Magic, Religion, and Science
Secularization Trends and Continued Coexistence
Published in: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2022). doi: 10.1111/jssr.12813
Posted on rand.org Mar 8, 2023
While multiple studies have applied cultural evolutionary perspectives to the study of religion, few studies have examined the cultural evolutionary dynamics of a more secretive but equally ubiquitous form of supernatural belief: magic. We conducted two studies, an American nationally representative survey and a comparative phylogenetic analysis of religious traditions, to test three hypothesized cultural evolutionary drivers for beliefs in magic. We find the greatest support for the hypothesis that magic is employed when it provides its users benefits that are distinct from those provided by either science or religion, some support for secularization (broadly conceived) trends applying to magic, and no evidence that innate and unavoidable features of human cognition are primary drivers of the cultural evolution of magical beliefs. We conclude by suggesting specific hypothesized benefits for magic that may account for the evolution of humanity's facultative (i.e., context-dependent) use of magical beliefs.