scope limited to natural or material reality, I think Harrison’s previous answers indicate that he was in general agreement with Stark’s conclusions.

As we began to draw to a close I asked him what he had learnt from going to the garden, making a wand and our conversation? I got a couple of very interesting replies: “That you can believe in some things that aren’t true” and “Just because magic doesn’t work doesn’t mean I don’t believe in it.”

I leave these thoughts with you.

So, after this highly flawed and wholly unscientific interview and my own minimal reading on the subject, what do I now think about the Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s half-term activity?

Well, I’d like to believe that I can take it at a superficial level and say it was simply all just a bit of innocent, harmless fun and games — nothing to get overly concerned about. Indeed, during our conversation, Harrison had made it quite clear to me that he didn’t think the adults who wrote the leaflet believed in magic and that this was all simply done as something “nice for the children”. Perhaps sensing my general discomfort he added that he didn’t think it was “a bad thing” and that what we did wasn’t “just play-acting and story-telling” because we did “discover things to make the wand and [some] facts about the trees” to which he added that in discovering the trees we were “being scientists” even though in making the wand we were “being magicians”.

But what does this last, telling and, to me, touching answer mean, for me, for Harrison, for the other children and for the scientists in the Garden?

Well, in so far as I, too, continue to enjoy and value the imaginary worlds of our ancient and modern myths and legends — some of them involving trees of course (think of the Old Norse Legend of Yggdrasil, the immense mythical ash tree which connects the nine worlds of Norse cosmology) — I want to agree with Harrison and say, yes, of course we can suspend reality and for a while pretend to be magicians! But my knowledge, enjoyment and valuing of the natural sciences means that I also want — need, in fact — to disagree with Harrison and say clearly that, no, we really are not magicians and that magic (understood as an actual supernatural power) does not exist. All this is, of course, complicated in my case by the fact that as a minister of religion I’m always concerned to explore with Harrison (and you) questions of human belief, feelings, meaning and worth which, in turn means, I’m constantly needing to traverse the space between myth and legend (with its many stories of magic and miracle) and the awesome and astonishing discoveries and lessons of the natural sciences.

But in a time where more and more people seem increasingly susceptible to the fantastical and delusion claims of both certain kinds of religion and magic over those of good scientific and historical evidence I can’t help continuing to feel discomforted by the Garden’s, in my opinion, rather half-hearted and ill-thought out activity. This is because it offered no encouragement nor or any resources to help participants to engage in the kind of useful conversation Harrison and I had and this failure will, in the end, only have served to continue to confuse, rather than enlighten many children and parents about the actual and possible relationships (good and bad, fraught and creative, etc., etc.) that exist between magic and science and, of course, between magic, science and religion.

At the very least, however, I hold on to the fact that the wand we made remains a beautiful thing and, since Harrison did not want to take it home with him or show any interest in using it, I shall keep and cherish it as both an objet d’art and as philosophical reminder of the splendid conversation we had and the things we learnt together. To coin a phrase, it was spell-binding!


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