Magic, Science, and Religion Since the Renaissance

Thomas Robisheaux
LS 780-35
Summer 2016
Tuesdays, 6:00-9:00 PM
GLS Conference Room

Have you ever wondered why magical knowledge is forbidden, and yet pervasive in our culture at different times? Have you paused to consider what claims religion can make about human affairs, the natural world or the supernatural? Have you ever asked why science commands such authority and even awe? Or have you wondered how religion has at times driven on scientific inquiry and, at other times, curiously dismissed robust scientific theories?

This seminar explores these questions by looking at the ways that three ways of understanding our world—magic, religion and science—have intersected in surprising and creative ways in our culture. The seminar explores selected episodes in our history when the boundaries between these ways of knowing unsettled understandings about nature, the divine and even the supernatural. Topics might include: Renaissance wonder and naturalism; the puzzle about Galileo and religion; witchcraft as a rational way of coping with the world; Romanticism and nature; the first “scientific” religion (Spiritualism); early psychology and its ties with the occult and the paranormal; the curious renaissance of occultism in our own day; the conflict between “creationism” and Darwinism; and religion as a product of evolution. A special unit will focus on the Laboratory for Parapsychology at Duke University (1930-65) and the efforts to make psychical research into a field of modern psychology..  Over and over we will encounter such paradoxes as the uses of science to detect the supernatural; the “magical” underpinnings of both religion and science; and living in a “disenchanted” modern society.

The course may not answer all of our questions, but the aim is to understand the long history behind our current ways of knowing, and how they are shaped by culture and society. Approaches to the topic will include anthropology, history and the history of science, psychology, religious studies, and literature.

Readings involve a variety of secondary and primary sources and may change depending upon availability. Books may include: Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues;; Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (1997); David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, ed., When Science and Christianity Meet (2003); Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998); Charles Webster, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science; Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory (Vintage Books); Thomas Robisheaux, The Last Witch of Langenburg (New York, 2009); Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, Part One (Yale University Press); and Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (HarperCollins); Deborah Blum, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof After Death (New York, 2006).

Writing assignments will total about 25-30 pages, and will include a combination of short essays and a longer research paper.

About Thomas Robisheaux

Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Shaffer Professor of History, is an historian of early modern Europe. Dr. Robisheaux has particular interests in social and cultural history, German-speaking Central Europe, Renaissance culture, religious reform, popular religion and culture, and microhistory.